Pinball Wizard

A familiar voice, one that I’d last heard eight years ago and a continent away, beckoned me downstate to Blackstone, near the Rhode Island border, to the basement of a half-finished home.

How I had searched … and there it stood, lights rippling and flashing: the legendary and elusive Fathom. In the early ’80s, we’d had a fling in a London pub. I stepped up and squeezed the flippers.

While some distinctive features recommend Fathom as a game – that funky, lilting voice, drop-target multipliers, multi ball play — it was soon clear that my obsession owed as much to nostalgia as anything else. It was my first love, after all. Time, I suspected, had fed the romance unfairly. And so it was. Jaded by countless one-night stands with sleeker, faster games, I found Fathom a bit fat, the action a little sluggish. But my quest was not a bust, for my pursuit of Fathom had led me to Pinball’s Promised Land.

Bob Slack, a 17-year-old kid masquerading as a 42-year-old builder, is lord of this Blackstone manor and one of the largest private collections of pinball games in the country. Most of his 500 machines recline in frozen animation on the third floor of an old Woonsocket woolen mill. Another 20 inhabit Bob’s basement and 30 more reside in the attic. On some days, the Slack family will even welcome a few into the living room.

Bob and his wife, Sandy, bought their land in Blackstone eight years ago, intent on building themselves a home. Instead, Bob used the space to shelter his burgeoning collection. The house isn’t finished yet – polyurethane covers part of one wall where a huge stone fireplace is supposed to be, and the staircase lacks trim, but, oh!, the gleam of those pins after a night in Bob’s workshop. Perfectly restored to manufacturer’s specs. New playfields, plastic overlays, rubber bands, thumper bumpers and back glasses. “Basically, they look and play like new,” Bob says.

Bob found himself atop his electromechanical empire almost inadvertently. Because it is far cheaper to buy in quantity from vendors and distributors trying to liquidate games that have lost their earning power, Bob will pick up games in lots of 20, 40 or more, at a third of what they would fetch individually at auction.

“Sometimes I’m just interested in one or two of the games for parts,” he says. Hence, the Woonsocket warehouse, packed with games in various states of repair.

Economics is just part of the story, though. Bob sheepishly admits he has “gone beyond sanity and reason” and entered a flickering, self-made twilight zone peopled by hundreds of semi-literate, semi-intelligent machines. His habit was honed in the Combat Zone, where Bob would stop to play pinball every day on his way to and from classes at UMass Boston. Add to the mix a man who is a lifelong junk collector and an exceptionally skilled tinkerer, and the combination is potentially explosive.

For testimony, just stop by any local arcade. “I’d say rabid is a good word for Bob,” says George Smith, equipment manager for Dream Machine, a 45-arcade chain based in Boston. “He can’t help himself. If he sees a pinball machine, he has to buy it, if it’s at all reasonable.”

“His wife would like to hang him,” regional pinball champion Dallas Overturf says of Bob. “But you cannot deny someone his hobby, even if it’s a large hobby.” Overturf, a 29-year-old diagnostic programmer at Stratus Computers, freely admits that his and Bob’s passion is, well, unusual. “He’s nuts,” Overturf agrees. “We’re both nutty.”

Even in his own house, Bob is a square peg. While he points out the unique attractions of an old game in his basement, his kids upstairs are plugged into Nintendo. He happily describes the three-story barn due to be erected this spring in the backyard, which will showcase two floors of perfectly restored, fully functional pins. Meanwhile, his wife Sandy admires the engagement ring she finally received this Christmas, 12 years tardy. She wonders aloud what other luxuries the sale of a few machines might realize — perhaps another ring? A finished house? Clothes for the kids?

I leave the Slacks to their peculiar domestic truce. My pilgrimage had yielded more than I bargained for: a brief, terrifying glimpse of an infinitely expanding pinball universe. Where I heard one voice, Bob hears legions. My game is over. But Bob barely notices, as he steps up for another free play.