Idon’t really come from a gambling family. My parents bet money one time — on their honeymoon at Daytona Beach in 1955. They went to the dog races, bet a dollar and won $30, which was a pile of money back then. So, they went back to the dog races the next day, bet $30 and lost it all. After deciding to quit while they were even, they never gambled again.
But it seems every generation of our family has to learn that lesson the hard way. So fast forward about 30 years to the winter of 1984. I’m 12, and we take a vacation for a week to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in the Great Smoky Mountains. I only remember two things about that trip. One was a fantastic restaurant called the Pancake Pantry — where the apple cinnamon pancakes were to die for — and the other was a den of iniquity called Fanny Farkle’s Game Room. Which is where my gambling problem started and ended all in the same day.
At the age of 12 — along with everybody else in the 80s — I was hooked on arcade games. My game was “Mrs. Pac-Man.” Wherever I went, I looked for a “Mrs. Pac-Man” machine and must have played hundreds of times. And still, I never got past the second level. I was awful. No coordination, no timing, nothing. I couldn’t outrun a pink ghost, for crying out loud.
But the funny part was that I never really enjoyed it, either. As soon as I put in my quarter, my pulse would race, my knuckles would turn white, I’d start to sweat and 20 seconds later, I’d run into a ghost and die. But the more I lost, the more I played. I had all the signs of an addict — anxiety, diminishing pleasure, nausea. It really was not the slightest bit fun. But it wasn’t gambling since I always knew I was going to lose. It was just masochism.
Anyway, we were in Gatlinburg, and my brother and I went in Fanny Farkle’s Game Room. I hear it’s still there, corrupting people’s children. They had video games, of course, but they were just there to lure in teenagers to try their luck at the other machines. One game in particular caught my attention. It was called the “Pot of Silver.”
In this game — fittingly nicknamed a “coin pusher” — you could look behind the glass and see mountains of quarters piled up on a series of moving levels. There must have been hundreds of dollars of quarters in there, and some of them were dangling over the edge of each level. You were supposed to shoot a quarter onto the top level, and if it hit in just the right place, with just the right amount of force, it could — in theory — dislodge millions into your hands. And some of those piles were so precarious that it looked like if a gnat landed on them, they would fall.
Well, I was drawn like a gnat to the flame, and I started pumping money into the “Pot of Silver.” I had 10 one-dollar bills, but I started out only exchanging one dollar at a time for quarters. That way I told myself that I could quit any time. The longer I kept shooting quarters in, the closer I seemed to get to an avalanche. Any minute I was going to strike it rich. And every now and then, a quarter fell off into the receptacle — just enough to keep hope alive. I won well over 70 cents. But naturally, I just re-invested my winnings in the game. My brother kept giving me pointers on how to aim, but I think he was just messing with me.
Now, you couldn’t shake the machine, or it would cause an alarm, and you’d be escorted out. No kid wants word to get around that he was thrown out of Fanny Farkle’s. But you wanted to shake it because some of the quarters seemed to be hanging by a hair, in defiance of gravity. Like James Bond holding onto a ledge with his pinky. Looking back, I’m sure they were glued or magnetized or something, but that didn’t occur to me then. I was never very good with science.
In fact, I actually thought gravity might be situational. See, as a kid, whenever I was around people who smoked, it amazed me how they could have a conversation with a cigarette dangling on the bottom edge of their lip. And it would never fall off. It could hang there for hours. So I remembered this during the game, and I thought, “Now, if you threw a quarter at the guy’s face, I’ll bet it would knock that cigarette right off.”
This was the level of intellect I was operating under. So I kept going. I was possessed — clammy forehead, teeth clenched. I went through 39 quarters in about eight minutes. Finally, I got down to the last quarter. I thought about stopping so I could hold onto two bits of dignity, but then I remembered “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” He found one quarter in the street and look what happened. So I thought, “This is my Charlie moment,” and I put it in the slot.
I walked back to the hotel, a broken and shattered 12-year-old, having known the bitter aftertaste of folly. The whole experience was so humiliating that I have never gambled since. But it seems that our family has a 30-year curse. Last year my nephew won a $100 on a lottery ticket, and this whole cycle of nonsense started all over again. But at least I can say that on that winter trip to Gatlinburg, my gambling problem started and ended in about eight minutes. Unfortunately, my problem with pancakes has gotten worse.