I have told you about the kind Mr and Mrs Ward and their seaside guesthouse. Most of my comments have been about Mrs Ward. It seems only right that I give you a glimpse into the character of Mr Ward.
We had no idea this was to be our last year staying at the Ward’s, that Mr Ward would die suddenly the next winter.
Around this time government regulations were changed to allow more public places to offer point-of-sale gambling. This was the day of the one-armed-bandit or fruit machine. Back then, in the innocent early 50s in England, these little bandits (how apt) were a novelty.
Mr Ward installed one in the hall next to the dining room. I believe the price to play was sixpence – half a shilling – a fortieth of a pound. The idea was to put in a sixpenny piece and crank the handle on the side of the machine to set three tumblers spinning (hence the one-arm name). The tumblers had pictures of fruit on them. If three of one kind were showing when the tumblers stopped the player won. There was a different amount for three of each type of fruit. The payout would come tumbling and clattering out of the machine. There was one combination which paid out ‘the jackpot’. If a player won the jackpot all the money in the machine at that point would come crashing out for the lucky winner.
I hadn’t seen a fruit machine before. My knowledge of coin-operated machines was limited to those found in penny-arcades. These were grubby, noisy, and to a young boy wonderful places to visit. There were all kinds of games to be played, most costing one or two pennies. They were all electromechanical devices as this was long before the advent of microelectronics.
I loved to play the racing car machine. This had a seat, steering wheel and accelerator pedal. The game consisted of a racing car poised over a race track painted onto a revolving drum. Once the penny had dropped (so to speak) the track would revolve and the driver could speed it up with the accelerator. The object was to keep the car on the track. Today there are many computer games that take this simple idea to the height of complexity. What more could a boy want than to drive a racing car! To drive was the ultimate goal of most boys my age – just eleven more years to go.
However, my two most favourite arcade machines were the Rear Gunner and the Laughing Policeman. The laughing policeman was a life-sized model of an English policeman, from the waste up. He was a jolly looking fellow, if a little on the stout side. The player would put in a penny and start the policeman chuckling and swaying with mirth. Soon he would be laughing so hilariously that everyone watching would be overcome with laughter. He laughed very loudly and was always placed near the entrance to the arcade to attract passers-by. I loved the laughing policeman! I would double over joining in his infectious guffaws. It was a very good way to spend some of the money I had been saving from my pocket-money for the holiday.
My other favourite game was the Rear Gunner – I can’t remember its real name, but Rear Gunner will do. This was a clever machine that had the player sit on a seat and operate a machine gun on a swivel. The gun included a cross-hairs sight which would move as the gun was aimed. Once a penny or two were paid into the machine, a film showing enemy bombers would come to life, with full sound effects. The planes came from the distance and got larger as they flew towards the player. The aim was to shoot down the planes. The game made the sounds of the firing machine gun and showed tracer bullets. If a plane was hit there was an explosion and points were scored. The film was of actual planes and was a bit scratchy and faded. Much like (and probably was) the war newsreel footage. I loved guns and planes and the idea of flying; this game was my dream come true.
Meanwhile, back at the guesthouse, one of that week’s guests became infatuated with the one-armed-bandit. Every mealtime he would go to the machine and play. I don’t know how much he spent each day, but he was determined that he was going to win the jackpot. He made a big fuss about it and had everyone laughing. When he approached the machine the room would go quiet as we listened to the drop of the sixpence, the crank of the handle, the sound of the drums spinning and clicking into place. Then the exasperated “next time, next time I’ll get the jackpot”. And we would all let out our breath and talking would resume.
There was only one day left of the man’s holiday. Before he came down to dinner that day, Mr Ward involved everyone in a practical joke. The man came down and as usual played the bandit. On his last go he said “next time – tomorrow I win the jackpot! No question.”
He came and sat down. Then Mr Christianson, a regular with his family each year, said “I think I’ll have a go”. He got up from the table, went out into the hall and out of sight of the other diners. We heard him put in his sixpence; a hush fell over the dining room. We heard him crank the handle, we listened as the tumblers spun and clicked into place. Then we heard the exited shout of Mr. Christianson – “JACKPOT” followed by the sound of sixpences crashing down and showering Mr. Christianson. The man who had been playing the game all week went white. If he had only played one more time he would have won the jackpot. Now, all his sixpences had joined the pile that lucky Mr. Christianson would be taking home. There was no time left for the kitty to build up to a new large jackpot before the man would have to leave for home.
Mr Christianson came into the dining room. He was grinning and Mr Ward came behind him holding a tray full of sixpences. They told the man it was a hoax, Mr. Christianson hadn’t won. He and Mr Ward had set it up so that when the tumblers stopped and he called out “JACKPOT”, Mr Ward would pour sixpences from the ones he had collected from the machine onto the tray. The room was very quiet.
The man started to chuckle, then laugh very loudly – and his laughter caused us all to start laughing, it was infectious, even better than the Laughing Policeman.