The girl handed Jack a ball. He squared himself in front of the plastic bushel basket and then lightly tossed the green ball into the basket's center. The heavy, rubber ball made a thud at the bottom of the basket and rolled from side to side before coming to a rest inside. He did it! One down. One to go. The pretty girl working the game booth handed Jack his second rubber softball. I placed my hand over my eyes but watched between parted fingers. "Oh, please, let him make it," I prayed, although I hate to ask God for something as petty as an arcade prize.
- - - - -
We'd spent the day at Legoland, riding the Dragon coaster, eating overpriced panini and gaping in wonder at the intricate "builds" of Star Wars characters, battle scenes, Manhattan skyscrapers and an assortment of critters made from 1-inch Lego bricks that rivaled the live beasts at the San Diego Zoo. Everywhere you looked, there was a Lego masterpiece. Our clothes were still damp from our ride down the giant orange waterpark flume when we headed to the final attraction on Jack's agenda for this near-perfect day. He wanted to play an arcade game and win a much-coveted prize.
All day Jack watched as other kids (and, more often, their parents) toted their bulky prizes around the park, and he determined to make one his own. He had $22 left of the money he'd saved up for the trip, but he decided to spend as much as $12 (four turns at three bucks a pop.) Jack handed over six dollars for two plays.
The game appeared deceptively simple. A row of plastic bushel baskets hung at angle about four feet from the throwing line at the low counter. The baskets were tipped up slightly so that the ball could rest there without rolling out -- if it wasn't thrown too hard. The ball itself was rubber about the size of a softball with little nodules all over it, like an osage orange. We observed several people win at the game before Jack decided he wanted to play. Playing arcade games at theme parks is much less risky than playing at the state fair where carnies hawk impossible odds and are in it purely for the profit. Legoland just wanted everyone to have a good time, and although they charged for each play, the college students who worked behind the counters were obviously instructed to use their discretion and sense of compassion when dealing with the young patrons.
Of course, Jack had a secret weapon: Jason. Although Jason never played baseball, he is tall and athletic with better-than-average eye-hand coordination, so I respected Jack's deference to Jay when it came to the serious business of winning an arcade prize. I was also somewhat relieved that Jack had not asked me to throw for him. Honestly, I thought I might be able to do it, having played softball as a kid and later with a co-ed softball team. But the thought of losing was too much pressure. Jay tried twice, getting one ball in each time. But when the winning play required two successful pitches, there was no room for error. After his second attempt, the girl behind the counter gave Jay a bonus try, but it bounced from the plastic basket and hopped onto the floor along with our disappointment.
"I'm sorry," Jason said to Jack, "Why don't you give it a try?'
"I'll play two more times," Jack said and handed the girl six more dollars.
The first ball had too much polish and hopped from the basket. Disappointed, he threw the second ball and it rolled to the edge but stayed in the basket. Still no prize, but he now knew what to do—and what not to do. His confidence was shaken but he wasn't giving up. It was down to his last chance.
On his final throw, the green ball hit the bottom of the basket, bounced up, hit the bottom again and then rolled ... out onto the ground where it bounced beneath the rack that held the buckets. Jack looked down at the fallen ball. The girl handed him another one. "Try again," she said.
Jack smiled and eagerly took the ball. Once again he gave a soft underhand toss toward the center of the basket. The ball hit squarely at the bottom ... and bounced out again. Before Jack could turn away, the girl handed him another ball. "One more time," she said. "Since you've been such a good customer."
I turned away and covered my face with my hands, but I couldn't stand the suspense. I turned around again just as Jack tossed the final ball as lightly as he could. It landed on the side of the bucket ... bounced ... and then ... settled at the bottom with the first ball.
The girl rang the bell above the row of prizes. "You won!" she said. "Which prize do you want?"
As I jumped up and down, Jack proudly claimed his prize. I beamed a smile at Jay. If he had kept throwing—hellbent to win the prize— Jack would not be enjoying this victory. And I was so grateful to the benevolent girl behind the counter for giving my son a second—and a third—chance. If he'd won straight away would we have been so elated? Sometimes third chances are the best.
The enormous yellow prize was half as big as Jack. As I tried to wrap my arms around him and the over-stuffed plush toy, I realized how happy this win made me feel. We always want our children to win, to get the prize, to succeed, but often it doesn't happen. So in times like this it's nice to revel in the glory, even if it's for a simple stuffed animal prize that I had no idea how we'd fit into our luggage.