I remember the strange visceral thrill the first time I “snuck” into a bowling alley with my best friend, Jack Stares. It wasn’t that the bowling alley had an admission, or banned grade school kids from bowling, it was the simple fact that it had been made clear by my mother that, “We don’t go there. It’s not a nice place.”
This was the same vague warning that went along with almost anyplace that my mother deemed “low brow” or “below us.” But it wasn’t until much later in life that I figured out the real reason to the “Miller family aversion to bowling.”
But at this moment, I didn’t care…I was standing in the “Gateway Bowl” and drinking in every sight and smell that the glorious, modern, and seemingly foreign wonder of wood and plastic had to offer. It was a lazy, week-day, summer afternoon, and there were fewer than 1/3 of the “24 modern lanes” with their “automatic pin-setter technology” and “Visi-Score” display scoring, in use.
I watched an older guy (everyone was older when you are 11) go through an intense ritual of drying his hand on the air dryer, slowly fitting his hand into the gleaming, black ball with the red swirls cast into it, and then pausing, while staring intently down the alley at the pins glimmering before him. There was “easy listening” music playing softly in the background, barely audible over the din of balls being rolled on other distant lanes, and the mechanics of the ball return and pin setters clearing and setting pins. But as the man began his approach toward the pins, his arm swinging back in a graceful arc, I remember holding my breath in anticipation of the outcome.
Three short steps, resembling those of a dancer getting ready to take off into a leap…and then his body lowered, and his arm glided forward, his left leg bending at the knee while his right leg curled behind him in a pose unlike any other athlete I had ever watched before. The ball started down the far right side of the lane, and I immediately began to anticipate a gutter ball. But instead, the ball, under the influence of an amazing side spin that slowly pulled its trajectory to the left, over the slick, oiled lanes, began arcing toward the center of the lane. As if directed by God or some other force unseen, the ball jerked to the left at the last second, to the middle of the pins, just left of center on the first pin. And with a tremendous dance that seemingly defied physics, all ten pins fell to the back of the alley with a sound that made me jump and laugh at the same time.
I was hooked. I suddenly wanted to try this new, “taboo” activity, more than anything else in the world.
I immediately went up to the counter to ask the cost, and was told that it was 35 cents a line, and 50 cents for shoe rental. This was in 1965, and to a kid who earned an allowance of 25 cents a week, and made 25 cents per lawn he mowed (for the growing list of “customers” for his vast lawn mowing empire), this seemed reasonable enough…if he hadn’t just spent his last $2 on a model kit of a Fokker Dr I Tri-plane, and a tube of plastic cement, from Darlene’s Toys and Hobbies.
But at that moment, I vowed to find a way to become something nobody else in my family had ever become…a bowler.
I was athletic as a kid. My bedroom was lined with trophies from Little League All Stars, and my first year of Pop Warner football (we were district champs). But bowling was simply something I had never been exposed to, in any way. Like most families in the 60s, we lived off of one income, in our case, my Dad’s paltry teacher’s salary ($800 a month in those days). “Pay Day” meals for us were a choice of McDonald’s burgers and fries (“no Coke…we have water at home!”) or if you wanted to “push the envelope,” TWO burgers, but no fries. Regular meals featured lots and lots and lots of casseroles, made with garnishes of tuna or chicken, and always with a Campbell’s Soup base. You could feed a family of 6 for about 50 cents a meal back then. Which made “McDonald’s” seem extravagant. But I digress…
However, you can only imagine what the REAL barrier for my Mom and Dad was for bowling…money.
However, now that I was “earning my own spending money,” (after expenses of 25 cent per gallon gas that would get me through as many as 15 lawns with a single gallon), I was pulling in almost $3 a week. Even after half went into my “college fund” (which was spent dry in the first term of my actual college career), I was flush, and ready to “experience a world hereto denied.”
I’d like to say that I “bootstrapped my way” to the junior bowling tour that summer. But the simple fact is, I found out that bowling is an art-form that requires a LOT of practice. I remember the first time I broke 100…because, until much later in life, it was the ONLY time I broke 100.
I remember trying to find any of my “peer group” who bowled. None of them did. So I was a lone kid…on a lone alley…blowing through “Model, HO Railroad, and New Bike fund money” at a clip that finally forced my Dad to question what I was doing, and if I had acquired a gambling habit, or was addicted to glue sniffing (it was a different time). When I told him the truth…he seemed relieved and appalled at the same time.
He then recounted how he had been a “pin setter” at the local alley in his home town as a summer job, earning 25 cents a day (huge money for a kid in 1948), but that he had never bowled, as he thought it was a complete waste of money when you could run, bike, swim, hike, and row a skiff on the Columbia for free.
I have tried to bowl seriously a handful of times in my life. I took bowling in college as an elective…and even in the best shape of my life…only rolled one game (out of hundreds) over 150.
The last time I bowled with my grandkids, I din’t break 100, and had a sore shoulder for days.
I even sucked at Wii bowling…scoring much the same electronically as I did in real life. Go figure…
I now live a life that allows me to belong to Country Club and golf as much as time will allow. One round at even a discounted public course costs more than a couple of month’s earnings with my lawn mowing business back in 1965. I could certainly afford to bowl. But I now realize that there was more than money that separated me from the “old guy” (who was probably 20 years younger that I am today) and the kind of bowler I became.
So, when the Pin Pals came around to TSTO…it took me back to the days when bowling leagues and fraternal organizations both required funny shirts with your name embroidered on the back…and realized that bowling was a birthright. And that my family was simply not cut from a genetic line of people who loved being in a smoke-filled room, wearing someone else’s shoes, and never, ever, ever understanding the physics of spinning a ball across a lane for a strike.
I still love bowling alleys. There is something magical about them…and “so Americana.” Like drive-in movies….they are a fabric of an era gone by that has not been improved upon by “modern advances.” I wish I was a better bowler. But, I realize that it’s now a novelty…not an avocation.
BUT WHAT ABOUT YOU???? I KNOW there are bowlers out there. Not the “hipster” types who do “bumper bowling” with disco lights, while sipping $6 microbrew beer. REAL bowlers…who drink “Bud”, or “PBR” and have their own balls, and shoes, and monogrammed shirts…and have rolled more than one 300 in their lifetime. TELL US ABOUT YOUR BOWLING prowess or “time at the lanes.”
ON ANOTHER NOTE… our book campaign has stalled a bit. We only have a week to finish this up…so please consider donating to those for whom .25 a day is a way of life…