(The kid on the left – whoever he is in this video – is a dead ringer for me on my first ever bowl.)
If there was one thing my father liked, it was bowling.
On the night he drove the family to the bowling alley for the very first time when I was ten, I asked why he chose duckpin bowling over up-and-coming tenpin bowling.
“Tenpins are easy. They’re big and tall – anyone can knock them down. Duckpins are short, stout and elusive – now those take skill to hit.”
Dad may have been right, but to me, tenpins would be much more fun, like knocking a burly, sexy Marlon Brando down when duckpins seemed closer to striking Ethyl Merman off her stride, if such a thing was possible. But, since Dad wanted to show us how to bowl, not to mention get out of the house for a change, I was all for it.
Once at the alley, the first thing I learned from Dad was that the other five people in my family also got to bowl. After I rolled my first two balls in the gutter, then clipped off the ten pin in the far left corner on my third, I reached for a fourth ball. Dad interrupted with, “Others in the family bowl, too. And you only get three balls.”
I wondered if my composite first frame score of “1” was anything to get excited about. “That’s very good for somebody’s first try,” Mom said, which I knew meant “1” really stunk.
Dad rose to bowl next. In the same way he lined up two by fours against the blade before sawing wood, Dad stared down the old, chipped wooden pins before making his first move. Silently, like a well-oiled machine, he took three evenly paced steps and fired the ball. The gray-black sphere clung to the lane’s far edge when, like magic, it curved to the middle. Then, pow. The Brunswick cannonball not only knocked all ten pins down, but the collision sounded like a factory of porcelain dolls had just blown up. How many pins did Dad just bust? And when do I get to bowl next?
Waiting for Mom to bowl, then my older siblings Cathy, Don and Doug, was no fun, but I took it like a man and patiently sat on my hands until Dad said, “You’re up. Remember – follow through.”
I didn’t know what follow through meant, but assured myself it was something akin to “throw the ball hard, then follow it with your eyes.” Following Dad’s advice, I not only took three steps to launch my rolling rocket, but fifteen.
“You fouled,” Dad said, referring to the red light that signaled my foot foul to the entire bowling center. I thought this egregious error was as good an excuse as any to use for getting an0ther gutter ball.
Pressure was mounting. I’d used four balls to amass one measly point. Still, my hopes were high. My time was coming. I could see a strike on the horizon. No foot fouls – just exploding pins and lots of porcelain dust.
Toss number five was right down the middle, but started to curve, barely hugging the alley’s edge, before finally settling in Gutter City, its final resting place on the fringe of town.
“What?! Oh, come on-n-n-n,” I whined at the pins.
I couldn’t flub up like this again. My reputation as a fairly coordinated kid was on the line.
I fired my ball right down the middle, one that stayed there until impact. But, what? No strike? Instead, I received the duck pin menu specialty from hell, the all-too-familiar, overdone “chop.” Only two pins were knocked away from my straight on roll. “Shit. You bitch!” I yelled at them.
Uh-oh. I’d never used those words in front of Mom and Dad before. But walking back to the bench, expecting the worst, no one said a thing. Perhaps they couldn’t hear me. In dodging this bullet, and knew I better cool it.
Being last on the scorecard and watching everyone else get occasional spares, I shrunk lower in my bench seat with each frame. Dad’s praise was going to everybody else. I might as well be at home, quietly assuming the submissive posture I usually took in the family pecking order.
Then Don got a strike. Then Doug. Then the clowns bowling in the two lanes next to us blasted strikes. If I didn’t show up now, I was nothing.
Desperate, loose, and dangerous, I let it fly. Before I knew it, every pin disappeared from sight.
I jumped, fist-pumped and spun around. With jaw clenched, I swaggered to the bench, looking into my father’s eyes, as if to say, “Ev’ry goddam pin iz down, you bitches! Yes!”
From being in this new place called a bowling alley, I learned to be animated, that I could be animated, and that I sorely needed to express myself.
Sometimes it’s not what a father says, or does, or promises. It’s as simple as where he takes you.