Let The Good Times Roll

I felt I knew a lot about bowling, not so much about the subculture itself, but about certain little details I had remembered from childhood. I did not consider the level of commitment and dedication that league bowlers possess. There is a combination of having fun, competing in a friendly manner, self-challenge and improvement, sharing and passing on the tradition and love of the sport. Being an indoor sport, as well as being a non-contact sport, is one of the appealing benefits of choosing bowling over basketball or football. This activity does not require super strength or an athletic physique, rather, an ability to focus mentally and strategize.  Just like with any sport, bowling is popular on a professional level, but is also sought after and enjoyed on a much smaller scale. Summit Lanes Bowling Center, located off a side street at 3 Park Drive East in the Pocono Summit of Pennsylvania, is the perfect example and upon entering the building, there is no question as to the main purpose of the organization. No matter what direction you look in, you see bowling lanes and bowling balls. The pool room and the arcade just add to the “game” theme of the place. The bowling alley is open all year round, making it something that can be enjoyed rain or shine and can be enjoyed by any age group or a combination of ages, such as a family. Summit Lanes hold leagues for all ages and host tournaments for both bowling and pool. There is an atmosphere of fun and high self esteem that seem to cloth the people as they enter the doors.

Layout, Atmosphere, and History

Summit Lanes is housed in a huge building made of cinder block and painted beige. Summit Lanes opened about 11 or 12 years ago. Dr. Alex Holtzman, the original and current owner, designed the building. He traveled the US checking out bowling alleys all over the country to see how they were generally set up. He saw that they all had drop ceilings, and decided to build his with an open ceiling. It wasn’t long before neighboring companies and the neighbors from behind the alley began to complain about the noise. These complaints led the Doctor to close off the back half of the alley, where the bar, arcade, and other offices and rooms were, making it a second story on that side of the building. The ceiling above the lanes remain open, but there are thick layers of foam attached to the walls behind the pin setters that muffle some of the sound heard from the outside.

Two glass doors lead into a small entry way, with another set of glass doors into the building. In the entry, on the left wall, a long row of framed league stats pages; on the right wall, two advertisement posters one for designer bowling shoes, the other has a Coors Light header with a courtesy request to not bring outside food and/or drink into the alley. On the doors leading in, two computer printed signs that read, “No outside food or drink” and “NO wet rolling bags, shoes, boots allowed in bowling area. Leave wet items on the carpet.”Now I remember having to remove my shoes before entering the bathroom as a kid. Any moisture on the soles of the shoes will cause bowlers to trip on the approach.

I walked in and was immediately fascinated by the sights, sounds, and smells that greeted me. My nostrils filled with the aroma of fresh, hot popcorn and grilled onions; not a likely combination I would choose to put in my mouth, but my nose didn’t seem to mind at all. I could hear a myriad of voices coming from different distances from all corners of the alley and the familiar THUDswoooooosh, as the bowling balls hit and slid down oiled lanes, and finished with what sounded like hollow, wooden tube wind chimes, (the ball colliding with the pins). This hollow sound is unusual considering that bowling pins are constructed by gluing blocks of hard rock maple wood into the vague shape and then putting it onto a lathe. As this description implies, the pins are as solid as  rocks. After the lathe shapes the pin it is coated with a plastic material, painted, and finally covered with a glossy finish. Suddenly, an explosion of fireworks under water hit my ears. I have spent almost 20 years of my life as a fast food restaurant manager and could identify the sound immediately as that of a basket of frozen French fries being lowered into a hot vat of oil.

Summit Lanes on Wednesday nights, the busiest league night of the week, is abuzz with all manner of conversation. The sound can be deafening as each voice rises above the next trying to be heard over the children running to and fro, some screaming, some laughing, while others cling to a parent’s leg crying, the loud booms of heavy bowling balls hitting hard wooden lanes, pins crashing and whining as they bump one into another, the chirps, beeps, and creepy musical responses from the various quarter hungry electronic games in the arcade, and even the swish of the wind fighting its way into the doors to claim its share of space as the patrons come in and go out. One the other hand, because of the many sound waves twirling around, weaving a rapid pattern through the atmosphere to avoid being snuffed out by the other threaded waves that zip by, the individual voices are also muffled and it is hard to make out what any one person is saying, unless you are close enough to climb up into their lap and introduce your ear to their lips, delivering the exercising of tongue and vocal cords. Every vibration of this symphony of sound can be felt from one end of this massive alley to the next. It comes from above, below, the left, and the right, and if you could catch these waves with light, it would be one of the most spectacular light shows ever produced.

To the right of the entrance is the open grill area, enclosed with a bar-like counter with six stools, and adorned with a popcorn machine. Behind this counter on the left is a couple of coolers, a prep counter, a single basket fryer, and then an opening to the far right, into the back of the grill. To the right of the grill is an inner entrance to the bar, appropriately named “Doc’s as the owner is a doctor, followed by some vending machines men’s and women’s bathrooms, and the right exit. This exit is attached to a handicap ramp and is adjacent to another small parking lot. Different brands of beer signs line the wall between the grill and the bar entrance, and below these are two large menus; one for hot food grill orders, the other a listing of beers and mixed drinks available in the bar.

To the left of the main entrance is an arcade with a variety of games lining three walls of this area, the forth side is the back counter of the main desk. The floor is tiled and the games range from driving cars, snowmobiles, or motorcycles, to alien or war games that require shooting of attached guns. There are also several prize games in which the goal is to obtain one of many prizes in the machine using a claw or shelf-push device, in which the player must be very precise in their aim. In the center of the arcade, and it’s best feature, in my opinion, are two air-hockey tables. This area is well lit and has easy access to quarters with a coin machine at its entrance.

In front of the arcade is the main counter, where patrons go to reserve their lanes and rent bowling shoes. Bowling shoes are a very necessary item for bowlers, due to the surface of smooth, polished wood in which they stand, walk, and sometimes glide toward the alley. This front counter is centered so that the lanes that it faces are equally spaced on either side. The employee working the counter has the perfect view of the entire bowling area and lanes.

This is also where all advertisements for tournaments can be found and league sign-ups and paperwork are taken care of. In the center of the counter is a cash machine and a microphone for announcements. Taped to the front of the cash register is a cartoon clip featuring Homer Simpson with a caption that reads, “Well, I’m tired of being a wannabe league bowler. I wanna be a league bowler!” I wonder how many who see this, remember that episode. The television show, The Simpsons, was based on an Oregon town named Springfield, and as a long time resident, I never missed an episode.

The billiards, or “pool” room is to the left of and adjacent to the arcade. The pool room contains six pool tables four have blue felt, 1 with faded blue felt, and one with green felt. Tall round tables, each with two chairs line the three walls. Beer shades over florescent lights hang above each table. Neon beer signs adorn the walls between pole racks. Lockers line the wall that separates the pool room from the main alley, continuing left to another door that opens into a small room.

This small, empty room, I am told, was originally the pro shop, but that the Doctor has recently decided to move his chiropractic office into the alley to save on rent of a second building. The pro shop is in the process of becoming his new Dr. office. All of the pro shop equipment and merchandise was moved into what was supposed to be the children’s playroom, which before had only been used for storage. The playroom was never set up. The remainder of doors in the hall are offices and a meeting room. Further left is a small hallway with several doors, followed by more vending machines, and finally, the left exit. The total length of the building is 210 feet.

The side walls from the main entrance to the side entrances are pink, including the lockers, while the walls opposite and to the end of the lanes are painted aqua. Pink, aqua, pink (in that order) colored banners run from one aqua wall to the other and from back to front over the lanes. I thought these colors were tacky and outdated, but later learned that another thing that the Doctor noticed, while researching other alleys, was that the color scheme of most bowling alleys was a drab beige or variations thereof and very depressing. This is why the colors of pink and aqua were chosen for his alley, to brighten the place up and create a more cheerful atmosphere. Throughout my study, I have been surprised and wondered why I have not seen any trophies or photos of bowlers who have bowled a perfect game of 300. This had bothered and upset me greatly, as trophies and pictures of perfect game winners are symbols of achievement in a bowling alley. I was relieved to find out that they have all been taken down for the purpose of giving the inside a fresh coat of paint.

Forward of the entrance, in front of the bar, grill, arcade, and pool room, is a large, open carpeted area. The carpet is black with bright colored specks and reaches to the edge of the bowling area. Pale gray, aqua trimmed tables with two swivel stools on either end, and linear ball racks beneath, run the length of the alley on the carpet, right at the outer edge of the bowling area, where there are score tables plastic seating. The floor in the bowling area that separates the carpeted area and the approach to the lanes, is a checker board pattern. The squares are blue, aqua, and beige, with beige the dominant tile. Circular ball racks, three-tiered with six bowling balls per tier, are topped with a round table top, and are located from one end of the building to the other. These bowling balls, called house balls, are colored coded by weight. For example, green balls are 16 pounds, red balls are 14 pounds, and yellow balls are eight pounds. A back drop, opposite the entrance and behind the lanes, separate the hall that contains the pin setter machines. The back panels are an abstract of purple, blue, green, orange and yellow surrounding a picture of a bowling ball and a few pins. Red lettering on the left panel of every two lanes says “Strike Zone.”

The lanes themselves are made of maple and pine wood, and the oil that coats them glistens in the light. There are a total of 36 lanes from one side of the building to the other and are the main attraction and focal point of Summit Lanes. The width of a bowling lane is three feet, six inches. The length is 60 feet from the foul line to the head pin. The first 12 feet of wooden lanes is made of maple, to absorb the shock of the heavy ball slamming into it, while the next 46 is made of pine. Pine is more pliable and allows the ball to roll smoothly to the end of the lane, the area where the pins stand, called the pin deck. The pin deck is also made of maple for shock absorption.

 

Personal Encounters

I have been in bowling alleys at different times in my life and for different reasons. When I was five years old, my dad taught me how to bowl and signed me up for a league or two. That was 35 years ago, so I do not remember much about the bowling alley itself or its patrons—only the coaching I received from my father and Uncle Zach, a colleague and friend of my dad’s. I still have the tiny little bowling shirt I wore adorned with several patches for things like “most improved average,” and “highest score.”

When I was 19 years old, I moved to Oregon and lived in an apartment that was one block east of the bowling alley. My roommate worked full time and was almost never home, and I did not feel comfortable being alone in the apartment. I went to the alley, one parking lot over, and felt it would be a good place to hang out where I wouldn’t be completely alone, in spite of the fact that I didn’t know anyone there. I would sit in the restaurant, oblivious to all the people and activities around me, writing for hours in my journal.

On occasion when my dad would come to visit me, we would go and bowl a few games, but during these times, the alley was pretty empty except for a few other amateurs coming in with a group of friends, or parents with their children. Aside from these rare visits with my dad, the last time I was in a bowling alley was when I was 21 years old. I was nine months pregnant with my first son, and he was five days past his due date, which is why we, my now ex-husband and I, were at the alley to begin with. My hope was that bowling for a couple of hours might finally push my body into labor. (Incidentally, five hours after returning home, I did, in fact, go into labor!) Again, my focus was on mine and my husband’s game, and therefore, I paid little to no attention to anything else in my surroundings.

From what I remember, bowlers are loud and animated. A lot of cheering, booing, and joking around goes on. I wonder if it is due to the amount of alcohol consumed by these individuals, or whether it is that they can be in a completely different element among their bowling peers than when out in the real world. Are their rivalries with different teams friendly or serious, and do these rivalries get a little tense at times? Again, I remember little of being on a league of my own when I was five, and have not paid much attention to other leagues during my other encounters with bowling alleys, so I have little to no frame of reference on the sport.

 

Overall Bowling History

In doing a little research, I looked into where bowling comes from and what it consist of. How did this sport get started, who started it, and why? I also wanted something to have as a comparison for what I would learn about bowling today, in this local bowling alley in my own town. I started with the Encyclopedia Britannica online and according to Bruce J Pluckhahn, bowling goes way back and has had many changes and has evolved into an international phenomenon.

The earliest traces of the game of bowling, found in the Egyptian tomb of a child, included 9 stones, believed to be used as pins, and a larger stone ball. Three marble slabs were set over the passageway that the ball was believed to have rolled through prior to reaching the pins. Much later, in the third and fourth centuries in Germany, bowling was not played as a sport, but instead was a religious ceremony. The clubs of sinners were set up and a large stone was rolled toward them. It was believed that the owners of the clubs that fell were forgiven of their sins.

Different variations of the game came to America from other countries. The Dutch are believed to be the first to introduce the “pin” game. The most common pin games were nine pin and ten pin, though different numbers of pins have been known to be used. Gambling on the game originated in Germany. Gambling in the United States was a problem, though, so in 1841, several states declared participation in nine and ten pin games illegal. The earliest passageways, or lanes, were constructed of either cinders or hard-baked clay, followed by asphalt and wooden planks. The wooden plank lanes were most used for lanes with coverings or built in sheds, originating in London and allowing for anytime, any weather playing.

While large stones were among the more primitive balls, they were replaced by hard wood, called lignum vitae. In 1904, the hard rubber ball was invented. 1985 is the year in which the American Bowling Congress (ABC) was formed. At this point, the first official rules and regulations started to take place. In 1901, the ABC introduced the National Bowling Tournament. The Women’s International Bowling Congress (WIBC) was formed in 1916 and by the following year, women were competing in yearly tournaments of their own.

A huge advancement occurred in 1950 with the introduction of the pin setter machine and later the design of the polyester and urethane bowling ball. In 1958 the Professional Bowlers Association of America (PBA) was organized. Patterned after the professional golf equivalent, the U.S. Open was added to the PBA tour in 1971. In 1982, a third organization, the Youth American Bowling Alliance (YABA) came into being.

With the televising of professional bowling, the popularity of the sport skyrocketed, and PBA bowlers competed for prizes of anywhere from $1,000,000-$7,000,000. World War II was another era that really embraced the sport of bowling, and after starting in Great Britain, alleys went up all over U.S. military bases. The popularity of bowling in America ricocheted back to some of the countries where it originated and to other countries as well, such as Australia, Mexico, Japan, and other Asian countries. Today, bowling is extremely popular all over the world, and continues to grow (Pluckhahn, 2012).

Bowling has been called many things: boccie, candlepin, duck pin, lawn bowling, ninepin, and tenpin. The most common form of bowling today, in America, is the tenpin version. It is as simple as throwing a large, heavy ball down an oiled wooden lane toward ten wooden pins in an attempt to knock as many as possible down. Or is it? I have been bowling a few times in my life and tossing the heavy ball down the lane is doable, but accomplishing the goal of knocking down the pins is not as easy as it sounds or even looks. It requires careful calculation, deep concentration, practiced skill, and a little luck. When a person wants to put their ability to the test, they join a league. There is so much more to league bowling than I had expected, but it is different for everyone.

 

Insiders’ View

It is 6:00 PM on Wednesday night and I have come early to try and get a few interviews before the leagues start. I walk over and introduce myself the first person I see come in alone. This gentleman’s name is Rick, and he is willing to help me out. Whew! Rick is a thin, little guy, maybe 50 yrs old, wearing dark blue jeans and a red flannel shirt. He has one of those chains that attach to his belt loop and his wallet. His hair is a strange mixture of gray and brown and hangs just past his collar. He has a scraggily beard and his mustache is slightly curved and twisted at the ends. He is wearing large glasses and they seem to have a bit of a tint, but I don’t think they are sun glasses.  There is a skull and bones on his bowling bag.

At the moment, the alley is eerily quiet, but that is good. There will be no loud noises or other types of distractions while we talk. Rick takes a seat and tells me to “shoot.” At this point, I turn on my recorder after getting the ok from Rick.

I take a deep breath and just start at the top of my list of questions. “When and why did you learn to bowl?”

“Well, when I was a kid, growing up in Baltimore, there was an alley just down the street from where I live. I went there every day during the summers and because I would wipe tables, do a little vacuuming, empty ash trays and what have you, they let me bowl for free. I was pretty small for my age, so I didn’t have a lot of friends. It was free, it kept me busy, and now and again, an old timer would show me a trick or two.”

“What got you interested in a league?” I ask next.

“Oh, I have always wanted to bowl on leagues, but it wasn’t until high school when I got my first job that I could afford to join. I started on a couple of youth based leagues, then joined the adult leagues on teams of good bowlers and with their help, I found my own style of bowling. My average now is 207.”

I am surprised by his average. He must be really good to have an average over 200. “207? That is fantastic! Do you have a handicap?”

“Thank you. Yeah, it’s not bad. And no, not with that average, not anymore.” As Rick is answering, another gentleman comes over and says hello and shakes Rick’s hand. They agree to meet in the bar when we have finished the interview.

It is a minor interruption and as soon as Rick returns his attention to me, I go onto the next question. “What is it about league bowling that you enjoy?”

With this question, Rick smiles and says, “I’m good at bowling. I like football, baseball, and hockey, but would never play them because I am too small and not athletic in that way. I enjoy the friendlier competition and I especially enjoy challenging myself to find ways to improve.”

“Have you bowled on leagues before, and how often to do you win?”

“Going on twenty years now. I do ok. I win some, I lose some. Winning is nice, but again, I compete with myself more than the teams. Even when our team loses, if I have personal victories throughout, I am satisfied.” He is obviously a league-lifer, someone who will be bowling until the moment he dies. I am trying to relate to something in my own life, and I think the closest thing I can come up with is writing. Not only do I do it for school, but I write every spare moment I get. Just as Rick lives, eats, and breathes bowling, I do with writing.

Do you have a different team each time or try to stick with the same team?”

“It all depends. I used to try to get on a different team so I could meet more bowlers to learn from, but now that I have my game, I am sought after for teams, not to toot my own horn. So, sometimes I end up on teams that have two or three that I have bowled with before. Now I just let the cards fall where they may.”

“Do the benefits of bowling outweigh the costs?”

“Definitely. At least for me. I love to bowl and I am on three leagues in the winter and when not league bowling, I am here either to practice or to show off with friends. Buying bowling balls and replacing shoes once in awhile is an investment. You have to make this kind of investment for almost any sport. The cost of the leagues vary, so you can choose one that fits your budget, or, if you are like me, when you win, you get it back and then some. It pretty much pays for itself.” I am curious if this question would yield a different answer from someone who is not as skilled as Rick is.

“What has been key in improving your average?”

“Pairing up with seasoned bowlers for many years. I learned a lot from them, both in just observing and getting some directional tips. And there is practice. The more I practice, the better I get.” Rick’s response has me thinking; could this same type of technique work in improving my writing?

That was my last question, but I want to know more about Rick, so at the last minute, I ask, “Do you have a family, and do they bowl?” This may be a little too personal, but I am curious if his life is as integrated with bowling as I suspect.

Rick doesn’t even blink, but gives his answer as if he expected the question. “I was married once, but it didn’t last. Bowling is my life; all that domestic [stuff] just doesn’t fit in for me. I do have a nephew who will bowl with me on occasion. I have offered to sign him up for a league, but he just isn’t interested.”

“Does this disappoint you?” Am I pushing my luck? Is this question even important to my study?

I notice a softening in Rick’s face and his tone. “Sure it does, but I’m not disappointed in him. Nathan is really into his music. He plays several instruments and is learning how to record his own creations. He loves it! I would rather encourage something that he loves than to force my love of bowling on him. I remember in the early days, my mother trying to get me to ride a bike. I thought bike riding was boring, and if Nathan thinks bowling is boring, then who am I to hold it against him. I am just glad he comes and bowls a few games with his old uncle.” (Chuckles)

Wow. What a nice guy. He is very fond of his nephew and very supportive too. I feel this is a good place to end the interview and let him get back to his buddy. “Thank you, Rick, for your time and insight. I really appreciate it.”

“No problem. Happy to do it. Not many are interested in what I do.” I smile and wave as he heads to the bar.

Whew! That didn’t go so bad. It is now about 6:30 PM and there are quite a few more people here. I barely noticed until now, because I was so focused on getting the interview with Rick done. Now I would like to find a female bowler. Breathe

I go to the grill, order a root beer and take a look around. I see a woman sitting alone at one of the tables in the carpeted area. I hope she is one of the leaguers and not just an observer. I have to go see. I don’t want to pull anyone away from a group and be an inconvenience or interruption. Ok, here I go…

I walk over and introduce myself and tell her about my study and the need for interviews to show different perspectives. She is very friendly, says her name is Elaine, and asks me to join her. Elaine looks exactly like my mom! My mother passed away three years ago, and I suddenly miss her, but must keep composure. Elaine has short brown hair, blue eyes, and a very warm smile. She is wearing the same type of matching athletic pants and jacket my mother often wore. This one has green and navy designs with gold trim. And the weirdest thing about this is that my mother’s middle name was Elaine!

Elaine immediately begins to ask me about what I am studying for, if I enjoy school, what I think of Penn State, and what my future goals are. Elaine is taking as much of an interest in me as I am in her, and that is nice. It really has broken the ice and I am more relaxed than I was with Rick. We chit chat for a few minutes and then I ask her if she minds if I use a recorder for the interview, and she says, “I expect you would. No, I don’t mind at all.”

As before, I just begin with my list of questions as a guide. “When and why did you learn to bowl?”

“My husband and I decided to take the kids bowling for one of our family nights. We were not really good at it then, but we had so much fun that we made it a regular event. The more we came, the better we got, and the more we looked forward to it.” Elaine’s smile is contagious and she is looking at me eager to hear the next question.

I return her smile and ask, “What got you interested in a league?”

With this, Elaine sits up straighter in her chair. “My kids, if you can believe it. They bought me my first custom ball, bag, and shoes for Mother’s Day about seven years ago, and said that I bowled good enough to join a league. My husband also encouraged me to join, so I did and have been bowling on leagues ever since. I still bowl with the family also, but sometimes I get to sit out and watch while I hold my new granddaughter!”

Cool, she has kids! And with the mention of her granddaughter, I can’t help but to share a similar experience. “Congratulations! I remember bowling with my ex-husband and my father once and my Nana also sat out and happily held my first born son. How often would you say that you bowl with your family now?”

“Thank you. She is my first grandchild and the center of my heart!” I can see a bright sparkle in her eyes and Elaine is clearly bursting with joy. “Because two of my children are grown and out of the house, we try for twice a month, but don’t always stick to that.”

Elaine is easy to talk to and it is helping me to open up a little and make this more of a conversation than just a stilted question and answer thing. “Yes, life gets busy when we grow up and go out on our own. It is nice that you still share that time with them though. Do you have the same sense of competing with them as you do on a league?”

Elaine waves her hand across her face as she says, “No, not at all. Now that you mention it, it really is quite different when I bowl with my kids. I think it is because i am getting a kick out of seeing them bowling and spend less time thinking about my own game.”

“What is it about league bowling that you enjoy?”

She shrugs, not in the ‘I don’t know” way, but more a matter of fact kind of way. “It’s just fun. I get to meet a lot of new people and we get to gab and catch up while we bowl. I have made several very good friends that I met at the start of a new league, and we get together outside of bowling, which is also quite fun.”

Based on just these two interviews, it seems that Rick is more in it for the competition and bragging rights, where as Elaine is here to have fun and socialize. “Have you bowled on leagues before?”

“Prior to the summer following that Mother’s Day, no, but I haven’t missed a season since. As long as there are leagues, I will be bowling.”

“Do you have a different team each time or try to stick with the same team?”

Elaine now pauses, thinking for a moment before she speaks. “At first, I did try to stay with the same team because I was the ‘newbie’ and wasn’t very sure of myself. However, there is always at least one new member and as I got to know more women, and began to feel a little more confident in my bowling abilities, I didn’t try so hard to keep a team together in future leagues. You have to realize, some people will join a league and then for some reason or another, they don’t sign up again. I would assume because of career, family, or maybe even a lack of funds in the budget.” Good point. I wouldn’t have thought of that. I imagine leaguers do come and go and while some are regulars, some are not. I wonder how that factors in to the overall community within the alley.

“Do the benefits of bowling outweigh the costs?” It is the same question I asked Rick, and I am wondering if I will get a different answer. Elaine does enjoy bowling, but she has a lot more going on in her life and bowling is just a part, not the whole. “Sure it does. A lot of things we do for fun costs something, but the fun and the memories are worth every penny. I think it is more costly for some than it is others. I do this for my own personal amusement and do not take it as seriously as some of the leaguers do, so I do not go crazy making sure I have seven different balls and every accessory known to the sport. I don’t use fitters or a brace and do not need to have an array of hand drying items. And I have had the same pair of shoes since I started leagues. Of course, I think it is different for everybody.” I find it interesting that she too finds the benefits worth the costs, but sees the costs on a whole different level.

Elaine is very articulate and seems to enjoy talking to me. I could see her as a good friend. But friendship is not what I am here for right now. I need to stay focused.

“What has been key in improving your average?”

“I’m not sure. Just doing it I guess. All the time I spend bowling with my family and trying to outdo each other and then the regularity of the leagues and seeing what others do. I guess it just improves over time.” Elaine is beginning to look at the lanes and I get the feeling I should wrap this up, so she can get ready. “Again, I don’t take bowling or myself too seriously. It is not worth the frustration.”

One more question, “Do your children bowl on leagues?”

“No. They still come once a week to bowl on our family night, but my oldest has just had a baby and her husband is a lawyer so he works crazy hours. My middle child is really into snow and skate boarding, and my youngest spends a lot of her time writing. Only my youngest still lives with me, but she is already applying for colleges, so she will be on her way sooner than I’d like. Even my husband won’t join a league because he has his golfing buddies.” (Laughs)

I wish I could keep talking to her, but it is league night. This may sound weird, but I have this feeling that my mom is somehow here helping me out. I still cannot get how much she looks like her. “Thank you so much for your time. It is really nice meeting you and sharing in your memories and experiences.”

Elaine smiles, and shakes my hand, “You are very welcome. I hope I was able to help.”

“Yes, ma’am, you did.”

“Good luck on your paper. You seem like a very smart woman. I am sure you will do fine.”

“Thank you…” And thank you too, Mom, if you are here watching over me.

 

A Current Day Snapshot

It is February 15, 2012 and the weather is a nice 40 degrees with not a hint of a breeze here in Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania. At about 6:15, a few bowlers mosey in slowly, go directly to the lanes their league has been assigned, set down their bags and proceed to remove coats and shoes from their backs and feet, and shiny, bright colored balls from their leather or vinyl enclosure, and placing these items in their proper, albeit temporary home. Coats are either tossed onto an empty, plastic seat or hung neatly on the back of it, shoes either placed in the bowling bag or slid under a table or chair, ball on the metal shelf attached to the ball return that sits at the head of the approach nestled between two lanes. Next they sit down and put on bowling shoes, and some, the hand brace that is essential to their throw and aim toward the ten pins at the end of the lane.. All the while, they look around. Are they nervous? Suspicious? Trying to remember something that they know in their gut they forgot? No. They are looking to see who is there and who is coming in. They are looking for familiar staff and the remainder of their teammates.

When the clock hits half past six, bigger clusters of people come flocking through glass doors, all moving at a slightly faster pace, with childish looks of excitement distorting their features as they see, and almost run to, their team members, friends, and in some cases neighbors. Though these leaguers do take their competition seriously, it is not a serious setting. They come in, shake hands, give hardy slaps on the back, or, as is the occurrence mostly with the women, hug. The leaguers have an attitude of confidence and carry themselves with heads held high and chests puffed out, and in some cases there is a little bounce in their step. They feel comfortable here, as if they have just arrived at cousin George’s house for Thanksgiving, rather than a place of rivalry.

There is no dress code, which is very strange to me. I have seen in the few times I have ventured into other bowling alleys across time and space, but also on numerous television shows where bowling is a central theme, either to the show or to a specific episode, those on a regular bowling league have team shirts. They all match, sometimes embossed with a team name and almost always adorned with the individual’s name or nickname. It is also the garment in which a assortment of patches that are won or achieved in their bowling adventures are sewn and worn with pride. That appeared to be part of the fun. It is disturbing to me that these team shirts, which I had come to believe to be a very important aspect of this particular group of people, are missing in action.

I spot a team at lanes 15-16, and am drawn to the fact that they are wearing team shirts. They have the same logo that reads, “Rockin’ Willy’s Tattoo and Piercing,” but one is a muscle shirt, with no sleeves, another a t-shirt, and a third is a hooded-sweatshirt. The first sight of team shirts, of course, piques my curiosity, so I decide I will observe this team as they bowl their first game. I grab a seat at one of the tables that is just behind the bowling area, open my notebook, and then sit, listen and watch.

One of the team members, a jolly, round man about my age, is sitting at one of two scoring tables in the bowling area, the one on the left from where I am sitting facing the lanes. He is wearing a pear green shirt, has a bald spot starting in the center of his head, and a mustache that is kind of reddish, which is odd because his hair, what little there is, is more brown. Two of his other teammates join him at the table, though they remain standing. One, a woman, is wearing a tight taupe colored shirt, her hair pulled back into a pony tail and she smiles as the other member, a younger man covered in tattoos and with large wheels in his stretched out earlobes, sets down a pitcher of beer. I later learn that the woman’s name is Wanda, and she is the only female on this team. I referred to her young teammate as “tats and rings,” unable to get his name.

As Wanda pours herself a cup of beer, she and “tats and rings” begin to discuss the handful of bills in the balding man’s hand. They are making bets on tonight’s games amongst each other. What he held in his hand were several twenty dollar bills, so it will be a good take at the end of the night for whoever has the highest combined score, “…with handicap,” a condition that was readily accepted by the other teammates. A handicap is when pins are awarded to a player or team in an attempt to equalize competition, or a percentage of a established target score. This is a common way in which teams can be balanced due to different levels of skill. When a bowling is scored without the benefit of handicap, it is called “scratch.” The agreement between Wanda and her teammates indicates that some of the bowlers have higher averages than the others, and the handicap is a way to make it a “fair” game.

By a quarter to seven, the relaxed visiting has turned to more of a “…keep talking, I’m listening,” kind of frenzy as they rush around readying themselves to begin their practice throws. More and more people are coming through the doors in larger groups than the one before, and I sit and just marvel at the cyclical pattern that is emerging right before my eyes. Those who came in first make quick trips to the bathroom, the grill and/or the bar. I say and/or because it seems that those without children return with pitchers or bottles of beer, while those with children also retrieve their orders of steaming French fries and bags of popcorn dripping with butter. The ones who came in a little while after are just finishing up storing their belongings under tables or seats and organizing the placement of their hand towel, powder pouch, and lucky charms. In just moments, it will be their turn to do the last minute this and that before the games begin.

The last group who came in are really funny to watch because they are in the biggest hurry. Walking quickly down the carpeted area trying to get to their lanes then stopping abruptly as someone hollers their name or reaches a hand out to be shaken. I can read the anxiety in their movement as their bodies appear to hold the stance of still being in motion, they are quick with their hello, force a smile, and then begin moving again, saying over their shoulder, “Catch you after…” When they finally reach their lane, they begin the task of changing shoes, while the group before them are returning with their beverages and snacks. The first group are, by now, finished practicing and waiting for the score boards to highlight the first bowler’s name on the list, indicating that the practice frame is over and it is time to start.

I have no idea exactly what it is I am looking for, but I figure if I just watch, it will come to me. And so it did. Though I was staying focused on this one team, when I noticed that they seemed to stand in line, each waiting their turn, I looked to my right, down the length of the alley, and noticed that this was common of all of the teams. The bowlers have a certain way in which they prepare to throw their ball. There are little arrows on both the approach and the lanes that look like geese in a flying V formation. The bowler looks down at his feet, places them precisely on the arrow that will guide their approach to the exact spot, just before the lane, they need to be in order to hit the exact same spot on the lane arrow. For each bowler it is different. The weight of the ball, the force in which they throw, the arc that their arm follows, and the number of steps, swivel of the hips, and whether or not they pull their right leg up and back once they let go of the ball; all of these things combined determines how soon and how much the ball will hook, or curve, toward the pins as it reaches the end of the lane. The “hook” refers to the amount, measured in boards and angle, that a bowling ball deviates from its original trajectory during its path down the lane and how much of a hook each bowler has determines where he or she needs to stand.

At exactly 7 PM, everyone is in place. The children are in the arcade or sitting at the tables in the carpeted area, just behind their parents’ lanes munching happily on the junk food from the grill. First bowlers up are standing on the approach, bowling ball in hand, feet placed precisely on the arrow that coincides with their aim, while the other members of each team either sit on the plastic chairs bolted to the floor in the scoring area or stand to watch attentively. Not a single lane is empty or alone. The children are still chatting and giggling, though not as loudly as their previous squeals and the arcade games are still singing their eerie chimes of approval or sassy teasing to those who missed the mark. Those not on the approach are still talking to each other, but most are staring in anticipation at the lanes or the score boards. The wild concert of activity has changed stations and soft rock music can now be heard coming from the many speakers hanging from the ceiling, sitting on top of partial walls or the lockers. The games have begun and a new tune can be heard as bowling balls hit the lanes in a syncopated rhythm. If only I could write music, I would have a hit in the making.

The first bowler is the balding man. He places his feet near the center arrow, takes three giant steps forward, and as he releases his ball, his right leg crosses behind his left leg, his right arm arcs far to the right as he throws his ball and then crosses over to the left in front of his chest in what is called a follow through. As he watches his speeding ball rush down the lane to conquer the army of pins, the balding man tilts his head, as if willing his ball to curve in the same direction, walking backwards with little careful steps over the same ground he covered in three strides just seconds earlier, and as the entire set of pins come crashing down, his right arm, hand in a fist, shoots straight above his head as he turns on his heel with a huge grin, looking for praise from his team.

One of the bowlers stands all the way to the left, approaches the lane in a diagonal line to the right and when he releases his ball, his right hand twists to the right. The result of his throw is that the ball remains on the far right side of the lane, hooking sharply at the very last second, into the pocket. The pocket is the area of the pins that you want to hit in order for all, or at least most of them to fall. The pins are set in the shape of a triangle, one pin in the front, two directly behind the one, three behind the two, and four pins closing the back, for a total of ten pins. If you hit them just right, they have a domino effect, knocking each other down. When all of the pins fall on the first throw (for each turn, a bowler gets to throw their ball twice), it is called a strike—quite the opposite of a strike in baseball, where three strikes and you are out! In bowling, when you get three strikes on three turns in a row, they call it a turkey, and a turkey is a very good thing.

If you only hit some of the pins, or none of the pins, in what is known as a gutter ball, then a second chance is granted. The machine behind the lanes reaches down with its unusual claw and grabs the pins that have remained standing. A long plastic “arm” drops down and sweeps the fallen pins out of the way, the machine setting the standing pins down gently, as not to knock them over, and the bowler’s ball is sucked into the underground tunnel, very similar to the tube that takes your cash and checks from the drive through at the bank to the teller inside, and deposits it back into the ball return for the bowler’s retrieval. The bowler then repeats his ritual of finding his stance, but this time, he adjusts it to match up with where the remaining pins are placed. Again he throws, and this time he knocks down all the pins. Because they went down on the second, rather than the first throw, his score will reflect what is called a spare.

As I sit and watch the bowlers go through this process, I think of how it is similar to a golf game and how the golfer also carefully places his feet, grips the club in just the right way and looks back and forth from his ball to his target on the green. As Ernie “Coach” Pantusso on the television sitcom, Cheers, once said, “One advantage of bowling over golf is that you never lose a bowling ball. Because I am not a sport loving person, I find it amusing that I keep making references to other sports.

Just as I looked, “tats and rings” was making a bee-line straight for me. Much to my relief, considering the frustrated grimace on his inked face, he went over to his bowling bag, one of the nicer ones on wheels with a handle, and reached in, producing another ball, while he said out loud, “I don’t know what is going on with me tonight, but I am getting very, very angry,” the last few words forced out between gritted teeth. He nearly stomped back over to the lane. He took his spot on his chosen arrow, shrugged his shoulders a few times while twisting his head from side to side, as if to break his muscles from the tense clench they were in. He stood there for several seconds, leaned forward, swinging his ball behind him, and then let the weight of the ball pull him toward the lane. It was fascinating to see how he slowly set the ball in motion almost without throwing it. The ball didn’t THUD this time, rather, you could hear the smooth shell of the ball sliding very methodically down the oiled lane, colliding with the pins in an unexpected crash and clatter. Before the pins could settle and quiet themselves, he let out a loud, “WOOOOO!” clearly satisfied with the end results of this ball’s performance. Wanda stood by the scoring table and clapped her hands above her head before heading over to take her turn.

The team continued to take turns, switching from the first to the second lane. This rotation of turn-taking allows the game to move along smoothly. Bowler one bowls on the left lane, followed by bowler two. While bowler two is taking his first turn on the left lane, bowler one is taking his second on the right lane. When bowler one finishes his turn on the right, bowler two then rotates over to the right lane, while bowler three is up on the left, and so on. As I mentioned before, each bowler gets two chances per turn, and these turns are called frames. There are a total of ten frames per game. Fortunately, technology has advanced to the point that a computer system keeps score for the team, but it was not always this way. Yet even with the computer scoring system, it is important to know how your score is calculated.

In the first frame, the number of pins knocked down is calculated in the upper left corner of a box; this main box is called the frame. If some pins are left, then the number that fall on the second chance is calculated in a separate, smaller box located in the upper right hand corner of that same frame, while the total of the two throws is placed on the bottom center of the frame. All ten frames are connected in one long row, and all of the team’s players are listed in a column, three or four names, depending on how many players are in the team, on each of the two lanes’ screens. (Remember, each team uses two lanes in a rotation to keep the game moving). The second frame is organized in the same fashion, but the score in the bottom center of the second frame is the combined scores of frame one and two.

Now, here is where it gets interesting. If all pins are knocked down between the two throws, the second throw is calculated with a diagonal line through the little upper box in the right corner of the frame, but in this case, the total is not yet calculated. For a spare, the next throw, which would be the first chance on the following frame, gets added to the ten pins of the former frame, added again to the running total thus far, and then the score is placed in the bottom center of the frame with the spare. In the next frame, the first throw gets counted again, along with the second and the new total goes in that frame. If that is not complicated enough, when all pins are knocked down on the first throw, thus eliminating the need for a second throw, it is a strike and a large X is placed in the mini box of the frame. For a strike, the next two throws are calculated with the ten pins of the strike to determine the score for the frame with the strike.

Imagine getting strikes for your next two throws. Your score would be the first strike, ten pins, added to two more strikes, which is 20 more, a total of 30, added to the running total and recorded in the frame of the first strike. Yes, it gets very confusing. The highest score that any bowler can achieve in a single game is 300—that is a total of twelve strikes in a row! I know, there are only ten frames, so why twelve strikes? Well, the final strike in the tenth frame needs two more throws to add to its total, and therefore, two more throws are granted.

Outsider’s View

My concentration is broken by the only team to my left. Interestingly, the team I have been observing happens to be a local business, while the team to my left is a family. Grandma, grandpa, dad, two teenage boys and one teenage girl seem to comprise this team. They are not the only family members there that night, as there are also a couple of older children, sitting at tables in the empty bowling area to the left, doing homework and three smaller children—the youngest girl appears to be about four years old—running around and having a good time with each other.

My attention is diverted to this other team when the father walks over, standing almost directly in front of me, and speaks to one of the teenage boys on the team. “Who is up first?” the father asks his son, who is wandering back over to the bowling area from either the arcade or the grill.

“She is,” the boy replies as he points to his older sister.

“Exactly! Who is up next? You saw her throw her ball. How long do you think she is supposed to take? Come on…you are holding up the game.” At this request, the son quickens his step and grabs his ball. The father was direct, but calm, and I caught the hint of a grin on his face as his son whisked by. This entire exchange took less than a minute and I turned my attention back to my focal team, never giving the family team another thought, until later that evening on the ride home.

What later disturbed me, and probably from the outside perspective as a mother, was the children. The fact that there is not a safe playroom for them to be watched over, these kids are at the alley until very late on school nights. I appreciate that parents try to include their kids in their activity of bowling, but at the same time, I wonder, at what cost? I am also disturbed by the fact that they are running around the huge alley where there are people drinking alcohol, some more than others, which also makes me wonder, are the parents driving these children home some of the same that are drinking? My roommate, Mary, who has accompanied me to the alley on several occasions, has a slightly different perspective of the presence of the kids at the alley on league nights. She said that the individuals with children were not the one’s drinking, seemingly throughout the alley, as she had walked the length of the lanes, while I concentrated that evening on one team.

Mary, a mother of four and grandmother of nine, was quite pleased with the fact that the bowlers were keeping an eagle eye on their kids, and when they were up to bowl, the teammates would take over and at all times, someone’s eyes were watching. She witnessed several parent/child exchanges that included getting permission, getting advice, and getting help, and in all of these the parents were attentive and the children clearly came first.

 

Behaviors

As the game continues to play out, I notice other behaviors that are characteristic to bowlers. They do talk amongst themselves, but keep a close eye on the others in the team who are bowling. The conversations are mostly centered on skill, inconsistencies in their approach, what they could do better next time, or in some cases, how it was not their fault, but that of the lanes, the shoes, the lighting and a myriad of other rationalizations.  The facial expressions and body language of the bowlers depends on how well the ball connected with the pins. If they are happy with their throw, they will return to the group with smiles, confident looks accompanied by a nodding of their head, a number of silly dance moves, and or reaching out for their high fives. On the other hand, if it was a bad throw, they come back with slumped shoulders, rolling eyes, pouty lips, a fist being socked in to the opposite hand, or they just shrug their shoulders as if to say, “Oh, well, no biggie.”

The reactions of the other team members are also similar. Good throws elicit claps, high fives or high tens (two high fives at the same time, using both hands), and hollers of “Alright!”, “Way to go!”, “I knew you had that one!”, or just flat out screams that resemble different vowel sounds, but are not in any way words that are identifiable in the English language. If the throw is not so good, encouraging words are spoken, yet in a much less enthusiastic tone, followed by a sympathetic pat on the back. Those who have the most fun are those who can laugh at themselves and others. It is clear, though, that far too many of the bowlers, have very high expectations of themselves, and it is not the other teams, or their own teammates they are competing against, but rather themselves.  One woman, several teams over to my right, maintained absolutely no expression on her face at all. Whether she got a strike or a gutter ball, her face was always blank, and her body movement was both stiff and flowing.

The most common thing I saw my team do was to tag each other. The bowler walking away from the lane would hold his hand up, fingers together, while the bowler taking his place, palm down, would tap their fingertips. This was done not as a full slap of “give me five,” but more of a sliding of hand over hand. If you have ever watched team wrestling, where they tag each other in and out of the ring, you know what I am talking about. It was a supportive gesture, but because it happened every time the bowlers would trade places, it appeared to be more of a signal that one bowler was finished and the other was free to take their turn.

First throws are hard and fast; second ones more targeted and released with more control. Some balls hook at the last minute, others ride the edge of the lane near the gutter and then hook very sharply into the pins. Some teams are families, some friends, some co-workers, and some are randomly put together, in that if one person wants to join a team, but has no one to come join with them, these individuals are placed into full teams.

Body language is very prevalent in the bowling alley. All of the classic body postures that go with disappointment, disgust, pride, surprise, and confidence can be seen at any given moment while the league is active. Disappointment is clear when shoulders are slumped, eyes are looking down at the ground and movement is considerably slower. Disgust can be seen on the faces as anger, or in balled up fists or stomping feet. When pride is being displayed, you can’t miss the highly held head, shoulders back, and arms in the air. Often, bowlers can be seen with a look of surprise on their faces accompanied by shrugging shoulders, as if to say, “Who knew?” or hands over their face and sometimes laughter. Confidence is another one that has bowlers holding their shoulders back, nodding their heads, and walking with a swagger, or even doing a dance when their throw went exactly as they expected.

Space is pretty consistent during the games. Generally, bowlers remain in the bowling area of their assigned lanes, whether close to the approach for better view or to be ready for their turn, or sitting at the score table or other close by seats that are there for them to rest between turns. Non-bowlers either remain in the bar or in the seating area behind the bowling area, and the children are either close to the area their parents are bowling or in the arcade. This seems to be the norm at anytime that leagues are in session. Where the bowlers remain makes sense in that the rotation of the taking of turns between two lanes moves pretty quickly and to leave the area holds all other team members up.

Wanda is up next. In an attempt to guarantee that nothing interferes with her approach and release, she first adjusts her pant legs near her ankles, pulls her shirt down over her waist, makes sure any loose strands of hair are behind her ears, then takes her ball out of the ball return. She steps up to the arrows and takes her place, double checks her grip on her bowling ball, and then looks forward at the pins to make sure her visual and mental focus are in line with her physical stance. One, two, three, steps and a slight slide to the front of the lane, more gracefully than her male teammates, she leans in and releases her ball. It rolls down the center of the right side of the lane, barely hooking into the pins and hitting between the far right pins of the second and third rows. Four pins on the left of the lane remain standing. Her score for the first throw of this frame is six.

Wanda is not at all fazed by her inaccurate throw, but instead is concentrating on her next move as she waits for her ball to arrive. She once again goes through what I am beginning to see as her own personal ritual, and when she releases her ball, everyone watches to see if she is successful. The ball strikes, and it is clear that three of the four pins are definitely going down, while the fourth one wobbles round and round on its haunches, trying to catch its balance. Wanda turns for a moment as she is walking back to the score table, but then turns her head and again looks at the lane just as that final pin loses its battle with equilibrium, and slides off the lane and out of sight.  The cheers ring out all around her and she laughs. Really impressed with this accomplishment, I say to her, “Good job!”

She turns and looks at me with a look of bewilderment, and while she fixes her pony tail for the umpteenth time, she says, “I thought it was going to stay up,” shrugging as if to say, who knew? I feel I have an opening and begin to talk to her. I tell her my name and why I am watching and taking notes. I then ask her how long she has been bowling. “Not long, really. I bowled a few times as a kid, but didn’t really learn how to bowl until my boyfriend taught me. His shop needed one more bowler for this league and I got roped in.”

“Oh, you don’t like to bowl?” I ask.

“No, no, I do. It has been a lot of fun. None of us are really good enough to win the grand prize, but it doesn’t seem to matter to these guys. They do it for the fun, and to boost their ego.” Wanda laughs as she says this.

“Grand prize? What is that?”

“There is a fee to form a league, and most of it gets pooled together for prize winnings. This league started with 22 teams and is down to 18 or 19, I think. The grand prize is for the highest scoring team overall, but they also award second and third place.”

“How much is the grand prize?”

“I don’t know. No one here [her team] expects to win it, so I never bothered to ask.”

“When my parents used to bowl on leagues, they wore team shirts. I see you guys are, or some of you at least, but not many of the other teams are wearing them. Why does your team?”

Wanda chuckles before saying, “Ah, no, those are what they wear at the shop. They come straight here after closing up. They are not for the league.”

So, how does the league work? How are the winners determined?” This conversation is going really well, although she is new at bowling and does not seem to know a lot of the semantics. She is watching the screen, but she answers, as it is not her turn yet.

Again, she shrugs and says, “Sorry. I really have no idea.” Just as I suspected. Wanda is done talking to me anyway. She gives me a polite smile and nod and then walks over to the man who I assume is her boyfriend, judging by the kiss he gives her before grabbing his ball and moving over to the right lane from the left.

The balding man sits between turns. “Tats and rings” is continuously on his phone—if not texting, then standing off to the side talking. Maybe that is what is wrong with his game. If only he would put his phone away and concentrate more on his bowling. Wanda always returns to the score table in the bowling area, fixes her pony tail, and drinks beer poured from the pitcher. The others stand around the ball return, watching intently and waiting for their respective turns. Another point of focus that the bowlers give a lot of their attention to is the scoreboard.

The scoreboard is a show in and of itself. There are, of course, the scores; all names in a column on the left with five frames showing at a time to the right of each of the names.  At the very top, the person who is up, or rather, whose turn it is on that particular lane, is listed in a red banner. This visual is helpful to the bowlers in that they can see, at a glance, when and if it is their turn. As soon as a ball is thrown, if all the pins are knocked down, the screen changes to a cartoon of pins and balls illustrating the strike. What is interesting is that the cartoons are always different. If the person knocks down only some of the pins, the screen will change showing an animated lane, the exact pins that are left standing, and a bowling ball positioned at just the spot that will ensure all pins will go down. For the less experienced bowler, this pictorial suggestion gives them a guide on where to aim their bowling ball. If on the second chance, all pins do indeed go down, an animated array of star, lightning bolts, and fireworks graphics comes up on the screen, celebrating a “star frame,” meaning that the bowler “picked up” the spare. I wonder if anyone is getting as much of a kick out these graphics as I am.

As the final frame is bowled by all members, the score board gives each bowler’s individual scores. At the top of the screen, where the names were announced to alert bowlers of their turn, it now has a scrolling message that says, “The game is finished. Roll a ball to begin a new game.” The bowlers take a few minutes to take care of things such as replacing empty beer pitchers with full ones, ordering snacks, or going to the bathroom. I see that it is now 7:50 PM and make note that one game takes roughly 45 minutes to complete.

 

Leagues

Since Wanda was unable to give me many details of what a league is, and I had no better luck with Melissa at the front counter, I decided again to rely on the internet for some information. TO begin with, what is a league? In a nutshell, it is an organized competition on a weekly basis for team play. But really, that is not enough. How does it pertain to bowling? In an article entitled, Types Of Bowling Leagues, I learned that an important part of the history of bowling is the concept and configuration of leagues. Though leagues started out with the formation of the American Bowling Congress as non-standardized, meaning there were no specific rules, a set-up that was not very popular, a specific set of guidelines came into being in the early 1900s.

Today, a league is a group of teams organized to promote mutual interests and to compete primarily among themselves, as is the case with bowling. Leagues can consist of a few or many teams. The teams can consist of 2-5 players and they can be all women, all men, or mixed. There are different age group leagues as well; adult, youth, and senior. Generally, adult leagues consist of persons 19 years and older, and though seniors can and do participate in these leagues, the senior leagues are for individuals age 50 and older. There are two types of leagues. Winter leagues run from 33-36 weeks and summer leagues anywhere from 12 to 16 weeks. The winter league is either split into two segments or three, the winners from the first going onto the second and so on, until the final game and championship is determined. The more teams that the league has, the higher the prize winnings.

Leagues are either sponsored by businesses, called commercial leagues, in which the businesses contribute a nominal fee for cheap advertising, or they can be for fun. In either case, the leagues are sanctioned in order for the bowlers to qualify for prize winnings. Leagues, depending on the specific rules of the league, can be scratch or handicapped. Though people join leagues for a variety of reasons, the most common are exercise for seniors and socializing for the younger crowds (Vhartwell2010, 2010).

 

Final Frame

What is intriguing to me is the diversity of individuals on the leagues I have observed thus far. Men and women, young and old, pros and beginners, and at all different levels of health; some weak and slow, others strong and eager. I have also noticed the varying level of skill represented on the teams that comprise these leagues. This is truly a sport that anyone can participate in, and everybody does. Bowling anyone?

*References are in text and all photos were taken by Me! :)

Let the Games Begin

Another Wednesday night and I am once again on my way to Summit Lanes Bowling Center to do more research. The weather is a nice 40 degrees with not a hint of a breeze here in Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania. It is February 15, 2012 and it is also my 41st birthday. I know I should be taking the day off to celebrate, but I have work to do and I have already had a wonderful day full of surprises from the most unexpected places. Tomorrow, my roommates, Cherie and Mary, will be making homemade broccoli-cheddar soup, fresh biscuits, and my favorite—carrot cake! Such a delicious meal will be well worth the wait.

Mary and I pull into the parking lot right at seven o’clock and I quickly get out of the car and go in while Mary finds a parking place in the packed lot. As I enter, I am greeted with many sights, sounds, and smells that I have become familiar with. As soon as I come through the entrance, I turn left and head down one side of the alley. I immediately notice that the first 12 lanes are empty and it appears they will remain that way throughout the evening. I stop and make a note to ask why. I spot a team that is second in from the empty lanes, putting them at lanes 15-16, and am drawn to the fact that they are wearing team shirts. They have the same logo that reads, “Rockin’ Willy’s Tattoo and Piercing,” but one is a muscle shirt, with no sleeves, another a t-shirt, and a third is a hooded-sweatshirt. The other three bowlers on this particular team are wearing normal street clothes. The first sight of team shirts, of course, piques my curiosity, so I decide I will observe this team as they bowl their first game.

I grab a seat at one of the tables that is just behind the bowling area, open my notebook, and then sit, listen and watch. I do want to take notes on what I observe, but I need to first observe something of significance. One of the team members, a jolly, round man about my age, is sitting at one of two scoring tables in the bowling area, the one on the left from where I am sitting facing the lanes. He is wearing a pear green shirt, has a bald spot starting in the center of his head, and a mustache that is kind of reddish, which is odd because his hair, what little there is, is more brown. Two of his other teammates join him at the table, though they remain standing. One, a woman, is wearing a tight taupe colored shirt, her hair pulled back into a pony tail and she smiles as the other member, a younger man covered in tattoos and with large wheels in his stretched out earlobes, sets down a pitcher of beer. I later learn that the woman’s name is Wanda, and she is the only female on this team. She is also the only one I actually spoke to. In my notes, I referred to her young teammate as “tats and rings” as I was unable to get his name. This guy spent as much time talking on his phone and texting as he did bowling.

As Wanda pours herself a cup of beer, she and “tats and rings” begin to discuss the handful of bills in the balding man’s hand. They are making bets on tonight’s games amongst each other. What he held in his hand were several twenty dollar bills, so it will be a good take at the end of the night for whoever has the highest combined score, “…with handicap,” a condition that was readily accepted by the other teammates. As I make note to remember to find out what a bowler’s handicap is and how it is determined, I have a vague recollection that has something to do with their personal average, but little more.

Mary suddenly appears, taking a seat next to me, pulling me out of my daydream of bowling as a young child and trying to draw into my memory what a handicap is. I glance over at her, giving her a nervous smile, and she says, “Don’t worry about me. Just relax and take your time. Do your best, as you always do. I am in no hurry.” With that , she pats my hand, then points my attention back to the bowlers and the activity on the lanes. I have no idea exactly what it is I am looking for, but I figure if I just watch, it will come to me. And so it did.

Though I was staying focused on this one team, when I noticed that they seemed to stand in line, each waiting their turn, I looked to my right, down the length of the alley, and noticed that this was common of all of the teams. The bowlers have a certain way in which they prepare to throw their ball. There are little arrows on both the approach and the lanes that look like geese in a flying V formation. The bowler looks down at his feet, places them precisely on the arrow that will guide their approach to the exact spot, just before the lane, they need to be in order to hit the exact same spot on the lane arrow. For each bowler it is different. The weight of the ball, the force in which they throw, the arc that their arm follows, and the number of steps, swivel of the hips, and whether or not they pull their right leg up and back once they let go of the ball; all of these things combined determines how soon and how much the ball will hook, or curve, toward the pins as it reaches the end of the lane. How much of a hook each bowler has determines where he or she needs to stand.

One of the bowlers stands all the way to the left, approaches the lane in a diagonal line to the right and when he releases his ball, his right hand twists to the right. The result of his throw is that the ball remains on the far right side of the lane, hooking sharply at the very last second, into the pocket. The pocket is the area of the pins that you want to hit in order for all, or at least most of them to fall. The pins are set in the shape of a triangle, one pin in the front, two directly behind the one, three behind the two, and four pins closing the back, for a total of ten pins. If you hit them just right, they have a domino effect, knocking each other down. When all of the pins fall on the first throw (for each turn, a bowler gets to throw their ball twice), it is called a strike—quite the opposite of a strike in baseball, where three strikes and you are out! In bowling, when you get three strikes on three turns in a row, they call it a turkey, and a turkey is a very good thing.

If you only hit some of the pins, or none of the pins, in what is known as a gutter ball, then a second chance is granted. The machine behind the lanes reaches down with its unusual claw and grabs the pins that have remained standing. A long plastic “arm” drops down and sweeps the fallen pins out of the way, the machine setting the standing pins down gently, as not to knock them over, and the bowler’s ball is sucked into the underground tunnel, very similar to the tube that takes your cash and checks from the drive through at the bank to the teller inside, and deposits it back into the ball return for the bowler’s retrieval. The bowler then repeats his ritual of finding his stance, but this time, he adjusts it to match up with where the remaining pins are placed. Again he throws, and this time he knocks down all the pins. Because they went down on the second, rather than the first throw, his score will reflect what is called a spare.

The next bowler is up, this time the balding man. He places his feet near the center arrow, takes three giant steps forward, and as he releases his ball, his right leg crosses behind his left leg, his right arm arcs far to the right as he throws his ball and then crosses over to the left in front of his chest in what is called a follow through. As he watches his speeding ball rush down the lane to conquer the army of pins, the balding man tilts his head, as if willing his ball to curve in the same direction, walking backwards with little careful steps over the same ground he covered in three strides just seconds earlier, and as the entire set of pins come crashing down, his right arm, hand in a fist, shoots straight above his head as he turns on his heel with a huge grin, looking for praise from his team. Wanda claps and gives him a high-five, as “tats and rings” takes his place on the approach.

As I sit and watch the bowlers go through this process, I think of how it is similar to a golf game and how the golfer also carefully places his feet, grips the club in just the right way and looks back and forth from his ball to his target on the green. Because I am not a sport loving person, I find it amusing that I keep making references to other sports. I am eager to do some research and learn about the history of where this game of bowling started, when, and why. My concentration is broken by the only team to my left. Interestingly, the team I have been observing happens to be a local business, while the team to my left is a family. Grandma, grandpa, dad, two teenage boys and one teenage girl seem to comprise this team. They are not the only family members there that night, as there are also a couple of older children, sitting at tables in the empty bowling area to the left, doing homework and three smaller children—the youngest girl appears to be about four years old—running around and having a good time with each other.

My attention is diverted to this other team when the father walks over, standing almost directly in front of me, and speaks to one of the teenage boys on the team. “Who is up first?” the father asks his son, who is wandering back over to the bowling area from either the arcade or the grill.

“She is,” the boy replies as he points to his older sister.

“Exactly! Who is up next? You saw her throw her ball. How long do you think she is supposed to take? Come on…you are holding up the game.” At this request, the son quickens his step and grabs his ball. The father was direct, but calm, and I caught the hint of a grin on his face as his son whisked by. This entire exchange took less than a minute and I turned my attention back to my focal team, never giving the family team another thought, until later that evening on the ride home.

Just as I looked, “tats and rings” was making a bee-line straight for me. Much to my relief, considering the frustrated grimace on his inked face, he went over to his bowling bag, one of the nicer ones on wheels with a handle, and reached in, producing another ball, while he said out loud, “I don’t know what is going on with me tonight, but I am getting very, very angry,” the last few words forced out between gritted teeth. He nearly stomped back over to the lane. He took his spot on his chosen arrow, shrugged his shoulders a few times while twisting his head from side to side, as if to break his muscles from the tense clench they were in. He stood there for several seconds, leaned forward, swinging his ball behind him, and then let the weight of the ball pull him toward the lane. It was fascinating to see how he slowly set the ball in motion almost without throwing it. The ball didn’t THUD this time, rather, you could hear the smooth shell of the ball sliding very methodically down the oiled lane, colliding with the pins in an unexpected crash and clatter. Before the pins could settle and quiet themselves, he let out a loud, “WOOOOO!” clearly satisfied with the end results of this ball’s performance. Wanda stood by the scoring table and clapped her hands above her head before heading over to take her turn.

The team continued to take turns, switching from the first to the second lane. This rotation of turn-taking allows the game to move along smoothly. Bowler one bowls on the left lane, followed by bowler two. While bowler two is taking his first turn on the left lane, bowler one is taking his second on the right lane. When bowler one finishes his turn on the right, bowler two then rotates over to the right lane, while bowler three is up on the left, and so on. As I mentioned before, each bowler gets two chances per turn, and these turns are called frames. There are a total of ten frames per game. Fortunately, technology has advanced to the point that a computer system keeps score for the team, but it was not always this way. Yet even with the computer scoring system, it is important to know how your score is calculated.

In the first frame, the number of pins knocked down is calculated in the upper left corner of a box; this main box is called the frame. If some pins are left, then the number that fall on the second chance is calculated in a separate, smaller box located in the upper right hand corner of that same frame, while the total of the two throws is placed on the bottom center of the frame. All ten frames are connected in one long row, and all of the team’s players are listed in a column, three or four names, depending on how many players are in the team, on each of the two lanes’ screens. (Remember, each team uses two lanes in a rotation to keep the game moving). The second frame is organized in the same fashion, but the score in the bottom center of the second frame is the combined scores of frame one and two.

Now, here is where it gets interesting. If all pins are knocked down between the two throws, the second throw is calculated with a diagonal line through the little upper box in the right corner of the frame, but in this case, the total is not yet calculated. For a spare, the next throw, which would be the first chance on the following frame, gets added to the ten pins of the former frame, added again to the running total thus far, and then the score is placed in the bottom center of the frame with the spare. In the next frame, the first throw gets counted again, along with the second and the new total goes in that frame. If that is not complicated enough, when all pins are knocked down on the first throw, thus eliminating the need for a second throw, it is a strike and a large X is placed in the mini box of the frame. For a strike, the next two throws are calculated with the ten pins of the strike to determine the score for the frame with the strike.

Imagine getting strikes for your next two throws. Your score would be the first strike, ten pins, added to two more strikes, which is 20 more, a total of 30, added to the running total and recorded in the frame of the first strike. Yes, it gets very confusing. The highest score that any bowler can achieve in a single game is 300—that is a total of twelve strikes in a row! I know, there are only ten frames, so why twelve strikes? Well, the final strike in the tenth frame needs two more throws to add to its total, and therefore, two more throws are granted.

As the game continues to play out, I notice other behaviors that are characteristic to bowlers. They do talk amongst themselves, but keep a close eye on the others in the team who are bowling. The conversations are mostly centered on skill, inconsistencies in their approach, what they could do better next time, or in some cases, how it was not their fault, but that of the lanes, the shoes, the lighting and a myriad of other rationalizations.  The facial expressions and body language of the bowlers depends on how well the ball connected with the pins. If they are happy with their throw, they will return to the group with smiles, confident looks accompanied by a nodding of their head, a number of silly dance moves, and or reaching out for their high fives. On the other hand, if it was a bad throw, they come back with slumped shoulders, rolling eyes, pouty lips, a fist being socked in to the opposite hand, or they just shrug their shoulders as if to say, “Oh, well, no biggie.”

The reactions of the other team members are also similar. Good throws elicit claps, high fives or high tens (two high fives at the same time, using both hands), and hollers of “Alright!”, “Way to go!”, “I knew you had that one!”, or just flat out screams that resemble different vowel sounds, but are not in any way words that are identifiable in the English language. If the throw is not so good, encouraging words are spoken, yet in a much less enthusiastic tone, followed by a sympathetic pat on the back. Those who have the most fun are those who can laugh at themselves and others. It is clear, though, that far too many of the bowlers, have very high expectations of themselves, and it is not the other teams, or their own teammates they are competing against, but rather themselves.  One woman, several teams over to my right, maintained absolutely no expression on her face at all. Whether she got a strike or a gutter ball, her face was always blank, and her body movement was both stiff and flowing.

The most common thing I saw my team do was to tag each other. The bowler walking away from the lane would hold his hand up, fingers together, while the bowler taking his place, palm down, would tap their fingertips. This was done not as a full slap of “give me five,” but more of a sliding of hand over hand. If you have ever watched team wrestling, where they tag each other in and out of the ring, you know what I am talking about. It was a supportive gesture, but because it happened every time the bowlers would trade places, it appeared to be more of a signal that one bowler was finished and the other was free to take their turn.  Some of the bowlers used the fan on the ball return or towels or talcum pouches to dry their hands, while others used none of these things.

Wanda is up next. In an attempt to guarantee that nothing interferes with her approach and release, she first adjusts her pant legs near her ankles, pulls her shirt down over her waist, makes sure any loose strands of hair are behind her ears, then takes her ball out of the ball return. She steps up to the arrows and takes her place, double checks her grip on her bowling ball, and then looks forward at the pins to make sure her visual and mental focus are in line with her physical stance. One, two, three, steps and a slight slide to the front of the lane, more gracefully than her male teammates, she leans in and releases her ball. It rolls down the center of the right side of the lane, barely hooking into the pins and hitting between the far right pins of the second and third rows. Four pins on the left of the lane remain standing. Her score for the first throw of this frame is six.

Wanda is not at all fazed by her inaccurate throw, but instead is concentrating on her next move as she waits for her ball to arrive. She once again goes through what I am beginning to see as her own personal ritual, and when she releases her ball, everyone watches to see if she is successful. The ball strikes, and it is clear that three of the four pins are definitely going down, while the fourth one wobbles round and round on its haunches, trying to catch its balance. Wanda turns for a moment as she is walking back to the score table, but then turns her head and again looks at the lane just as that final pin loses its battle with equilibrium, and slides off the lane and out of sight.  The cheers ring out all around her and she laughs. Really impressed with this accomplishment, I say to her, “Good job!”

She turns and looks at me with a look of bewilderment, and while she fixes her pony tail for the umpteenth time, she says, “I thought it was going to stay up,” shrugging as if to say, who knew? I feel I have an opening and begin to talk to her. I tell her my name and why I am watching and taking notes. I then ask her how long she has been bowling. “Not long, really. I bowled a few times as a kid, but didn’t really learn how to bowl until my boyfriend taught me. His shop needed one more bowler for this league and I got roped in.”

“Oh, you don’t like to bowl?” I ask.

“No, no, I do. It has been a lot of fun. None of us are really good enough to win the grand prize, but it doesn’t seem to matter to these guys. They do it for the fun, and to boost their ego.” Wanda laughs as she says this.

“Grand prize? What is that?”

“There is a fee to form a league, and most of it gets pooled together for prize winnings. This league started with 22 teams and is down to 18 or 19, I think. The grand prize is for the highest scoring team overall, but they also award second and third place.” This explains the empty lanes. As teams fall of the grid, less lanes are needed.

“Wow! Do they give trophies too?”

“I don’t think so. They should though. I think they used to, but I don’t know about this alley.”

“How much is the grand prize?”

“I don’t know. No one here [her team] expects to win it, so I never bothered to ask.” Note to self—find out what the different winnings are for each of the three top places. Also inquire about trophies.

“When my parents used to bowl on leagues, they wore team shirts. I see you guys are, or some of you at least, but not many of the other teams are wearing them. Why does your team?”

Wanda chuckles before saying, “Ah, no, those are what they wear at the shop. They come straight here after closing up. They are for the league.”

So, how does the league work? How are the winners determined?” This conversation is going really well, although she is new at bowling and does not seem to know a lot of the semantics. She is watching the screen, but she answers, as it is not her turn yet.

Again, she shrugs and says, “Sorry. I really have no idea.” Just as I suspected. I will have to go and ask the woman at the front desk a few of these questions in order to get more accurate information. Wanda is done talking to me anyway. She gives me a polite smile and nod and then walks over to the man who I assume is her boyfriend, judging by the kiss he gives her before grabbing his ball and moving over to the right lane from the left.

The balding man sits between turns. “Tats and rings” is continuously on his phone—if not texting, then standing off to the side talking. Maybe that is what is wrong with his game. If only he would put his phone away and concentrate more on his bowling. Wanda always returns to the score table in the bowling area, fixes her pony tail, and drinks beer poured from the pitcher. The others stand around the ball return, watching intently and waiting for their respective turns. Another point of focus that the bowlers give a lot of their attention to is the scoreboard.

The scoreboard is a show in and of itself. There are, of course, the scores; all names in a column on the left with five frames showing at a time to the right of each of the names.  At the very top, the person who is up, or rather, whose turn it is on that particular lane, is listed in a red banner. This visual is helpful to the bowlers in that they can see, at a glance, when and if it is their turn. As soon as a ball is thrown, if all the pins are knocked down, the screen changes to a cartoon of pins and balls illustrating the strike. What is interesting is that the cartoons are always different. If the person knocks down only some of the pins, the screen will change showing an animated lane, the exact pins that are left standing, and a bowling ball positioned at just the spot that will ensure all pins will go down. For the less experienced bowler, this pictorial suggestion gives them a guide on where to aim their bowling ball. If on the second chance, all pins do indeed go down, an animated array of star, lightning bolts, and fireworks graphics comes up on the screen, celebrating a “star frame,” meaning that the bowler “picked up” the spare. I wonder if anyone is getting as much of a kick out these graphics as I am.

As the final frame is bowled by all members, the score board gives each bowler’s individual scores. At the top of the screen, where the names were, until now, announced to alert bowlers of their turn, it now has a scrolling message that says, “The game is finished. Roll a ball to begin a new game.” The bowlers take a few minutes to take care of things such as replacing empty beer pitchers with full ones, ordering snacks, or going to the bathroom. I see that it is now 7:50 PM and make note that one game takes roughly 45 minutes to complete. I have had my fill for one night and realize that I forgot to eat before I came, so I look over to Mary and say, “Let’s go. I have enough for tonight and I am starving!”

Gatherings and Behavior

Summit Lanes on Wednesday nights, the busiest league night of the week, is abuzz with all manner of conversation. The sound can be deafening as each voice rises above the next trying to be heard over the children running to and fro, some screaming, some laughing, while others cling to a parent’s leg crying, the loud booms of heavy bowling balls hitting hard wooden lanes, pins crashing and whining as they bump one into another, the chirps, beeps, and creepy musical responses from the various quarter hungry electronic games in the arcade, and even the swish of the wind fighting its way into the doors to claim its share of space as the patrons come in and go out. One the other hand, because of the many sound waves twirling around, weaving a rapid pattern through the atmosphere to avoid being snuffed out by the other threaded waves that zip by, the individual voices are also muffled and it is hard to make out what any one person is saying, unless you are close enough to climb up into their lap and introduce your ear to their lips, delivering the exercising of tongue and vocal cords. Every vibration of this symphony of sound can be felt from one end of this massive alley to the next. It comes from above, below, the left, and the right, and if you could catch these waves with light, it would be one of the most spectacular light shows ever produced.

People of all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and manner of dress come filing into the building. At about 6:15, just a few mosey in slowly, in no hurry, go directly to the lanes their league has been assigned, set down their bags and proceed to remove coats and shoes from their backs and feet, and shiny, bright colored balls from their leather or vinyl enclosure, and placing these items in their proper, albeit temporary home. Coats are either tossed onto an empty, plastic seat or hung neatly on the back of it, shoes either placed in the bowling bag or slid under a table or chair, ball on the metal shelf attached to the ball return that sits at the head of the approach nestled between two lanes. Next they sit down and put on bowling shoes, and some, the hand brace that is essential to their throw and aim toward the ten pins at the end of the lane, neatly set, coming together in the shape of a triangle  and specifically and mechanically spaced by a machine that is behind the scenes. All the while, they look around. Are they nervous? Suspicious? Trying to remember something that they know in their gut they forgot? No.They are looking to see who is there and who is coming in. They are looking for familiar staff and the remainder of their teammates.

When the clock hits half past six, bigger clusters of people come flocking through glass doors, all moving at a slightly faster pace, with childish looks of excitement distorting their features as they see, and almost run to, their team members, friends, and in some cases neighbors. Though these leaguers do take their competition seriously, it is not a serious setting. They come in, shake hands, give hardy slaps on the back, or, as is the case mostly with the women, hug. The leaguers have an attitude of confidence and carry themselves with heads held high and chests puffed out, and in some cases there is a little bounce in their step. They feel comfortable here, as if they have just arrived at cousin George’s house for Thanksgiving, rather than a place of rivalry.

There is no dress code, which is very strange to me. I have seen in the few times I have ventured into other bowling alleys across time and space, but also on numerous television shows where bowling is a central theme, either to the show or to a specific episode, those on a regular bowling league have team shirts. They all match, sometimes embossed with a team name and almost always adorned with the individual’s name or nickname. It is also the garment in which an assortment of patches that are won or achieved in their bowling adventures are sewn and worn with pride. That appeared to be part of the fun. It is disturbing to me that these team shirts, which I had come to believe to be a very important aspect of this particular group of people is missing in action. Note to self—start asking questions.

By a quarter to seven, the relaxed visiting has turned to more of a “…keep talking, I’m listening,” kind of frenzy as they rush around readying themselves to begin their practice throws. More and more people are coming through the doors in larger groups the one before, and I sit and just marvel at the cyclical pattern that is emerging right before my eyes. Those who came in first make quick trips to the bathroom, the grill and/or the bar. I say and/or because it seems that those without children return with pitchers or bottles of beer, while those with children also retrieve their orders of steaming French fries and bags of popcorn dripping with butter. The ones who came in a little while after are just finishing up storing their belongings under tables or seats and organizing the placement of their hand towel, powder pouch, and lucky charms. In just moments, it will be their turn to do the last minute this and that before the games begin.

The last group who came in are really funny to watch because they are in the biggest hurry. Walking quickly down the carpeted area trying to get to their lanes then stopping abruptly as someone hollers their name or reaches a hand out to be shaken. I can read the anxiety in their movement as their bodies appear to hold the stance of still being in motion, they are quick with their hello, force a smile, and then begin moving again, saying over their shoulder, “Catch you after…” When they finally reach their lane, the begin the task of changing shoes, while the group before them are returning with their beverages and snacks. The first group is, by now, finished practicing and waiting for the score boards to highlight the first bowler’s name on the list, indicating that the practice frame is over and it is time to start.

At exactly 7 PM, everyone is in place. The children are in the arcade or sitting at the tables in the carpeted area, just behind their parents’ lanes munching happily on the junk food from the grill. First bowlers up are standing on the approach, bowling ball in hand, feet placed precisely on the arrow that coincides with their aim, while the other members of each team either sit on the plastic chairs bolted to the floor in the scoring area or stand to watch attentively. Not a single lane is empty or alone. The children are still chatting and giggling, though not as loudly as their previous squeals and the arcade games are still singing their eerie chimes of approval or sassy teasing to those who missed the mark. Those not on the approach are still talking to each other, but most are staring in anticipation at the lanes or the score boards. The wild concert of activity has changed stations and soft rock music can now be heard coming from the many speakers hanging from the ceiling, sitting on top of partial walls or the lockers. The games have begun and a new tune can be heard as bowling balls hit the lanes in a syncopated rhythm. If only I could write music, I would have a hit in the making.

Cultural Artifacts

Here is a preliminary list of the main “bowling” artifacts that I have either seen, heard about, or made note of on my first initial visit to my site, Summit Lanes Bowling Center. Some of these items are self-explanatory, while others may require a little explanation, which I will provide alongside the particular item.

Bowling balls

Bowling shoes—shoes with a slick bottom are used by bowlers so their feet do not stick to the lane and cause them to trip or fall when releasing their weighty bowling ball. Some people have bought their own designer shoes, while most others can rent them for an additional fee when they pay for games. I believe shoes are included in the league sign-up fees.

Bowling bags

Hand brace—this is similar to what you would see someone with carpal tunnel wear. At the top of the brace, there is a hole for the thumb and a contoured piece that rests along the back of the hand, while the remainder of the brace fits snuggly around the wrist, keeping hand and wrist aligned. it is generally constructed of plastic and canvas and has Velcro straps to secure it. This is used by some bowlers to either provide support for their wrist or to keep their wrist from twisting when they release the ball, thereby changing the course, or path, the ball will take down the lane and ultimately hit the pins at a desired angle.

Fitters (for finger holes in balls)—bowling balls are generally custom-made to fit the individual bowlers hand; however, if the holes drilled become too large (not drilled exactly right from the beginning, or the bowler loses a significant amount of weight) or the bowler does not have their own ball and uses one of thousands provided by the alley for visitor use, these fitters go into the holes to make the ball easier to grip and hold onto.

Towels

Powder pouches—these are similar to what gymnasts use to absorb moisture from their hands, thereby preventing the grip on the ball as being too slick in some cases, or sticking in others.

Lanes—made of wood and kept oiled (I am not certain at this time what kind of wood or what kind of oil).

Lane approach—this is a length outside the lane, a sort of “running start” that bowlers use to approach the edge of the lane where they release the ball.

Arrows on lane approach—these arrows are located on two points of the lane approach. One set is immediately upon steeping onto the “platform” from the sitting area, the other is halfway between the first set and the edge of the lane. Some people use the ones farther back due to long legs or a need to take more steps in their approach. I cannot recall how many arrows go across the line, but will check on my visit this evening, but do know they are there to guide the bowlers approach.

Pins

Ball return—this unit sits on the beginning of the platform edge, dividing two lanes. It is the machine that brigs your ball from the back where they hit the pins, under the alley and up onto a circular catch podium where bowlers can retrieve their balls for their next turn.

Fan—found on the ball return, another way that bowlers can dry the sweat from their hands if necessary.

Racks for balls—these racks line the entire set of lanes, on a higher platform (which is the “main floor,” just above the seating area, and contains several rows of bowling balls with varying weights for visiting bowlers.

Score board—an electronic score keeping board that hangs from the ceiling, centered with the score table, which is located in the seating area just behind the ball return.

Score table—this table used to be where using a score card and golf pencil, bowlers would keep track of everyone’s score; however, thanks to technology, score keeping is computerized. The table holds a touch screen where you can enter bowler’s names and in what order you have chosen to bowl.

Seats

Lockers

Bowling ball cleaning machine—this machine is exclusively for cleaning bowling balls, takes money like a vending machine, and will clean and polish one bowling ball at a time.

Subculture and Fieldsite Proposal

On my way home from a doctor’s appointment, I saw the perfect site that I believe contains the perfect subculture for an ethnographic study; the bowling alley! I instantly thought of the essay we, as a class, read called “Friday Night at Iowa 80.” At the truck stop, Iowa 80, there was so much more than I ever would have known without having read Rick Zollo’s findings. Just as the truck stop had more than just fuel pumps, restrooms, and a restaurant and little store, so the bowling alley has more than just bowling lanes, restrooms and a restaurant. This particular bowling alley, Summit Lanes Bowling Center, located at 3 Park Drive East in the Pocono Summit of Pennsylvania, also has pool tables, a pro shop, an arcade, a children’s playroom, a restaurant and separate lounge, meeting hall, and locker rooms. They hold leagues for all ages and host tournaments for both bowling and pool. There are many employees along with league bowlers and walk-ins. They have their own way of dressing, their own rules, rituals, and rivalries, not to mention the smattering of artifacts exclusively found in a bowling alley. Though the site itself is a “bowling alley” I am thinking of this subculture more along the lines of a world games and game players.

I am eager to begin watching, listening, learning the specific behavior and language of both the patrons and the employees, and finding out what their shared interests and values are. I think it will be interesting to learn why there are so many leagues and why so many people choose to participate. I would really like to find out the history of bowling, how and when it started, who started it, and why. I want to learn what is involved in the pro shop other than a place to buy bowling balls and any other number of items used in bowling, and what those items are. I want to learn how much interaction goes on, on a personal level, between the leaguers and the staff and what is the most common age group that frequents this establishment. I am also interested in whether the leaguers have the same type of attitude to the walk-ins as did the truckers to the non-truckers at Iowa 80. Other questions I intend to answer are, does the arcade bring in people and what age group, outside of the bowling activities. What is the children’s playroom and does it have someone there to supervise and look after the children? Does this service bring in more bowlers than otherwise would be there without the playroom? Quite honestly, there are just too many variables of what I will learn to try to list them all in advance, as there may be more than meets the eye that I have yet to discover.

Other than observing and talking to different people about different aspects, I also hope to get involved as well. I may join a league, if it is not too expensive, or just bowl a few games and do a kind of comparison between myself and others who are there at the time. I love to shoot pool, though the way I play is called “slop” because I don’t know the actual rules of playing, but only how to aim and shoot, hoping for the best. I, of course, will eat in their restaurant and play a little of this or that in the arcade. I anticipate spending a considerable amount of time in the pro shop, as just from a glance, there is quite a lot going on in there. And finally, if the children’s playroom is run by volunteers, I may take a shift or two there and talk to the children and get an insight on their experience at the bowling alley.

I have been in bowling alleys at different times in my life and for different reasons. When I was five years old, my dad taught me how to bowl and signed me up for a league or two. That was 35 years ago, so I do not remember much about the bowling alley itself or its patrons; only the coaching I received from my father and Uncle Zach, a colleague and friend of my dad’s. I still have the tiny little bowling shirt I wore adorned with several patches for things like “most improved average,” and “highest score.”

When I was 19 years old, I moved to Oregon and lived in an apartment that was one block east of the bowling alley. My roommate worked full-time and was almost never home, and I did not feel comfortable being alone in the apartment. I went to the alley, one parking lot over, and felt it would be a good place to hang out where I wouldn’t be completely alone, in spite of the fact that I didn’t know anyone there. I would sit in the restaurant, oblivious to all the people and activities around me, writing for hours in my journal.

On the occasion that my dad would come to visit me, we would go and bowl a few games, but during these times, the alley was pretty empty except for a few other amateurs coming in with a group of friends, or parents with their children. Aside from these rare visits with my dad, the last time I was in a bowling alley, was when I was 21 years old. I was nine months pregnant with my first son, and he was five days past his due date, which is why we, my now ex-husband and I, were at the alley to begin with. My hope was that bowling for a couple of hours might finally push my body into labor. (Incidentally, five hours after returning home, I did, in fact, go into labor!) Again, my focus was on mine and my husband’s game, therefore, I paid little to no attention to anything else in my surroundings.

From what I remember, bowlers are loud and animated. Lots of cheering, booing, and joking around goes on. I wonder if it is due to the amount of alcohol consumed by these individuals or is it that they can be in a completely different element among their bowling peers than when out in the real world. Are their rivals with different teams friendly or serious and get a little tense at times? Again, I remember little of being on a league of my own when I was five, and have not paid much attention to other leagues during my other encounters with bowling alleys. I am not certain that I have any biases, as I do not yet have a frame of reference for most of what I will study and research.

I do foresee one potential concern that I am very apprehensive about. I am not only a recovering addict, but have been the victim of severe domestic abuse due to my ex-husband’s alcoholism. Though my marriage ended almost 14 years ago, I still have trouble being around anyone who is or has been drinking excessively. At the same time, I will not assume that everyone I come in contact with will be drinking to excess, if at all. The positive side to this is that I do know how to bow out gracefully from a conversation if the person I am speaking with is making me nervous.

Though I will consider almost anyone I talk to an informant to some degree, if I had to guess who my key informants may be, I would begin with the individuals who work behind the main counter, greeting people as they come in, setting up their games, taking their money, and handing out shoes (this is a very necessary item to be used when bowling due to the type of surface on which they stand, walk, and in some cases, glide toward the alley before releasing their grip on the bowling ball). The main person in charge of each of the different elements, or sections, of the establishment also come to mind. I hope to find one or two individuals, possible one male and one female, who are seasoned veterans of bowling on leagues to provide me with information that newbies may not know. And finally, as I, myself, become involved with some of the different activities, hope to be a key informant of a different kind.

The day we pulled into the lot at Summit, after my doctor’s appointment, I walked in and was immediately fascinated by the sights, sounds, and smells that greeted me. The back wall had brightly colored abstract paintings above the lanes. My nostrils filled with the aroma of fresh, hot popcorn and grilled onions; not a likely combination I would choose to put in my mouth, but my nose didn’t seem to mind at all. I could hear a myriad of voices coming from different distances from all corners of the alley and the familiar THUDswoooooosh, as the bowling balls hit and slid down oiled lanes, and finished with what sounded like hollow, wooden tube wind chimes, (the ball colliding with the pins). Suddenly, an explosion of fireworks under water hit my ears. I have spent almost 20 years of my life as a fast food restaurant manager and could identify the sound immediately as that of a basket of frozen French fries being lowered into a hot vat of oil. I knew right away that this is where I would do my study, providing of course, I received permission to proceed by our professor. I walked slowly, my eyes darting to and fro, a look of amazement on my face. My roommate had to tug on my sleeve and redirect my attention to why I was there and what I needed to do.

I first walked up to the main counter and saw a girl standing behind it having a conversation with someone. I was unable to discern whether they were another employee or a customer. I waited a full two minutes before she spoke to me and when I began my little rehearsed speech, “Hi. My name is Cindy and I am a Psychology Major at Penn State University. I have a major assignment in one of my classes…” Once I got past my name, the look on the girl’s face was almost comical. She had a blank look in her wide eyes, similar to that of a deer who stops and looks directly into your headlights on a dark road late at night. My impression was that she was anticipating hearing something she does not usually hear from people who approach her counter. When I finished speaking, she said she wasn’t sure and, as she pointed to someone behind the counter of their restaurant/grill on the opposite side of the entrance, said I would have to talk to the manager.

The excitement I had felt when I first entered was still swirling in my head, so I did not get discouraged, but rather walked right over, and began my speech once again. The manager, a tall, a heavyset man wearing a blue dress shirt with no tie, gave me his full attention, and very quickly gave me full permission to do all that I needed to for this research, including interviews with both employees and patrons and taking pictures. I thanked him and asked for his card. He said he did not have one and it left me wondering, by the look on his face, if he had ever been asked for a personal business card before. He instructed the woman behind main counter to give me a “Birthday Party Flyer” which contained the address, phone and fax numbers, and website on it.

As a final thought, I asked the woman when the most leagues were playing and the best time to come and get a vast amount of information. She said that Wednesday night was their busiest, with 22 different leagues playing from 7 PM to midnight. This will be the main time of the week I go to do research, however, I will also go on various random days at equally random times. I did a very quick walk around, making note of the many sections that the building contained, and finally, with a smile and “thanks again,” I left for the day. I can’t wait to get started!