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!”

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2 responses to “Let the Games Begin

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