I’m no great shakes when it comes to bowling. Competent among civilians, too wildly inconsistent for league play. On average, I throw down maybe once or twice a year. The last time was around, I believe, the 2007 Christmas season, when an old friend and her husband drove down from Portland to visit relatives. I should add that the bowling was their idea; they were deadly serious about it. If I’m not mistaken, they came with their own shoes. He brought his own ball. These two urbane professionals, weaned on haute cuisine and the finest grape, gleefully digested grease-laden troublemakers and chased them with gulps of what usually comes in cans.
I have my own history with the sport, going way back. As a child, I was squired through bowling alleys up and down Orange County by my “aunt” Linda (my real aunt’s longtime roommate), a lifelong diehard who rolled with a fervor usually reserved for Sundays. She regarded me, her left-handed charge, as a prodigy to mold in the great tradition of hallowed southpaw Earl Anthony. “You guys just have a natural curve,” she told me. So I’ve always thought there was something magical and comforting in those alley symphonies — that slow rumble into clamor from Lanes 1 through infinity. I have fond memories of long afternoons in that stereo clatter, sitting atop a ball rack as I watched Linda loose another hopeful down the pine.
In 1979 our family moved in drips and drabs from California to Oregon. Linda was considered family, so she came too. We all settled in, and it wasn’t long before Linda found a new playground and a new league leaderboard to invade. I always felt a pang of pride whenever I saw “L. BAILEY” riding a particularly enviable score.
When I turned 11, Linda registered me for the junior league at what was then called the Albany Bowling Center. At the time it was the premier lane in town — its sole competition, Lakeshore, sagged out near the freeway, an inconvenient shack that seemed to be more of an extension of the wooded area that burped it forth than a reputable spot for family recreation. It was also way too close to Kmart, where no adolescent dared tread.
The Albany Bowling Center was state of the art in the early ’80s. It had a small arcade with the latest titles and, most importantly, electronic score-keeping, which eliminated messy transparencies, stinky pens, and crappy math. The results of each roll were recorded automatically…most of the time. Occasionally one had end a frame by activating the arm from a button on the ball return, and sometimes arguments would erupt when foul-line violations nixed a strike, requiring an emergency tribunal.
But for the most part, junior league sailed as smoothly as any organized event dominated by adolescents aged 11 to 17. There were the hot shots, those kids who practically slept in the pro shop and had already perfected before puberty that lethal, hellish curve. You know, the one that flirts at gutter’s edge, then swings toward the pocket at the last possible second for an immaculate strike, just like the guys on TV.
There were also the usual alliances, dalliances, and beefs. Bullshit middle-school crosstown rivalries. Fistfights broke out over alley etiquette. Fistfights broke out over the jukebox. Fistfights broke out over girls. Fistfights broke out over Pole Position. Fistfights broke out over stolen Cokes and fries. Fistfights spilled into other fistfights, becoming integrated masterpieces of pummel, shout, and shove. The only time you were truly at peace was with a Brunswick in your hands and ten pins in your sights. It was perfection before the chaos, potential before truth.
I started this blog as an experiment of sorts: to focus on one subject and one subject alone (my mother blog, The Daily Wrazz, lacks such discipline), to reacquaint myself with a sport on more familiar terms, and to see if, after all these years, I can finally break 200. I’ve come heartwrenchingly close so many times, but I’ve yet to crest that maddening 199. If all goes well, I’d love to take my act on the road and bowl my way through America, at alleys big and small, old and new. (Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org with recommendations). It might take a while, and I’m not sure how often I’ll update, but it’s something I’d like to do.
For this first installment, I thought it was only appropriate to roll where it all began. It was an easy trip to make: just a shortcut on foot through the mall, then across a semi-busy street.
The old Albany Bowling Center is now AMF Albany Lanes. Despite its franchise affiliation, it looks about the same as it did 25 years ago. In a sour twist, Lakeshore Lanes was razed in, I believe, early in the Millennium, its bones swept aside for commercial development. But the name was carried southwest by wind to a high-tech joint near Linn-Benton Community College. So not only is it no longer inconveniently located, it’s larger and flashier, an all-night party with an animated electronic readerboard. In contrast, AMF Albany Lanes is a drab lump throwback to an era when the town was smaller and less developed, and recreational options were severely limited.
When I visited Sunday afternoon around 2 p.m., there were only ten cars in the parking lot and an old-school readerboard — where the letters only move when the wind blows them loose — announcing the formation of fall and winter leagues.
The interior was darker than I remembered, and what little light there was illuminated the activity of maybe eight bowlers. One was an employee. When he noticed me waiting at the counter, he bounded up full of good-natured apologies. It was that dead. Yet it was strangely intimate and familial. I rented a comfortable pair of size tens (a wee snug at the toes, though) and ventured into the darkness surrounding Lane 3. I combed through racks of drab and identical house pills, finally selecting a 12-pound pea-tone AMF XTreme Smart Ball. Frankly, I couldn’t see what was so smart about such an ill-colored orb. But it did have a neat chink where I could strategically place my right pinky.
As for the ball’s light weight, it complements my vicious form, one a friend likened to a flailing drunk attempting to stop on a dime. I throw everything I have into my release. Remember that scene in Superman III when Clark Kent accidentally sneezes a bowling ball at light speed through a stack of pins? I aspire to that kind of power.
My inaugural roll on foreign soil is always a test ball. I stand dead center and aim as close as I can down the alley’s middle arrow, to see how the wax pulls. On Sunday it curved further to the left than I would’ve liked, hitting squarely between the 2 and 4 pins and dropping six. Since I’m shitty at spares, my second roll coughed up empty space, giving me a dismal open opening frame. I then corrected my stance by stepping further to the right and threw one of the cleanest strikes these jaded eyes have ever seen. I followed with another, and all was right with the world. After another double in the tenth, I ended my first game in more than a year with a respectable 161.
Then I hit the sophomore slump. Historically, it’s always been that way: a cool statement of purpose, then a near-comical choke. Most people are working a tight rhythm by then, but me, I’m stumbling everywhere, frantically trying to find it. This is where I’d be poison in an organized league, dragging team totals into the flop-sweat murk. The first frame was depressing (I don’t want to talk about it), the second a temporary relief when a divinely blessed stray pin nudged the ten into bed and left only the 2 standing instead of a split. But, as is forever the case, the fewer pins I leave, the more hopeless I become.
I spent most of that game casting shadows and brushing paint, not connecting in any meaningful way. There were no strikes until the fifth frame. A sloppy one in the eighth felt more like sympathy, as one pin fainted between two with the right amount of force. Luckily, I chased it with one that was more textbook, authoritative, sweet. But otherwise, I left more open frames than an ambitious art thief. 135! I was pissed enough to sizzle the sweat pooling on the tip of my nose.
My third and final game was both the highlight of my day and a cruel continuation of my curse. I left only six pins standing in ten frames of grueling play. The rest was strike, strike, strike at an almost frightening rhythm. Two pairs of turkeys (that’s three consecutive strikes) separated by a rare and astonished spare, a 6 pin that fell from shock. That elusive 200 was once again within my grasp, and I climbed into a promising tenth frame off the momentum of turkey #2. I was less than 20 pins short. There was nothing to stop me from finally releasing my ten-pins albatross.
that fucking 7-10.
Oh, my God.
It was my first split all game, and it surfaced at an all-too-critical juncture.
True to form, I aimed for the 7, hoping to graze it alllll the way into the 10. When I released, I watched as the ball spun for the 7. Dead center. No graze. Just smack. The 10 would live. Then, to my horror, the not-so-smart projectile began leaning right. Then further right. Then even further right, until it field-goaled that gap-toothed sucker with a precision that would’ve brought tears to Tom Landry’s eyes. The alley’s electronic innards whirred and chirped, registering a
I shook my fist at the head pin when it descended with its brothers to mock me.
“I still haven’t broken 200!” I whined to the man behind the counter as I returned my shoes. “You’ll get there,” he assured me. “Ya ever think about joining a league?”
Can’t, my friend. I’m a man on a mission.
AMF Albany Lanes
1245 Clay St. S.E.
Albany, OR 97322
Game 1: 161
Game 2: 135
Game 3: 198