Unholy rollers

It happened by sheer fluke. One night a bunch of us were sitting around, shootin’ the breeze, trying to think of something to do, when Kookie spoke up.

“How about bowling?” she said.

“How about it?” I said.

“Wanna give it a try?” she said.

We all looked from one to another, shrugged and decided, “Why not?”

From that spontaneous beginning, it got to be a regular thing. The roster changed, depending who was free and/or interested, but eventually a core group emerged — Kookie, Mike Cochran, Betsy Whitefield and me — with us hittin’ the lanes about once a week.

When we first started bowling, we didn’t know anyone there, but after a while we got friendly with one of the managers, Jerry Bombard.

In a town of characters, Jerry was a character in his own right. When you mention a character, most people think of someone loud, showy and flamboyant — someone obvious. But Jerry was the exact opposite. He spoke little, but he didn’t miss much, either. His facial expressions ran the gamut from neutral to glum, with saturnine seeming to be his norm. In spite of looking gloomy, Jerry had a nice sense of humor and a big heart — both of which he tried to hide lest any get the wrong idea.

At first our only contact with Jerry was hellos and farewells, but after a while we became pals and chatted a lot. Nothing big, nothing important, just friendly banter.

One day Jerry called me over.

“You want your own bowling ball?” he said.

“Not really,” I said. “It’d cost too much for how little I’d use it.”

“If it was a new one,” he said.

“Oh?”

He reached down and picked up a ball and handed it to me. I hefted it and tried to put my fingers in it.

“It doesn’t fit,” I said.

“I can drill it,” he said.

He did, and as I recall, he charged me a lordly two bucks.

It turned out there was all kinds of stuff mouldering in the storerooms that’d been there for years, and no one either claimed it or knew whose it was. So Jerry was cleaning out the dreck stash and doing us a favor at the same time. After the ball, he found me a bag, and then a pair of shoes. The shoes were classic — a baby-poop-yellow pair that looked like they’d been Don Carter’s when he was in high school. The rest of our group got similar treasures, as I recall.

One night when we came in, we exchanged our usual greetings, and then Jerry said, “You ever think of joining a league?”

We all laughed at the same time, because that’s exactly what none of us had ever thought.

“Too bad,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Cuz they need one more team for Sunday night mixed couples,” he said. “If they don’t get it, they may not be able to have the league.”

His normally glum features changed to the look of gloom itself.

“OK,” said Kookie, ever the peacemaker, “we’ll consider it. That all right?”

He nodded, but said nothing.

We talked it over. As I said, we’d never considered joining a league, but as a favor to Jerry and our healthy THQ (To Hell Quotient), we decided to do it.

Points well taken

The league was on Sunday night, and each team had four people: two men, two women. It was a handicap league, which meant raw scores were adjusted based on relative abilities.

Here’s how it worked. The first Sunday everyone bowled three games, and your average of those games became your average for the handicap. Then when you bowled against another team, each team’s average was compared, with the lower average team being given the point difference — the handicap. This was a great way of doing things because then really bad bowlers (like us) could sorta compete against the best.

For instance, let’s say our team average was 100. If we then bowled against a team that had a 200 average, after the games were played, we were given 100 points to even it up. After that, whoever’s score was higher won the match.

When we first showed up, not only didn’t we know how to bowl, we didn’t know any of the other bowlers, either. On the other hand, almost all those peeps knew each other, knew how to bowl and had been at it quite a while. But because it was mixed handicap, it wasn’t any kind of cutthroat competition. Even though they could bowl pretty well, everyone was friendly and fun, and Sunday nights got to be a nice social ritual for us. They also got to be something else, something none of us thought they ever could be — namely a competition of sorts. It was the handicap that did it — that and imbibing.

Although the four of us were pretty lighthearted and there to have a good time, we also all had competitive streaks that rose to the fore. After a while, we started paying attention to our bowling, and our scores started improving. Plus, since we started out so poorly, our learning curve (and score) would be greater than an experienced bowler: It was a lot easier for me to bring my 100 average up to 120 than for a 200 bowler to raise his average 20 points, or even 10.

As for imbibing? Most of the peeps in the league were fun partiers, so in the course of the night, they buddied up with John Barleycorn … with predictable results. Thus, by their third game — and their third or fourth round — their game was off. That mythical guy with the 200 average? He might bowl a 210 his first game, but by his last he might be a 185 or less. We, on the other hand, bowled above our average almost every game.

Thus, by the end of the season, we’d not only had a blast, but we finished second in the league. I think the other teams were almost as shocked about it as we were.

Out of our league

The next year we again joined the league, but things had changed. They didn’t have enough four-person teams, so they formed three-person teams instead. This meant our turns went by faster — too much faster. So we spent almost all our time bowling and very little time chatting with the other teams, which is what we did a lot of the previous year.

We bowled through the season, but didn’t join the league again.

Ultimately, as much as we liked to bowl, liked to win and liked being Number Two, those Sunday nights were never about bowling itself.

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