On a sunny Saturday in August, my uncle and his oldest son came to my house unannounced. I heard them making small talk on the back porch as I was getting ready for work, but thought nothing of it. Little did I know they were here for me.
As I walked outside to say hello and hopefully manage a quick goodbye, my father stopped me with his ‘we need to talk’ voice. His demeanor looked unusually grave. For a moment I thought the worst. Cancer. Death. Something awful had happened in the family that would ruin this warm summer day.
“What are you doing on Tuesdays?” he asked.
He already knew the answer. My Tuesdays would be open in the fall, until basketball season started and I spent every Tuesday night in a high school gym until the weather broke. Then it clicked. I knew what was coming.
They wanted me to join the family bowling team.
Bowling is pretty big in Western New York, and that’s especially true in Niagara Falls. This is a place that used to have three bowling lanes within city limits. Beverly Lanes, located seconds away from LaSalle Senior High School, was the largest at just over 60 lanes.
Beverly was recently demolished and will become a Walgreens, which will look great next to the Walmart/Olive Garden/Chili’s/Buffalo Wild Wings/Verizon Wireless/Panera Bread conglomerate that popped up after LaSalle bit the dust. Kegglers still mourn the loss of Beverly Lanes even though most admit a house that large would be unsustainable these days.
The Niagara Falls girls bowling team even won a state title this year, slowly playing catch-up with the boys team that are annual contenders. This is no fluke. Basketball gets the high school headlines, but the Cataract City is full of bowlers.
The “family” in family bowling team is a relative term here. Team 15 in the Bowl-O-Drome Tuesday night league evolved into a family affair over the years. My dad joined a number of years ago when my uncle’s team needed an extra member. Slowly the city workers and old drinking buddies that made up the group moved on. His oldest son joined last year when playing Division I football no longer dominated his life.
This year they needed someone new and I, owning a bowling ball and little bowling talent, was next in line. They knew what I would bring to the team when they asked me. A low average, a half-season of membership dues and maybe a big strike or two here and there. Expectations were low.
I’m part of a rolling collection of teammates that occasionally includes another cousin, a former Vegas bookie who moved back to town and a castoff from another team that never misses a week. He tells me about concerts he watched on Palladia and the WWE. We’re a motley crew, and the beers are $1.90 a pint. It’s not a bad way to spend a Tuesday night in the Honeymoon Capitol of the World.
Relatively speaking, I am a terrible bowler. I lack the mechanics and sense of place that comes with years of practice on the lanes. I look like someone who is just trying to figure shit out, an inconsistent mess of open frames streaked by patches of competence. I was not one of the kids on the bowling team in high school, and my prior league experience ended shortly after paying dues meant a coupon for a free cone at McDonalds.
Crossover strikes, the mark of luck resulting from poor form, were my salvation. Social mores required a somber walk of shame back to your table. Catcalls are common. Brooklyns are frowned upon by real bowlers, you know, and I played my part; giving a convincingly sad shake of the head before accepting muted high-fives from my teammates. Pins is pins is pins, man.
A decent start to league play slowly turned dour as the missed spares and bad shots piled up. As my average continued to tumble I made my unceremonious departure from the team in late December. Back to high school gyms for game stories about Wolverines and Lumberjacks and Lancers. I’d like to think I was only missed by the vending machine company’s accountant.
A few months later, I had a new job and my nights were once again free. I returned to the lanes and bowled. Better. Perhaps I was more relaxed with my new occupation, or maybe I just stopped caring what the results were. It clearly wasn’t adjusting to lane conditions or fixing my form. That would come after a long offseason of ‘work’ on the alleys outside of league play. You know, maybe. For now, I was just working with what I have.
One night near the end of the season, things finally came together. Six straight strikes and a pretty good string of easy frames. When the dust settled I bowled a 223, my first ever 200 in a game where we really needed the pins to win a few points. I was, well, thrilled. Progress feels nice.
Later that night, four lanes down, an athletic twentysomething in a red polo shirt was seeking perfection. Strike after strike fell while his bowling family ordered more pitchers of Blue and watched the frames roll on. No one else seemed to notice the chain of Xs forming on the monitor until it hit double digits, attracting a small crowd to quietly look on.
That’s what happens in a bowling alley when a perfect game is within range. Everyone else stops bowling. A gallery quietly gathers behind the lane and the pressure mounts until it is almost unbearable. The whole house is watching, quietly rooting for the pins to fall so they can shake the lucky bastard’s hand and buy him a beer.
This one was different, though. It came on so quickly and looked so easy that it was hard to get that excited. Never before had twelve straight strikes felt so inevitable. The way he threw the ball looked effortless, so clean and perfect it was hard to imagine he ever left an open frame. There was always a “messenger” to clean up a loose 7- or 10-pin. A black bar sweeping an empty lane. After he completed his ninth career perfect game, it was hard to get very excited about a freaking 233.
After watching that, the last few weeks of bowling never felt the same.
This is one of the best sports stories I’ve ever read, because it accurately describes something I felt about bowling that first season. Everyone has a different standard on the lanes. While I’m searching for competency, for respect among ‘peers’ decades older and more experienced; some people truly are looking for perfection.
Bowling stories, like all tales of amateur athletic achievement, are boring. But human stories are always interesting, and the story of Bill Fong’s life can be tracked on the lanes. Fong believes that perfection in bowling has the power to change you, to make you a more complete person. It can be the spark that turns his life around for the better.
I’ve never felt such power in a bowling alley, but I’ve also never been close to perfection like he has. But God, watching someone else reach that point does do something to you. That is something worth aiming for, perfection. It can be downright mystical in the right light.
It is unlikely I will reach perfection in most areas of my life, bowling included. My successes will be smaller, the progress more incremental. In the fall my Tuesday nights will still be about buying my uncle a beer and watching hockey in between frames. Maybe I’ll raise my average a few pins and throw another 200. Expectations remain low.
Knowing that perfection can be found is nice, though. Something to think about when the goal seems too far away. Anyone can be perfect if they’re looking down the right lane.