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Alley cats

It’s a fact of life that kids and adults think differently. I think it’s also a shame, if for no other reason than as we get older, we get harder to please.

Things that thrilled us as children become passe, outdated, silly. But why?

Did they get replaced by activities that are measurably better? I doubt it.

When did playing with kites, yo-yos, pea shooters and the rest become ONLY kids’ pastimes? And why?

I suspect it has nothing to do with the activities themselves, but with us taking ourselves far more seriously than we should or than we have to.

Sometimes, however rarely, the old-time thrill can be recaptured, and that’s what happened with me and bowling.

The good old days

In my early childhood, bowling was a sport somewhat akin to pool, as portrayed by Professor Henry Higgins of “The Music Man” fame: A lot of “respectable” folks considered it a den of iniquities – a front for gambling, drinking, blasphemy and the like. It was thus off-limits to a lot of people, and certainly to the clean-cut boys and girls who comprised The Future of America. Before she would’ve let us my brother and me go into a bowling alley, my mother would have considered letting us run up a tab at the Mustang Ranch.

But all that changed sometime in the mid ’50s, and bowling became a respectable family sport. The decision, I suspect, had less to do with altruism and more with capitalism: The Baby Boom was booming, and people had more disposable income than ever before, so if bowling alley owners could lure in whole (and large) families, they could hustle a market never before imagined. And they did.

This required some serious effort, and renovations. The old-time bowling alleys were fairly dingy affairs, with a bucket-of-blood bar, pin boys, and hooligans and hustlers galore. The new alleys had a whole new mission and a whole new look. They got flooded with lights, the walls were painted in bright light colors, and they featured the Bowling Whiz-Bang of the 20th century – Brunswick automatic pin setters.

Our local bowling alley was a perfect example of this transformation.

It started with an ownership change in 1955, when Arnie and Marsha McClay took it over.

I’m not sure, but I think the McClays came to My Home Town from New Jersey. What I am sure of is they were excellent business people. After they bought the bowling alley, they totally revamped it, making it a completely modern operation. Also, they revamped the bar, turning it into a classy cocktail lounge.

The McClays had two boys, and one of them, Jim, was in my grade. It was probably due to him that I started bowling. I loved almost everything about bowling, right from the start: the bright lights, the noise, the energy buzz that ran through the joint. I said I loved ALMOST everything, because one thing I didn’t love was my scores. I was a lousy bowler. Then again, truth be told, I didn’t really care. It was just fun in its purest sense – the score was an afterthought.

In high school, bowling became a Friday or Saturday night thing. I went with a pal or two, and it was as much fun as before. I was also as lousy a bowler as before, and as before, I didn’t give it no never-mind.

After graduating and leaving town, I quit bowling. Probably it was because bowling was less a sport than a social ritual, and I didn’t hang out with anyone who bowled. Then, 30 years later, I once again got bitten by the bowling bug.

The good old days revisited

Several pals and I were sitting around one night, looking for something to do, when one of them suggested bowling. We’d all bowled Way Back When, and somehow this seemed the right thing to do. We went out, had a fun time, decided to do it again, and then it turned into a weekly thing. None of us were any good, and none of us cared. We just enjoyed the time and place, and if you want to get all Zen about it, we lived in The Now.

While other friends joined us from time to time, our core group consisted of Kooky, Mike Cochran, Betsy Whitefield and me.

Within a short time we became something we’d never imagined – regulars. We also became special pals with one of the guys who ran the place – Jerry Bombard. Jerry had a saturnine look, an ironic sense of humor and the flawless ability to find all the equipment we needed at bargain-basement prices. For instance, he found me a ball and then drilled it to fit me all for a lordly two bucks. He was also unfailingly pleasant to us.

One night, Jerry came over to us, an even grimmer look on his face than usual.

“Listen,” he said, “the mixed doubles league needs another team, but they can’t find one.”

“So?” I said.

“So then they can’t have a league,” he said.

A long moment passed.

“Be a shame if there was no league, just ’cause they lacked one team,” he said, looking like the Taliban had just kidnapped his cat.

Then he went on.

“It’s a mixed league, see. Two guys and two gals per team.”

He paused for effect, then continued.

“Just like you’ve got here.”

After that, he fixed each of us with his hound dog eyes. Guilt hung in the air as thick as the cigarette smoke over the lanes.

Another long moment passed as we looked at each other.

What were we supposed to do? What else COULD we do?

The deal was sealed, and we agreed to be the Sunday Night’s Mixed League’s Saviors. Jerry seemed overjoyed, as his previous expression of cosmic gloom was replaced by one of mild glumness.

As it turned out, league bowling was a hoot. I met people I’d never known, I made a bunch of new friends, and I had a whole lot of fun – even more fun than I’d had bowing with our small group.

However, my game never improved, and at the year’s end I was as lousy a bowler as I’d been at the beginning.

I was also just as happy with it as I had been as a kid.

In other words, everything was absolutely perfect.