Sometime around 1960, my mother decided to join a bowling league.
For the Momma d’Elisson, this was yet another in a string of athletic activities. As a young woman, she played tennis, a sport to which she returned once she reached her 50’s. She was also a golfer, playing three to four rounds a week. No country-club snob, she divided her time between the neighborhood course (reachable by a short walk to the end of our street) and Bethpage State Park.
You may have heard of Bethpage, whose Black course was the venue for the 2002 U.S. Open Championship. It’s a state park that, at the time, offered five – count ’em, five – eighteen-hole layouts, ranging in difficulty from the Yellow and Green courses (easy) to Red and Blue (more challenging), and finally to Black (ridiculous). Mom played ’em all. She was an enthusiastic member of a group that called itself the Fairway Women of Bethpage, all of whom would attack the park several times a week.
I still find myself wishing I could play golf as well as my mother did. In the Archive d’Elisson, there’s an old piece of video dating from 1966, in which I had filmed both Mom and Dad demonstrating their golf swings. Now, Dad (Eli, his ownself) was no slouch on the golf course – he was a proficient weekend player – but in the film, his swing looks just a tad awkward compared to Mom’s. She was all smoothness and grace – qualities that I somehow managed to avoid inheriting.
But at some point, golf was just not enough for Mom, so she decided to start bowling.
This was tremendously exciting for me. All I knew was that “bowling” was something I had seen on TV, with guys like Ed Lubansky and Dick Weber heaving those heavy black spheres down long alleys, scattering pins to the delight of a horde of spectators.
“Gee, Mom, does that mean you’re gonna be on TV?” asked Mr. Naive.
It was my first lesson in the differences between “amateur” sports and “professional” sports.
When it came time to go to the Bowling Alley, I was a little disappointed, even though I already knew to expect no Peanut Gallery filled with spectators, no TV cameras. It was dim – except for the actual alleys, which were well-lit – and more than a little bit grimy with Bowling Grit. You know about Bowling Grit, the accumulated schmutz composed of Bowling Alley Oil combined with microscopic chips of ebonite. It’s said that you can never wash it off, that it stains one’s very soul. I believe it.
Bowling is one of those sports that managed, in the late 1940’s though the 1960’s, to discard its former unsavory reputation and become a huge growth industry, thanks to the post-WW II economic boom, the advent of the automatic pinsetter, and a brilliant marketing campaign. It was, I suspect, more popular at its peak than golf is today, having the advantage of heavy Blue-Collar Appeal. Even today, bowling is, reasonably inexpensive - unlike golf. Amusement fo’ da Peepul.
Watching my mother bowl, I wanted nothing so much as to bowl, too. And after a few weeks of relentless nagging, she finally allowed me to roll an eight-pound ball down the alley for the first time.
I was in second grade.
Over time, I became a reasonably proficient bowler myself...good enough to earn a JV letter in high school and to help win a few league championships in the mid-1970’s. Big, fat, hairy deal.
Bowling alleys were great places for pissing away hours of adolescent Spare Time. Even if you were sick unto death of bowling proper, you could get hot dogs, Drake’s Cakes (the New York-area competitor of Hostess, nationally well-known purveyor of Baked Crap), and soft drinks. It was a (marginally) more salutary environment than the local Pool-Hall. My hangout of choice was 300 Bowl on Sunrise Highway, but sometimes my friends and I would hike into neighboring Amityville, there to roll a few lines at Amity Lanes – a much lower-rent proposition. The place had character, though; it was worth dealing with the extra filth for some of the old-timey touches, such as above-the-lane ball return.
Today, bowling almost seems to be a relic. The spinmeisters make with the Moonlight Madness, with day-glo lanes, pins, and balls to get the younguns all jazzed up, but the hip young kids are off playing Death-Match Grand Theft Killdozer 3000 on their Sony Playstations. Or playing golf, or robbing the liquor store, or whatever it is kids do these days.
But once in a while, I like to take my 40-year-old bowling ball (I can still get my fingers in it, albeit a bit snugly) and roll a line or two at the local Bowling Emporium. I inhale that smell, an aroma that is unique to bowling alleys, a mellow blend of foot sweat, powdered ebonite, bowling alley wax, and stale French fries. And I remember Mama.