A slightLy wayward son and daughter-in-law skipped the usual Scrabble the other day and invited my wife, Joan, and me to go bowling. Bowling? I had some memory of bowling parties from when our offspring were small, and it turned out that the site of those revelries was still thriving. During the intervening two decades I knew one woman - and Archie Bunker - who bowled.
Of course, in contemporary bowling alleys, the game is tenpins (the 10th pin being added in the 19th century to get around a law against playing ninepins). When I first bowled as a Minnesota schoolboy, the only game in town used big 16-pound balls grasped with the aid of three finger holes. The wide-bottomed maple pins sounded thunderous when they went down - to be set back in place by a ``pin-boy,'' who stayed nimble from keeping his legs and arms out of the path of the rumbling projectile.
You still had to rent shoes when we played the other day. And my feet seemed to have a residual memory of bowling shoes in my size being just a little big and pretty ugly. I felt a bit of sliding within the shoes as well as on the launch pad.
Big-ball bowling still exists, of course. But now our targets were straight and spindly - candlepins, which had been the unlikely stars of endless daytime TV during the medium's early black-and-white and possibly misnamed golden age. The balls were holeless and small enough to heft in the palm of the hand.
Family groups were still bowling like replicas of our bygone one. Parents venturing a bit of instruction to the small children. Grown-up sons and daughters giving parents' performances every benefit of the doubt. Certainly no one was bound by the spectator rule I discovered in ``Laws of the Game of Bowls,'' authorized by the Scottish Bowling Association, April 24, 1893: ``XVII. - Onlookers. 1. Persons not engaged in the game must ... preserve an attitude of strict neutrality.''
As for the rules today? Ah, yes, you each roll three balls in a ``frame,'' a term I hadn't thought of lately, and 10 frames make a game. A few pointers came back to me, such as aiming the ball just a little off center in hopes of getting a strike (felling all the pins at once) or at least avoiding a split (when pins remain standing on each side with a great gap between). Anyway, I won the game.
``Is it not a fact that anything that rolls or runs gives intense delight to the infant mind?'' asked bowling author Humphrey J. Dingley a century ago, trying to trace the game back long before the British version - known as bowls - that began in the Middle Ages.
The first bowling alley was established in London in 1455. Some people played half-bowl, using a hemispheric bowl and 15 pins. The pins were cone-shaped and arranged in a circle with one in the center and two like a stem outside. Sure looks more interesting than candlepins.
But the game was not always for Mr. Average Bowler, as in the 1940s, or for Everyfamily, like ours on that recent afternoon. In Henry VIII's Tudor times, an act of Parliament forbade anyone but the ``wealthy and well-to-do'' from bowling, though servants could bowl at Christmas. The act was not repealed until 1845, according to Dingley, when all the British people were unleashed for bowling and other games of skill.
As bowling developed legally or illegally, it caught the imagination of writers. In Shakespeare's ``Richard II,'' the inconsolable queen asks of her lady, ``What sport shall we devise here in this garden/ To drive away the heavy thought of care?'' The answer, of course, was, ``Madam, we'll play at bowls.''
And then there's poet Edward Taylor with a reminder to all of us Rip van Winkles that the cosmos is more than a game of ninepins: ``Who spread its canopy? Or curtains spun?/ Who in this bowling alley bowled the sun?''