The chivalry of bowling night

A son stands up for the tenpin decorum that he learned from his father

Much of what I know of manners, consideration, and civility, I learned as the son of a bowler.

Today, bowling is a diversion; when I was growing up in the 1960s, it was a part of life, a ritual, a teaching tool. Friday night, in my New Jersey family, was "bowling night." I still recall once asking my mom if we could go out for pizza one Friday.

She clucked her tongue and wagged her finger. "Not tonight," she said. "It's bowling night and your father is resting."

It was true, and I don't know how I could have overlooked it. There, on the sofa, lay my father - absolutely still, like a chrysalis that would shortly hatch into some great, fancy, bowling butterfly.

While I continued to lay about for food, my mother ironed my dad's bowling shirt on a towel on the kitchen table. This shirt lingers in memory as a loose, rayon, beige thing made to be worn "out." The name of the team (I have forgotten it, but something like "Bayonne Bombers" comes to mind) was embroidered on the back, as was my father's name over his left breast pocket.

Shortly before the hour struck to leave the house, my father would rise, eat a modest portion of something less appealing to me than pizza, and then seize his bowling ball bag before marching out the door with all the deliberation and gravity of a diplomat headed for pointed negotiations.

I never accompanied my father to his league games, because they ended rather late at night. But I won some insight into the reverence in which he held bowling when he took me to the alleys on weekends. Learning to bowl was only half the task: My father was meticulous in communicating to me the etiquette inherent in the bowling culture.

The first time he took me to the lanes, I must have been 9 or so. He was careful to select a lighter ball for me, and in his low, measured tones began to instruct me. But I was champing at the bit to get started, so I claimed to know everything already and raced up to my lane.

I flung the ball with a heavy thud toward the pins, not noticing that, to my right, an older man was already in position, his ball held carefully aloft. He looked over at me and pursed his lips with something resembling a mixture of disappointment and frustration.

My ball found the gutter in quick time. My father didn't say a word at first, but signaled me over to his side, where he put a steady hand on my shoulder. Then he directed my attention to the other bowler. "You see that man?" he asked. "If there's a bowler on your right, you let him go first. That's the polite thing to do."

There were other rules, and my father administered them to me in careful doses: do not take up your position if someone to the right or left of you is already on his mark; if someone is working on a split, let him finish before you bowl; if you are using the bowling alley's balls, do not take one being used by someone else. Do not complain or whine if your game is not going well; a good game is bound to happen sooner or later.

My father clearly lent great importance and decorum to a sport which, after all, is not Olympic-caliber gymnastics. But I absorbed these lessons, even though I long ago abandoned anything resembling team or regular play.

Recently, however, I returned to the lanes. It was partly, I think, out of a sense of nostalgia: the smell of the Ebonite, the droning of the ball as it grinds down the alley, the clatter of the pins. But I also wanted to use bowling as a medium for spending time with my teenage son, Alyosha.

I soon discovered that, while the familiar sights and sounds of the bowling alley have not changed, Miss Manners would have her work cut out for her today. This hit home when I took my son bowling one Sunday afternoon.

The place was hopping, and we were fortunate to get a lane between two other groups. Alyosha grabbed a ball and, as I had done all those years ago, galloped toward the pins and let 'er fly without so much as a look about.

I called him over to me. "Alyosha," I counseled, "before you bowl, make sure there's nobody in position on either side of you. If there is, step back and wait."

My son threw me a quizzical look. "Why?" he grimaced. "They don't care."

My first instinct was to wag my head and press my point home. But then I realized that his observation was sound. Bowling had become a free-for-all since I'd left it as a child. The courtesies my father had inculcated were as out-of-place as a tuxedo at a swim meet.

I got up for my turn, picked up my ball, and set myself for my approach. Within the instant, an adult on either side of me had raced forward and launched. Immediately on their heels came two more. All the while I stood there like a pitcher on a mound that had suddenly become not an island of private, unmolested concentration, but a chaotic commons.

After I had bowled and returned to my seat, it was my son who spoke first. "See, Dad?" he said. "Nobody cares."

But for the next nine frames, I decided to care. I adhered to all the courtesies I had been taught - waiting, deferring, signaling to other bowlers to proceed ahead of me. This frustrated my son to no end.

When we were done, we got into the car and he finally remarked, "Well, Dad, you didn't change anything."

He was right, of course. I hadn't. But I had once read somewhere that it is important to go on caring even when we seem powerless to change things.

I have often wondered how - if I had not been the son of a bowler - this wisdom would have come to me.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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