My scoring didn't bowl them over

Iwas recently bowling with my young son when I noticed a low-level commotion at the scoring table next to us. A father had become exasperated with trying to teach his own boy - about 11 years old - how to keep score.

As for his son, he looked despondent. He looked like a kid trying desperately to please his parent. He looked like....

Well, he looked like me when I was learning to keep score. I was also about 11, and my father was also a serious bowler, bowling shirt and all.

I recall, during one of our weekend visits to the bowling alley, the slight edge of tension and anticipation in his voice that told me this scorekeeping stuff was preamble to something bigger and better.

"Add your spares correctly," he patiently admonished. "Don't forget to look for the double woods." "Don't talk when a man is making his approach."

Little did I know that my dad was grooming me for the day when I would be doing something more than keeping score for the two of us on a lazy Saturday morning.

I must have eventually learned all these details to his satisfaction, because one summer night he summoned me to the kitchen table. "Would you like to make a little money?" he asked.

My eyes bugged out. "Sure!" I said.

My father, practically quivering, told me about the upcoming annual charity event called the Red Feather Bowl. "You'll get $5 every time you keep score," he said with palpable gravity. "And," he added, drawing me in close, "if one of the fellas bowls well, he might throw you a tip."

My father leaned back in his chair, nodding peaceably. "You can make out very well," he concluded. "Very well."

I was, in a word, ecstatic. I had never had a job that didn't involve shoveling snow or taking out somebody else's garbage cans. I felt as if I were being given a coveted desk job - and I was only 11!

On the day of the Red Feather Bowl, I entered a building teeming with men in bowling shirts, their wives chattering in the background. It was a mob scene, and I had to admit to a degree of intimidation. This was only exacerbated when Mr. Tedeschi, the big, barrel-chested butcher, came up to me and gave me a back slap that almost sent me reeling.

"Keep good score, now," he said.

I did little more than gulp and nod, and I wondered: What would happen if I made a mistake?

Within five minutes, I was sitting at the scoring table, feeling like the most important person among the 10 men who hovered about me. I watched as they shook hands, set up the bowling order, and exchanged their street shoes for the garish bowling variety.

It was then that Mr. Tedeschi announced, "Now, let's see who's gonna win the five hundred bucks."

Five hundred bucks?

I promptly learned that, although it was a charity event, there was very real prize money involved. No wonder the air was so charged. I suddenly felt as if the weight of the world were resting on my shoulders.

THE bowling began. Frame by frame, I filled in the little boxes, my handiwork magnified and projected on a ceiling panel for the world to see.

At first my numbers were a little shaky, but they straightened out as the games progressed and I grew more confident. By the fourth frame, I felt that I could let out my breath. Once I had passed the fifth frame without any mistakes, I found myself thinking more and more about my $5. (Plus tips!)

Suddenly, there was a strange lull.

The men paused. Nobody went up onto a lane. They moved away from me like ripples from a still point. My dad leaned in. "Listen," he said in measured tones, "Mr. Tedeschi isn't happy because you're not circling his splits."

This was something my father hadn't explained to me. "Why do they have to be circled?" I asked.

My father looked at me as if I had asked the most impolitic of questions. "Because they do," he said.

I tried going back to try to figure out which frames contained splits. This proved impossible; but by the time I realized this, the bowling had started again. Someone named Charlie Kogie had thrown his first ball - and I had missed it!

By the time I got my act together, he was making the approach for his second shot, obscuring my view. I got the total pins - only seven - but now there was a hole in the scorekeeping.

When the despondent Charlie walked past the table, I made the mistake of asking him how many pins he had gotten on the first shot. He threw me an incredulous look that said, Don't you know?

I had been so much better at shoveling snow and taking out other people's garbage cans. Now I felt outclassed, underprepared. Bowling had, in a twinkling, been transformed from the act of throwing a ball at 10 wooden pins to a rarefied culture where the bowlers - butchers and used-car salesmen and bus drivers by day - were suddenly high priests of some mystical fraternity governed by strict adherence to esoterica handed down from time immemorial.

I managed to finish my stint as a juvenile scorekeeper, although I garnished only a paltry $3 in tips. But I realized then and there that, whatever I wound up doing with my life, it wouldn't be something that required me to perform under pressure.

As my son and I packed it in after our afternoon of bowling, I looked over at the father-son pair next to us. The dad was making another approach, and then threw a beautiful ball. A solid shot.

But, alas, he wound up with the dreaded 7/10 split, the so-called "impossible" split. I glanced at the boy, wanting to tell him, "Better circle it." But I held back.

He'll learn, I told myself, he'll learn.

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