Two years ago, when my son Anton was six, I found him perched in front of the television, mesmerized, his brown eyes as large as chestnuts. As I approached, I was wondering what on earth could have so thoroughly captured his attention. Monster trucks? Space aliens? Pokémon? I was strangely relieved when I saw that it was, of all things, bowling.
But not just any bowling. The middle-aged, rather portly men on the screen were rolling balls the size of small coconuts, and the pins looked like foot-long sections of broom handle. "Ah," I sighed as I plopped down on the sofa next to my son. "Candlepins."
Candlepin bowling is peculiar to New England and the Canadian Maritimes. It is literally in a league of its own, a strictly Yankee cousin of traditional bowling. Of all sports, it is the most understated and paradoxical: the balls are small, the pins are small, the lanes are small, but it is challenging in the extreme.
Which brings me back to Anton. When he was five, I took him and his little friend to a traditional bowling alley, thinking they might be able to hoist the lightest bowling balls. As it turned out, the scene was tragic. Their fingers were too small, the balls were too heavy, and the resulting tears that flowed could have floated the pins off the lane. To cap it all off, Anton wound up dropping a ball on his friend's toe, ending our outing on a painful note.
But candlepins! Why hadn't I thought of it earlier? In a subsequent attempt to bowl and have genuine fun, I took the boys to a small, family-owned candlepin alley in a neighboring town. To make a long story short, they had a ball (no pun intended). Because of the reduced scale of candlepins, Anton and his friend needed no assistance from me, and I was relegated to the happy role of scorekeeper, mercifully relieved of the role of grief counselor that I played when the kids were hoisting the larger balls around like anvils.
I do not want to give the impression here that candlepin bowling is the child's version of adult bowling. It is, as I've already said, its own game. The balls and pins may be small, but the game is devilishly difficult.
In traditional bowling, with its large, curvy pins and pumpkin-sized balls, any score over 200 is considered pretty darn good. But when it comes to candlepins, one must halve this: if you can rack up 100 or better, you've had a good game. As testament to candlepin bowling's particular challenge, one is allowed three throws per frame, as opposed to only two for "regular" bowling.
This need for an extra throw is evident the first time one plays the game: Candlepins don't have very much "action." It is not uncommon to hit the headpin and knock down only this pin and the ones behind it in a straight line - the rest of the pins remaining as stalwart as sentinels. Even a ball rolled neatly into the "pocket" may plow a path as clean as if it were chiseled, while - once again - most of the pins remain standing.
Candlepin bowlers try to compensate for the lack of pin action by throwing the balls at warp speed; but even this doesn't always work. With three balls per frame, however, a good candlepin bowler knows how to "nickel and dime" a spare by taking the pins out piecemeal.
As in traditional bowling, however, a well-earned strike is a thing to behold. When a bowler manages to hit the sweet spot, the pins disappear in a brisk, harsh clatter that sends one's spirits soaring. It also creates the illusion that strikes are easy to come by - a notion quickly dismissed by another "well-placed" ball that earns the bowler a mere two or three pins.
So attached has my son become to the culture of candlepins that when he recently turned 8. I asked him if he'd like to do something special for his birthday. His immediate response: "Candlepins!"
And so we had a candlepin bowling party, where eight of his friends were given free rein to throw balls for two hours. The prospect of tears was minimized by installing long cardboard tubes called "bumpers" in the gutters, to keep the balls on the alley.
It was something of a madhouse, but the beauty of candlepins is that it is very democratic: Even the smallest kids can roll those balls and hit those pins.
And, of course, tender toes go mostly unassaulted.