by Chris Foss
In the aftermath of World War II, bowling was one of America’s favorite sporting pastimes; major bowling tournaments even got network TV coverage. Today, however, bowling seems a dingy backwater, even a nostalgic throwback, and bowling alleys all across the country are closing. Over the next two weeks, I reflect on my personal relationship with bowling and how it changed over the course of my life. Later this year, I’ll look at the demise of bowling as a national phenomenon and what that (perhaps) says about contemporary American life.
From Throw Momma Off the Train, to The Big Lebowski, to Bowling for Columbine, to the poorly-lit ESPN telecasts of tournaments that play during NFL Sundays, bowling has been derided in the popular culture of my lifetime as the pastime of rednecks, losers, even teenage killers. Many bowling alleys smell like smoke, serve terrible concessions, and dole out ripped shoes and chipped bowling balls to patrons. Bowling is, however, also an American tradition. Even today it remains the ultimate birthday party, corporate bonding gathering, and school outing. From an early age, bowling was in my bloodstream, as a touchstone that served to mark important times in my life.
I wailed. I cried. The tears streamed down my five-year old face as I watched the ball sail into the gutter yet again. Mom gave me a big hug and said, “Ok Christopher, we’ll ask if we can get the bumpers put in.” The staff at the bowling alley obliged, and the tears came off my face and the smile returned as the ball, gently nudged by those bumpers at times, made their way toward the pins. Strike! I was hooked. I’d found a new sport that I loved.
I made my first tenuous steps away from the bumpers at the Hollywood Bowl in Northeast Portland. This was a huge facility with over 40 lanes and a frequent sponsor of Professional Bowling Association events. All of it still sticks in my head: the smell of the popcorn, the way the ball felt in my hand, the anticipation that it would soon be my turn to stare down the ten-pins, even the way I’d turn my head down and see the seemingly never-ending lanes before me. Hollywood was a favorite for birthday parties, some of my own, but mostly of my friends.
One time we did glow-in-the-dark bowling, but you don’t mix old-school and new-school like that. Bowling to me is this mix of serious sport, community, friendship, gentle ribbing. It’s not a rock concert. That was the last time I went to a glow-in-the-dark night or to Hollywood. Every now and then on my way to church I drive by that old alley. Today the building a home and garden store, but it still fills me with nostalgia.
Basketball eclipsed bowling temporarily as my sport of choice during my early adolescence as my growth spurt hit. It wasn’t long, though, before I could tell that I wasn’t cut out for the court. My big hands and feet weren’t coordinated enough, my body not nimble enough, my mind not tough enough, to stay out on the court long. My parents tried to pull me toward golf, even paid for some lessons one summer, but that hand-eye coordination thing proved to be a problem again. If only all golf were miniature golf, I thought, then maybe I could be something.
In 2001 I transferred to a new high school when my old one closed. I searched for activities, niches, ways to fit in. An acquaintance of mine kept bugging me to come to the Bowling Club. Bowling, eh? Now, there was something I could do! Where and when, I asked? The Kellogg Bowl in Milwaukie, on Wednesday afternoons. Oh, and, can you give my friend Ashley a ride there? Why not, I said, little knowing that a friendship going on fifteen years strong was born that day. I was in Bowling Club for two years, even making it in my senior year to some sort of postseason tournament. I forget the outcome of that tournament, though. I oddly remember we played the day of the tragic destruction of the space shuttle Columbia. I woke up and saw the news and initially thought we were at war with Iraq. Maybe it threw my game off that day. My high school came away with a little consolation trophy, nothing more. But the bowling bug stuck with me.
Other than Ashley, the Bowling Club itself didn’t provide me with many friends, but I drew friends to bowling. It seemed like a safe, inexpensive, clean way to have some fun. At the height of my bowling madness, I bought a bowling bag, a custom-made ball, and a pair of bowling shoes, I did a summer league with my friend John, who, Facebook tells me, now manages a local Applebee’s.
The next episode in the saga will shed light on bowling's role in my college life and beyond. See you next week!
 Or had I? As my wife vociferously argued the other day, “If it doesn’t raise your blood pressure for a sustained period of time, it’s not a sport.” But I argue that bowling DOES require skill, luck, practice, and a degree—however minor in relation to basketball, soccer, football, etc.—of athleticism. What do you think? Weigh in on Facebook, Twitter, or in our comments section.
 The shuttle blew apart upon re-entry on February 1, 2003, as the national debate over whether or not to invade Iraq raged; the Iraq War started on March 19.