Where I was born, every boy was supposed to become an athlete. This was terribly unfair to the few of us who weren’t equipped for the task. But there was no begging off. It was unthinkable to face your father and say, “Look, Dad, I’m really more of the bookish type.” No, you had to play ball. And to do that, you had to have the balls to play ball—a department in which I was sorely lacking. Still I tried.
I tried little league baseball which amped up my prayer life, as I would stand be-gloved and bewildered in right field, mumbling, “Please, God, don’t let him hit it to me.” Or bat-gripping and sweat-dripping at home plate, praying, “Please, God, don’t let him hit me.”
I tried YMCA football where the coach—a father fueled by lingering frustration that he didn’t get the football scholarship to Bama he truly deserved—pointed at me and said, “You’re chubby. You’re an offensive guard.” He taught me the three-point stance and put me next to the ball-snapper where my prayer life continued. I got in the first four downs of the first game and was benched the rest of the season. (God is good!)
I noticed, however, that there were other, lesser balls in play. The basketball, for example, but this involved too much running. The tennis ball (ditto). The golf ball—too outdoorsy. (I was an indoor enthusiast.)
Then, one Saturday morning after the cartoons had finished, I stumbled on an amazing TV show: Professional Bowlers Tour. I watched the greats—Dick Weber, Don Carter, and others—battle it out on the lanes.
Geez, here was the sport for me! No running. No outdoors. No human suffering. Not long after, I found myself for the first time standing about 65 feet from a triangle of white bowling pins, my feet stuffed into size 7 red-and-green bowling shoes, my trembling hands cradling something like a ten-pound cannonball.
My first foray wasn’t pretty. My ball, like a sleepy wino, kept falling into the gutters. My prayer life gave way to cursing. But, thank God, the bowling alley was loaded with balls. I hunted the racks and found a much lighter and more sober ball—one I could keep from the gutters.
“Yeah, it’s a woman’s ball,” he replied.
Which embarrassed me for a few seconds until I said to myself (silently, of course), “Who gives a shit?”
Over time, I made my way into a bowling groove. As I’ve said in an earlier post, I’m pretty much a maverick in most things. Bowling was no exception, for I noticed that while my right-handed bowling heroes on TV approached the lane from the far right side and rolled a left-curving ball, I, also a right-hander, was doing just the opposite—approaching the line from the far left and rolling a right-curving ball.
Yet it was working for me. I found that if I started my approach with my right shoe between the first and second foot-markers and then released the ball so it rolled slightly to the right of the second-from-left triangle arrow on the lane, the ball would curve right into the pocket between the 1 and 2 pins! More and more was I making strikes. And with more practice, I was finding the various positions for picking up spares.
Damn, I was good! I began to bowl consistently in the 160s-to-180s, and, occasionally, when visited by the bowling gods, I could pop 200. My highest game was 226. In high school, I got great thrill bowling against jock friends and kicking their butts.
A few years later, in my senior year of college, I was paging through the course catalog in search of an easy elective. Imagine my thrill at finding “Bowling 101”!
Reporting to the lanes for the first class, I pulsed with pride. The instructor—a football graduate assistant—was barely older than I and reminded me of the jocks I used to crush back home. Though I had to admit, watching his opening demonstration, he had fine form—typical of my heroes: right-handed, rightward approach, silent smooth-as-silk delivery, left-curving ball. But it took him about seven balls to roll a strike. (I would’ve done better.)
Now it was our turn. He divided us into four student practice teams. I rolled a strike with my first ball. We bowled on, four against four. I was putting distance between myself and everyone else when the instructor began shouting, “Hey you! Yeah, you right there!” He was pointing at me, and he wasn’t gleeful.
“You’re rolling a back-up ball!” he said, stepping onto the platform. “Didn’t you see how I told you to release? Like you’re shaking a hand!” He extended his right hand to me. An awkward moment. Was I supposed to shake it? Mercifully he withdrew it.
“You’re twisting the palm of your hand outward, away from your body!” He mimicked the move and shook his head in disgust, then lowered his voice. “You’re bowling limp-wristed, like a fag.” He picked up a ball and said, “Watch me.” Lucky bastard rolled a strike. “That’s how you do it!” he said, panning his gaze over the throng that had gathered to enjoy my humiliation. “Now! You do it right!” He stood there waiting.
I picked up my ball, moved rightward, made my approach, and dutifully released in the holy hand-shake mode. But my ball departed in a nervous flutter down the right edge of the lane. It refused to break left, moving straight down the lane’s edge, like a novice on a tightrope, for which I felt such empathy that I started leaning my own upper body leftward as if to nudge the ball in that direction. But—no avail. About a foot from the pins, it fell pitifully into the gutter.
“You just need to practice correctly,” said the instructor. “You’ll get there.” And he walked way.
But soon as he turned his back, I resumed my maverick way. Sadly, this course, which I’d expected to be filled with fun, degenerated into an angry game of cat-and-mouse between Jocky McJockface and me. When I knew he was watching, I would bowl his way, but otherwise I Sinatra-ed him: I did it my way. He kept catching me, though, and finally took to hovering about whichever lane I bowled on.
I did my best to behave, despite the damage this was inflicting on my game. Then, one day toward the end of the course, as I was en route to barely breaking 100, a raging voice in my head shouted, “Screw this guy!”
Brazenly I bowled my limp-wristed fag ball over and over. And though I was hitting strikes and spares, the Great One went nuts. “Stephens!” He knew my name by now. “On the final, I swear to God, I’ll flunk you for bowling a back-up ball!”
Yes. There is a final exam in bowling. You sign up for a time, and then bowl solo an entire game in front of the instructor. I considered defying this doofus, taking the F, and then appealing to administration, until I learned this would be the Athletics Director. When I imagined myself walking into the office of the boss of all the coaches at the University of Tennessee, and saying, “Mr. Woodruff, lemme ‘splain to you about my back-up ball….” Well, that imagined scenario didn’t play out well for me.
So I bowled “correctly” in the presence of Mr. Smarty Jock. I rolled a 126 and got a low “B” for the course. But there was value in this, for it revealed to me a painful truth about the world I was entering: Orthodoxy—that is, doing things the “right way”—is regarded by powerful people as far more important than positive results. This was the deeper meaning behind Andre Agassi’s pitch line in the Canon camera commercials decades ago, “Image is everything.” In other words, how it comes out doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you look while you’re doing it.
P.S. I don’t bowl much anymore. But I’ve not forgotten my boyhood roots. I know I must play ball. So I traded my bowling ball for a much, much smaller ball—the one at the tip of this ballpoint pen. Writing is my sport now. I’m still an amateur. But, hell, I’m having fun.