Every Wednesday, 25 local bowlers keep the tradition alive at the Turner Hall bowling lanes. The league runs from October through March. Photo by Phil Houseal
Bowling for hollers
by Phil Houseal
There are only four lanes. The surfaces are uneven; the oil is applied by hand. There is no fancy scoring system, not even an automatic ball return. Yet every winter Wednesday evening, 25 men still bowl on the hard maple alleys in Turner Hall.
Compared to a modern facility, "this is more challenging," confirmed Sean Heep, unofficial spokesman for the group on the night I stopped in. "I average 191 at the other bowling alley; I average 150 here."
The men range in age from "25ish" to 60. Many have bowled for years. Why do they keep coming back? It was hard to hear their eagerly offered reasons, as pins ricocheted off the pit and balls rumbled down the 100-year-old alleys.
Heep beckoned me out into the relative quiet of the bar area, where he showed me a black and white photo that hangs on the wall. It shows a bygone team standing in the bowling alley. He pointed out his father and grandfather.
"This is from 1952; it looks exactly the same!"
But Turner Hall has seen a few changes, according to official treasurer and unofficial historian Frances Hartmann. The hall, originally built as a social and fitness club in 1909, added two lanes over the years. Bowlers used to play 9 pin, a version still bowled in German halls around Texas. These boys have converted to the standard 10-pin array, but there still no automatic equipment.
Amazingly, they still hire "pin boys" - youngsters who set pins and return balls by hand. I strolled to the other end of the alley to see how that worked. I was startled by the noise and power that comes from 14-pound balls slamming into 10 wooden pins. The boys perch on a plywood barrier to avoid getting hit by flying pins, a real hazard. After each roll they leap into the pit, throw fallen pins into the pin-setting rig, start the bowling ball back up the alley along wooden rails, then leap out of the way as the second throw hurtles toward them.
It is grueling work that goes on for three to four hours with few breaks.
"A lot of guys bowling now used to set pins when they were younger," Heep said. "It's hard work. They make pretty good money, but they work their butts off."
That's part of the bond these bowlers feel with the hall and its history. Only one member had not attended the local high school, and he was from Harper. The group is close, and bowlers lace their competition with good-natured insults and earthy comments on rivals' styles.
"The weird thing is that through our work, we all know each other," Heep said. "And I am related to a couple of them."
But they don't want to give the impression the league is for insiders only. Heep's dream is to get more bowlers involved.
"We welcome newcomers," he said. "For 10 years we've only bowled one night a week. I want to bowl here two or three nights a week."
In between frames, league members drifted over to share their reasons for coming out every week.
"It is a relaxed atmosphere ... nobody's too serious," said one.
"Everybody here has bowled together for years and years and years."
"If you throw your ball in a gutter, nobody cares."
"You still have your gentlemanly competition, but it is just fun."
"Don't forget about the two-dollar beers," someone yelled. Everyone laughed and agreed on that one.
Heep got up to take his turn.
"You can't quite put your finger on it, about why it is more fun here, " he said, picking up his ball. "But you just don't want it to die. It's a good tradition."