I grew up in a bowling alley, at least on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Both my mother and father were weekly bowlers, the sort to own their own balls and bags and shoes and contend in local leagues. Their alley of choice sat in a small strip of a Lumberton shopping center, sandwiched between a bank and a drug store.
Each week, while my father played his games, I’d sit at the counter and talk with Scott, the owner, as I ate my hamburger and downed a Pepsi, swirling the crushed ice with a straw. In the ’80s, bowling alleys were filled with clouds of cigarette smoke and overhead speakers pumping loud music, interrupted only by the announcement of a perfect score or a Monte Carlo that had left its lights on. My father would give me a few dollars to spend on the arcade games tucked behind the pool tables or the jukebox of doo-wop 45s.
As an adult, I’ve always had to keep score, as I was one of the few of my friends who spent much time in a bowling alley as a kid. For bachelor parties and almost every birthday during my 20s and into my 30s, I went bowling. Being legal adults, we’d drink pitchers of beer instead of cups of Pepsi, but the sport’s simple pleasure has persisted.
Since I stay home with Oliver, our 3-year-old son, I’m always seeking new ways to keep him active. On a recent trip to my hometown, I mentioned to Stacy, my wife, that I wanted to take Oliver bowling. Perhaps it was the nostalgia of being back in Lumberton, watching balls spin down the hardwood lanes, or maybe it was the promise of a low-stress, idle afternoon of sport. But the old bowling alley in Lumberton has moved to a new location, adding electronic scoring and omitting the classic design of my childhood memories. My mother now works for a hospital services company in the old alley.
After we got back to Raleigh, on a cold fall evening, we took Oliver to The Alley, the ’60s-era alley formerly known as Western Lanes, across from N.C. State’s main campus. With its manual scoring and a recent renovation that retained the classic mid-century color scheme, The Alley reminds me of the bowling alleys of my childhood. Disco balls hang overhead, and classic arcade games sound from the corner. The Melvin’s burgers and fries equal those I ate while Dad bowled; the only things missing are the jukebox of 45s and, fortunately, the cigarette smoke.
Oliver had a blast, too, throwing a six-pound ball down the lane by himself with the assistance of the kids’ ball ramp. He’d run his hands over the hand-warmer and try writing the score, despite barely knowing how to write at all. He would high-five me when I landed a strike and cry when he knocked down only nine pins: “But I want to get a strike, Daddy,” he said tearfully. When the ball flew back through the return tunnel, he’d quickly forget his losses.
We now take him to The Alley about once every month. We’ve played Wii bowling and iBowling at home, but there’s something comforting about the touch and smell of a real bowling alley. Until the digital revolution takes over the remaining classic alleys, I’ll continue to show Oliver how to fill in a full square for a strike and half for a spare. Maybe one day, when he’s legal, we’ll sit together on Lane 22 and bowl a few games, drinking a few beers and exchanging lines from The Big Lebowski.