SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
April 13, 2014

Gutterballs

 

In the pre-Internet age, it usually took cultural phenomena a few years longer to work their way over and up to Green Bay from the coasts. It wasn’t until the early nineties, for example, that soccer became the overwhelmingly dominant youth sport in town. A few soccer fields started cropping up in some of the fancier neighborhoods by the late seventies, but they usually sat unused, given soccer was considered a useless nothing little pretend sport for fags. Any kid who wanted to play soccer in Titletown, USA, might just as well put on a dress and go prancing about the mall with a picnic basket.

            Long before soccer moved in and conquered the territory the way it did everywhere else, youth sports were still a massively important element of Green Bay’s overall atmosphere, and were considered deadly serious matters. “Fun” had nothing to do with it. During the Packers’ off-season there was little left to talk about apart from the weather and youth sports of every conceivable variety (except soccer). Along with the high school teams and the church leagues we had a couple of indie high school softball and basketball leagues, pee-wee football and of course little league baseball. My dad coached a little league team, and when he wasn’t in the dugout he and my mom helped run the concession stand. Even though as a result the local sandlots became a fundamental part of my early consciousness, actually playing on a little league team was out of the question. In fact my dad, a wise man fully aware of my athletic limitations, forbade it, explaining bluntly that he saw how the parents in the stands behaved, and he didn’t want me anywhere near it. I don’t know if I ever told him how very relieved I was to hear him say that.

            For those few of us in town with no physical abilities or coordination and no desire to participate in any kind of organized sports, things could get a little rough sometimes. I suppose there was soccer, but, um, no. That would just make everything worse.

            There was, however, one alternative left for the freaks with no abilities, physical strength or killer competitive impulse, something that might help divert the beatings.

            One day around 1980, my friend Rob asked if I wanted to join a bowling team he was putting together with his brother and a few other freaks we knew, all of whom fit the above description. My initial, reflexive response was horror. Bowling was as central to Green Bay culture as booyah, deer hunting, or the Packers, and so I wanted nothing to do with it. I mean, not only no, but hell no. Beyond my natural contrariness, there was a very sensible explanation for my violent gut reaction. I’d only been bowling two or three times in my life, and then against my will. Joining an actual team seemed like an incredibly bad idea all around.

            But the more I thought about it, the more ridiculous and hilarious the whole scenario seemed. Maybe it would be worth it just for the cheap yuks involved. Along with Rob and me, the team would include his burly younger brother Tom, a kid from school named Mark who talked in staccato bursts, had terrible breath, and was arrogant with no supporting evidence, and a quiet gentle oaf named Dan, who was a touch smarter than he let on, but just a touch. We were a misshapen, motley bunch who might’ve easily been mistaken (and probably were) for a special ed outing to the bowling alley. Rob even had the perfect team name picked out already.

            After I agreed to join, Rob went over to one of the nicer local bowling alleys, the Kegler’s Klub, and got us signed up for a youth league. Apparently none of the league organizers blinked or paused when Rob signed us up as The Fubars. They just took his money and filed the paperwork. We were scheduled to bowl there every Saturday morning beginning at nine.

            Once all that was in place and it was clear this was really happening, my dad took me downtown to a bowling shop and picked me out a ball, a bag, and a pair of bowling shoes, which seemed a bit extravagant for something I considered little more than a joke.

            One of the big selling points in all this was Rob was not only the first kid I knew to get a driver’s license, but to get a car as well—a used and dented two-door Buick which, after a bit of tinkering, could hit 110 mph on a straightaway—and that meant no one had to bug his parents to drive us all to a damn bowling alley at some godforsaken hour every weekend.

            All bowling alleys smell the same, a blend of stale cigarette smoke, the disinfectant sprayed into sweaty rental shoes, carpet cleaner and floor wax. That’s what I remember thinking when we walked through the doors of the Kegler’s Klub that first morning. They also all sound the same when they’re busy, a blanket of noises—the fade of ten balls rolling away down the lanes at once, the clatter of wooden pins, voices raised to be heard above the clamor, cash registers, music, the klunk and rattle of the ball return—all mixed into a unique, immutable, and unmistakable sound, a muffled version of a casino floor minus the high-pitched bells. Initially all this was very familiar (even though I’d only bowled a handful of times, I’d been in plenty of alleys).

            What surprised me was how many adolescents were willing to get out of bed and head off to a bowling alley so early on a Saturday. There must’ve been at least 200 kids there. Looking around I recognized most of them, if not by face at least by type. There were the stoners, the washouts, the derelicts and the jocks, the same kids who sucker-punched me at school and screamed “faggot!” from the windows of passing cars, all the town’s young thugs, doomed to a lifetime of work in any one of the factories within a fifteen-mile radius of where we stood at that moment. Above that what shocked me was how seriously they all seemed to take it. There was no laughing or grabass. These kids, young and scrubby as they were, remained absolutely cold-eyed about the game. That was frightening, but I guess they already knew they were going to be bowling for the rest of their lives, that bowling and cheap beer and wife beating would be their only escape, so they’d better get used to it now.

            Rob found out what lane we were on, so we wandered over to it, changed our shoes, placed our balls in the ball return, punched our names into the computerized overhead scoring system, then took seats on the hard molded plastic benches to wait for the other team.

            As it proved over the weeks, the other team was inconsequential. We rarely spoke or interacted in any way. There was none of the cheap name-calling, tripping, or other random abuse these same kids would’ve automatically doled out on the street or in a school hallway, so completely focused were they on the game. They did their thing and we did ours, and all that mattered at the end were the numbers on the screen. Most of the other teams, I noticed, didn’t seem to interact with each other either, except to yell at someone when he blew a shot.

            There wasn’t much yelling among The Fubars. Fact was we didn’t really give a shit. We never once “practiced,” we had no “strategy.” We just piled into Rob’s car every weekend and saw what happened. What those Saturdays at the Kegler’s Klub amounted to were a chance to fart around for a couple of hours, tell bad jokes, occasionally roll a heavy ball at some pins, and drink a lot of fountain cokes. Then afterwards we’d get back in the car and do incredibly dangerous and stupid things at high speeds.

            If this had been a version of The Bad News Bears set in the high-stakes world of junior league bowling we would have won the championship at the end in spite of all our lighthearted fucked-up-ness. Well, that didn’t happen. No, we were pretty bad is all. Tom and Rob were decent bowlers, but the rest of us were simply hapless, and if I broke sixty it was cause for celebration. We didn’t do very well overall, though maybe slightly better than some of those other humorless teams might’ve expected. Rob and Tom anyway.

            It went on for two years (and we even got a little better that second year), then we did other things. Sick thing about it is that here in New York I find myself missing bowling on occasion, or maybe it’s just those Saturdays at the Kegler’s Klub. In any case if I returned to a bowling alley these days I’d be both hapless and dangerous to boot, so it would probably be best I just stay home and watch bowling movies. People laugh when I tell them I was in a junior bowling league as a kid, but it was a hell of a lot better than soccer.

 

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