Joy Mott does not look like she’s recovering from back surgery when she bowls.
Neither does Ralph Crabb, whose “foot pointed west and knee pointed east” when he broke his tibia at Huckleberry Lanes last winter, yet effortlessly breaks 200 during the Friday Seniors Bowling League’s monthly potluck on June 14.
To borrow a phrase from Mott, “you’ve just gotta bowl.”
And boy, do the Friday Seniors bowl.
In Mott’s first game, she carries a 92 through six frames thanks to a confident approach that shows no signs of post-surgery gingerliness. Her roll to lead off the seventh frame plows over nine pins, causing enough carnage to knock the seven pin loose, yet the pin doesn’t fall. She spares that pin moments later.
“Bowling is all about practice and rhythm,” Mott says. “If you don’t have rhythm, it’ll go every which way except where you want it.”
The Friday Seniors Bowling League is, unequivocally, quite good compared to the average bowler whom picks up a bowling ball either out of late-night boredom, or for nostalgia’s sake. Forty-six of the 47 bowlers average over 100, while a handful routinely break 200. To put this in perspective, a perfect bowling score is 300.
Gary Britton, an unassuming man wearing clear-rimmed glasses and a grayish-blue t-shirt, tells me that his lifetime best is a 279, which was perfect save for a nine-pin spare in the third frame. That one pin that didn’t go down in the third cost Britton a whopping 21 points due to the exponential nature of bonuses with every strike rolled.
“You’d never know I had a 198 average,” Britton says, taking a break in between games to snack on some orange chicken. “Nowadays I get lucky if I’m around 100.”
Not only are the Friday Seniors skilled, but they’re also modest. Ask any member of the league to name the best bowler, the most fun partner to bowl with or any positive superlatives, and they’ll more often than not deflect the praise to someone else. Glance at the league’s weekly scores, however, and names like Bette Spaargaren’s — whose height and quick wit make her stand out almost as much as the bright red, plaid shirt she wears when I meet her — appear more often than not.
“Are you here to see who’s crummy?” Spaargaren asks as I approach lane seven. “Because sometimes it’s really bad.”
However, the phrase “really bad” doesn’t apply for her performance. After trading hot streaks with lane-mates Rita Piatt and Susan Sweatman, Spaargaren leads the women with a 454-640 handicap series. She tells me that the last two times she got high series, she didn’t make the paper; I make a mental note to get her scores in from now on.
But part of the league’s competition doesn’t make the papers. Every time a bowler gets a mark (in this case, a strike, spare or the dreaded dash earned with a gutter-ball), they draw a card from a stack of playing cards. At the end of each game, the person with the best poker hand wins $1.50 in quarters. Near the end of her first game, Spaargaren is a six or a jack away from a straight, yet Mike Wilken wins the pot.
“We’re only here to win money,” Spaargaren says jokingly.
But Spaargaren won’t walk away empty-handed. Thanks to beating out Piatt by two pins, she will take home a sizable handful of quarters for the highest game score.
Her winnings in the league, however, pale in comparison to those of Terry Burnham — the soft-spoken, wispy-haired man who most players consider to be the league’s best. Britton says he likes to watch Burnham bowl because, in his words, “he makes it look so effortless.” Susan Sweatman, a retired cosmetologist who will be bowling at the USBC Senior Championships in Cincinnati this August, concurs, citing his smooth delivery.
Naturally, I make sure to tune in for Burnham;s third and final game of the day. Burnham grabs his yellow-and-blue, tiger-striped bowling ball from the rack, calmly steps up to the line and begins his approach. He’s a righty and he favors the right side of the lane. Like a finesse pitcher on the baseball diamond, who drops nasty curveballs in the strike zone,Burnham has clearly mastered spin rate. His ball veers towards the six-ten gap, then makes a beeline towards the one pin late; I estimate his roll breaks within a foot of the pins. Burnham is stoic as all ten pins surrender to his roll.
“Now there’s the Terry we know,” Sweatman says, drawing a smirk from the mild-mannered Burnham as he takes a card from the deck and returns to his seat. I use this opportunity to sidle up across from the senior bowling league’s marquee player.
“I’ve been told you’re pretty good,” I say.
“Who told you that?” Burnham asks, feigning surprise. I can tell he’s trying to downplay his ability.
“Oh, several people,” I say, gesturing to the rest of the bowlers milling about the tables. I then introduce myself.
“Just be sure to get the good ones,” Burnham says with a smirk.
Later, I watch Burnham’s third frame. Just like his first strike, Burnham’s delivery veers right with enough backspin that will eventually break center. This time, however, Burnham’s roll doesn’t have enough power to take down the six and ten pins.
Despite the near-miss, Burnham is relatively unfazed as he walks over to grab his second ball — this one’s a red, black and white swirl — before knocking off the next two. Burnham’s demeanor walking back from the spare and the strike are the same: He purses his lips, looks downward and makes a slow walk back to his seat.
A few eights, nines and non-strike frames later, and I’m afraid I’ve jinxed him. Burnham ends the final game with a 203, and the most enthusiasm I see him show is a wince and a quick, one-legged hop — almost as if he has stepped on a LEGO brick in the dark — after clearing a 1-2-10 near-split.
“I always call bowling a fickle sport,” Sweatman says. She tells me that Wilken, who bowls with the lowest handicap at 22, has bowled three, 200 games over the past two weeks.
But today is not his day. Wilken carries a 55 into the fifth frame, and although that score would be considered good for unskilled plebeians like myself, is well off his 171 average.
“They’re not hittin’,” Wilken says to no one in particular, after notching a nine-pin spare. At that moment, Sweatman is nearly doubling him with a 117.
To her credit, Sweatman starts off her final game with two strikes.
Sweatman’s words are prophetic. The first roll of her third frame — “there’s my slip up in the third” — is a seven. Then in the fourth, her line-drive from right-center to left hits only the seven-pin and wilts into the gutter. She shows mild exasperation at the low roll, then proceeds to clear the remaining nine pins on her second attempt.
Even when the seniors are off, they still roll spares.
“I’m not that good,” Sweatman says. “I just get lucky sometimes.”
The fickle nature of bowling keeps a league like this fairly even. While some bowlers have more skill and experience than others, any bowler can get on a hot streak on any given Friday, which makes for plenty of friendly mini-rivalries and competition.
Yet for bowlers like Sweatman, the Friday Seniors League gives her an opportunity to stay active and meet new people during a phase of life often marked with loneliness, isolation and a lack of stimulus. Sweatman makes the 86-mile drive from her 80-acre property in Thompson Falls to Huckleberry Lanes every Friday. Although she originally looked for a league to get extra practice between now and the USBC Senior Championships, she has found her place amongst Sandpoint’s most experienced bowling community.
“I call the drive over here therapy number one,” Sweatman says, referring to the picturesque stretch of Highway 200 along Clark Fork that wraps around Lake Pend Orielle. “And bowling is my second therapy. So on Fridays, I get both.”
Friday Seniors June 14 scores
High Hdcp. Series Women: Bette Spaargaren, 454-640
High Hdcp. Series Men: Matt Stirk, 394-595
High Hdcp. Game Women: Norma Pierce, 174-235
High Hdcp. Game Men: Gary Britton, 185-235
Converted Splits: Syndi Macha, 2-7, 4-5; Rita Piatt, 3-10; Ralph Crabb, 3-10; Bette Spaargaren, 5-6-10
Other High Scores: Jola Forell, 151-223; Susan Sweatman, 164-222; Bette Spaargaren, 160-222; Ralph Crabb, 183-218; Joy Mott, 168-218, 168-215; Syndi Macha, 147-211; Matt Stirk, 144-211; Rita Piatt, 155-210