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A League of Its Own

In an age of declining civic involvement, a Raleigh bowling alley continues bringing people together.

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When I learned to bowl in 1961, Western Lanes on Hillsborough Street was two years old, and I was a freshman architecture student at N.C. State. Every Thursday afternoon that fall, about 50 PE students crossed Hillsborough Street, climbed to the second floor of Western Lanes and learned how to bowl strikes and spares. The new building was decorated with orange and turquoise panels and trimmed with lots of shiny aluminum. Raleigh was a sleepy town, but here we felt very up-to-date.

Bowling was big business in the 1960s.

"If you built a bowling alley back then, people would run over you to get in," says Paul Blomquist, manager of Western Lanes. Most people bowled in leagues: Western Lanes was booked solid every night and weekends with leagues of civil engineers, soldiers, glee clubs and church groups. Some people bowled in two or three leagues. Weekends were for family leagues.

League play became a kind of social connector, not only in Raleigh but throughout America for the next two decades. Folks who bowled in leagues stayed in touch. League bowling, like joining a civic club, participating in church activities and voting in local elections, was a measure of civic involvement. More people competed in bowling than in any other sport.

Yet league bowling today is declining, and some would argue, so is civic life. In "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," published this year, Robert Putnam writes that voter participation, membership in clubs, church attendance and other forms of neighborliness have all declined steadily during the past 35 years. League bowling, for example, has decreased by 40 percent.

"The vibrancy of American civil society has notably declined over the past several decades," Putnam writes.

To gauge the effect of Putnam's "civil decline," I walk into Western Lanes at noon on a recent Thursday, sit down in the brown-and-gold restaurant, and order lunch. Throughout the rise and fall of league bowling, Western Lanes has continued to thrive on Hillsborough Street, though its turquoise and orange lockers have faded, and some of the once-shiny trim is dull.

In a corner of the restaurant, a small television flickers like an electronic fireplace. The place reminds me of someone's family room. Indeed, the folks who run Western Lanes are a family of old-timers. Cathy, the restaurant manager, has worked there more than 30 years, and Miss Nina has been cooking for 42. Theresa, who serves me a BLT with fries and sweet tea, has been behind the counter 18 years. As customers enter the restaurant, Theresa gets them what they want without asking--a light beer, popcorn, a slice of coconut cream pie.

"I can tell you what half of Raleigh eats, drinks and smokes," she says. Her eyes narrow as she spots a glass of soda that needs refilling in a corner of the restaurant.

Restaurants, like bowling alleys, are a kind of third place between home and work where we can hang out with friends. Unlike fast-food joints, restaurants offer companionship. Judging by the years people have worked and played at Western Lanes, the companionship here is good.

Companionship of another sort is built into the walls of Western Lanes. Here under one roof is a quirky mix of uses: a PE classroom and a restaurant, billiards and a church-sponsored cafe, shops and an architect's office--all reached by a sidewalk. Buildings like this are little melting pots in a democratic society.

During the afternoon, PE classes come and go, learning footwork, how to score (complicated) and important facts such as the length of a certified bowling lane (64 feet, 10 and 3/16 inches). Next to the PE students, groups of walk-in bowlers play through the afternoon.

"Walk-in bowlers have taken up the slack created by the loss of league bowling," Blomquist explains.

Around 5 p.m. the tempo picks up. Two workers appear to oil the lanes for tonight's league play. Behind the gold anodized arches that hover over each set of 10 pins, Emery Adkins fusses with the pin-setting machines. Adkins is 72 years old and has maintained the 24 Brunswick Type A machines at Western Lanes since 1972.

"He lives and breathes these machines," the night manager tells me. "A real company man."

Adkins wears a blue uniform shirt with his name embroidered over his heart. In his shirt pocket are lined five rum crook cigars. He stands beside a pin-setting machine about the size of a pickup truck. Its metal parts shiver in the fluorescent light.

"With these machines, you want to use preventive maintenance," he says. "Just like an airplane."

Maintenance is laid out with astonishing neatness along the 150-foot-long brick wall behind the pin-setters, where Adkins has stacked and hung thousands of spare parts with the precision of an operating room. To him, the machine has a soul.

"When the Type A pin-setting machine was perfected in the 1950s, it was a mechanical marvel, the peak of American mechanical genius," he says. Today the newest machine is still about 80 percent like a Type A.

Action is picking up on the other side of the arches. A 16-pound bowling ball approaches the pins with a roar, followed by an explosion. Immediately the machine shakes the fallen pins, whirrs and delivers the pins to a steel sorting drum with a clank. Pistons hiss. It's like hearing a mechanical thunderstorm. Adkins lights a cigar.

"Everything is better when it's busy," he says. "Time passes better. And if your business is hustling, somewhere along the line you'll help someone." On the other side of the arches, the machine places 10 pins softly on the maple lane.

At 6 p.m. the NCSU faculty-staff league begins with a few announcements. It's a relaxed game, not highly competitive, where the payoffs seem more social than high-scoring. Folks act out every delivery; little dramas unfold around the scoring tablets.

"It's an extended family," one bowler in her 50s tells me. "Like church in a way. It's one of the few places where professors, lab technicians, bookkeepers and graduate students can get to know each other."

Inevitably, talk turns to declining attendance. "Eighteen years ago we had 60 people in the league bowling 32 weeks a year," says Jim Nye, a civil engineering professor in the league. Now the NCSU league is down to 24 bowlers.

"People just don't seem to be interested in coming out to bowl in leagues any more," says O. W. Robison, a bowler since 1960. He leans back and drains a Miller Light. "Last year the Continental League, after going for 33 years, folded. That's a generation!"

No one can account for the decline in league bowling--mobility, the growth of suburbs, increased choices for leisure time, and television are possibilities. Times are changing at Western Lanes and elsewhere. America has moved on from the mechanical genius of the automatic pin-setter to the virtual community of the Internet age. As we are more connected electronically, our lives spin further apart.

Meanwhile, instructors have taught generations how to bowl, and in league bowling there is another lesson: Making neighbors out of strangers is part of the game. Bowling is a classroom for civic pleasure, for having fun in the company of people you don't know. As Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century writer who loved the taverns of London for their social spirit, said, "As important as finding people you have things in common with is learning to live in pleasure alongside people you don't."

A week later I went back to the Western Lanes restaurant to have lunch with my daughter, Laura. Theresa was obviously pleased to see us.

"Sweet tea with your BLT and fries?" she asked me. EndBlock

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