That night rain pounded on my bedroom window and lightening lit up the room. I remember I was thrashing around in bed. I was half awake, half in a dream!
“ Dad, watch out, there’s a car coming! Dad! Dad! Dad!”
I felt someone shaking me.
“ What’s the matter, Carl? You’re all sweaty!”
“ It was a nightmare, Mom. It was so real. I saw the car but not the driver. If I went earlier to collect Dad I might have saved him!”
My mother wiped my brow with her hanky.
“ I feel so bad, Mom.”
“ We’re going to get through this sad time, son.”
My mother bent down and kissed me on the forehead and left the room.
It took me a long time to get back to sleep!
A week later I went back to school, but I found it hard concentrating on my studies. When any of my classmates talked about their fathers and what they did with them, I’d feel a sort of emptiness sweep over me.
It was mid January and it was snowing in Chicago. It was 1950 and times were changing. I was changing too! I was looking for something, I didn’t know what!
“ I’m going out for a while, Mom.”
“ Put your scarf on, its snowing. And Carl, I want you back for dinner and stay away from that bowling alley.”
“ Okay, Mom.”
I started kicking a stone along the path. I gave the stone a hard kick and it disappeared in the gutter. Life is harder now for my mother and I without my dad. I do a lot of the house chores because my mother feels very tired these days.
There isn’t much to be happy about, but my one big pleasure is ten-pin bowling. I usually headed to Devon Avenue, it was the entertainment centre of my world. There was the Juke Box Diner, the Ridge Movie Theatre and the Ridge Bowling Alley.
The Juke Box Diner was where I would spin around on the diner stools and eat my orders of French fries smothered in ketchup and mustard, just the way I liked them! On the juke box, I listened to the latest records, if I had some nickels. The movie theatre was where on Saturday afternoons I would go to see twenty cartoons and a superman serial or maybe a monster film.
Today, I entered the Ridge Bowl, a ten-pin bowling establishment. It was dimly lit and I could smell the mustiness. At one end there were pin-ball machines on whick I was an expert, especially when I tilted the machines! On the other end was a tavern which was off limits for me. In the middle were ten bowling alleys, which were brightly lit.
Too many unsavoury characters in bowling alleys my mother would ssay. But I had discovered bowling and it fascinated me. Bowling made me feel good and these days there wasn’t much to feel good about.
When I was on the alley, it was like I was on the stage of a theatre with the spotlight on me. There were cushioned seats behind the alleys for onlookers.
I paid my money, put my bowling shoes on and selected a ten pound ball. I couldn’t handle the full size sixteen pounder yet.
I went on stage, alley number one, the lights were bright. I could see the pin boy putting the pins in the cage slots and bringing the pin cage down, releasing the pins in a perfect triangle alignment. The stage was set for my first roll of the ball. I took the four step delivery I had practised, ending up on my left foot. I threw the ball. It rolled down the lane fast and straight. Before the ball hit the pins, I saw the pin boy’s legs lift up to avoid the flying pins and the ball. Seven pins went down, not bad.
The problem I had was that I wasn’t sure about scoring the game when I got spares and strikes. When my game was over, I noticed and off duty pin boy sitting in a back theatre seat, watching me.
“ Could you teach me to score? I’ve got my score sheet here. I got two spares and one strike, pretty good for me,” I said.
“ What’s your name, son? Mine is John.”
The pin boy was a well-built man, fortyish, with penetrating eyes, dark stubble on his chin and a long scar on his left cheek. Except for the scar, he resembled my dad a little.
“ I’m Carl and I’m thirteen years old, almost fourteen!”
John was staring at me intently. It made me a little uneasy.
“ Let’s see that sheet,” said John.
“ I’ll give you ten cents if you teach me to score.”
John rubbed his large hands together and smiled.
“ Okay, a dime will buy me another beer. When you get a spare, it’s ten points plus how many pins your next ball knocks down. A strike is ten points plus the pins you knock down with your next two balls.”
John continued telling me some of the finer points of the game and totalled up my score sheet. I soaked up the knowledge like a sponge. John got up and went over to an empty alley.
“ Come over here, son, I’ll show you how to throw the ball accurately.”
I listened to John’s instructions intently.
“ I’m going to use the arrows on the alley as a target,” said John.
John stood in the middle of the approach, used the four step delivery and threw the ball fast down the alley with a slight hook. Nine pins went down.
“ You want to hit the one-three pocket for a right-handed strike.”
I knew that the one-three pocket was the space between the head pin and the number three pin.
John proceeded to throw his second ball and knocked down the remaining pin for a spare.
“ You’re good, John,” I said.
“ I should be, I’ve done league bowling and some coaching years ago,” smiled John.
John threw his next ball and the pins went flying, a strike.
“ I taught my son to bowl.He was a little older than you.”
“ My father is dead. We used to play games together too.”
“ I’m sorry to hear that, son.”
A tear rolled down my cheek. I quickly wiped it away with a flick of my hand.
“ Thank you for helping me John.”
“ You’re welcome, Carl.”
“ John, what happened, why are you just a pin setter now?” I asked innocently.
“ Questions, questions,” said John. He then walked out of the bowling alley, mumbling to himself.
Shocked by his reaction, I ran after him. Outside the afternoon sun was strong.
John was sitting on a bench near the WW11 tank that was mounted in the park across the street. My father and I used to play ball there. John had his head in his hands.
“ I’m sorry if I said something wrong.”
John lifted his head and smiled, his expression softened.
“ It’s not your fault, son. It’s just some memories that I’m trying to forget.” John had a nightmarish look in his eyes.
“ My wife and son were killed in an auto accident in which I was driving.”
We looked at each other in silence.
“ I’m sorry, John.”
“ I’ve felt guilty ever since. I came out of the accident with only this scar. I’ve got several incidents in my life that I feel guilty about,” said John, shaking his head.
I just stared at John for a minute while he composed himself.
“ John, would you show me how to bowl better when I come next week?”
John seemed to come back to the present and his face brightened up.
“ Sure thing, Carl. See you next week.”
I felt so comfortable in John’s company, it was almost like being with my father. I went home happily kicking a stone the whole way.
The next week I went to the alley against my mother’s wishes again, but I wanted to see John. Arriving at the alley, I saw John was working. I stuck a nickel in the pin-ball machine. I would play until John had a break.
“ Hey! Quit tilting the machine, that’s cheating.”
I turned around and there was John smiling down at me.
“ Hello John, I’m ready for my bowling lesson.”
“ Okay, come on, I’ll show you how to throw a hook ball.”
After an hour of instruction, John and I sat down in the onlooker’s area.
“ I’ll buy you a Coke,” said John, walking to the drinks machine. He came back with two Cokes. We sat watching the other bowlers.
“ I wish you were my dad, John.” I didn’t believe I had just said that, but I just blurted it out!
John looked taken aback by my impulsive statement. He stared at me with a far away look in his eyes.
“ Thanks for the compliment, Carl. You remind me a lot of my son. I enjoy helping you with your bowling.’
“ Can we be buddies, John?”
“ I’d like to be your buddy, Carl.”
I thought I saw some moisture in John’s eyes.
“ That’s great.”
“ Let’s shake on it,” said John.
We shook hands. I was elated, maybe things would get better now. Had I found what I was looking for? A substitute father!?
I can really relate to Carl’s loss of his father as I lost mine to cancer when I was 11. I used to hate it when the girls at school complained about their fathers – at least they had a dad to moan about, I would think. My mother had to go out to work to support us and I became a “latch-key” kid. My way of escape from the situation was music and books.