The Dalles, Oregon, is found on the south bank of the Columbia River, 85 miles upstream from Portland. Today’s population of 12,000 is about what it was 20 years ago. They grow cereal grains, sweet cherries, apples, and wheat hereabouts. I’m in town to attend the 90th birthday celebration of Doris Anderson, mother of my best friend and, on occasion, a stand-in mom for me.
The Dalles is an unusual town to an outsider because so much of it is intact. The downtown, surrounding homes, and high school look untouched from 50 years ago. The small, paint-chipped J.C. Penny’s is still open for business. Tony’s Clothing still sells the finest “town and country” apparel. The StitchNiche and Klindt’s bookstore are ready to welcome you. Out on the west end of town there is the sinkhole of Staples, Kmart, all the crap, but somehow, traditional small town businesses have survived. It’s not cute. It’s not historic. It’s a working downtown.
The town’s bowling alley is Columbia Recreations Lanes with the big, early Vegas-style neon sign running across its front façade. Inside, the decor is Bowling Museum. Think Atari computer, disco glitter ball, rugs featuring Dayglo bowling pins and bowling balls. There are eight lanes on the ground floor and eight more on the second floor. The man behind the counter is Bob Wright, 56. He looks retired military, with a linebacker’s torso, close-cut grey hair, and big white mustache. He’s been working here since 2004.
I ask, “What’s your normal Saturday night like?”
“From April through October everybody works in the fields, 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. They usually come in on Sunday afternoons.
“We don’t have anybody in here on Saturday nights any more. It’s gotten really scarce. We have regular leagues during the fall, and they’ll go all the way to May 31. And there’s a girls team and a boys team from high school. We used to have their trophies down here, but now that bowling is becoming a college sport, the school is starting to keep the trophies, so we don’t have the trophies anymore.”
I ask, “How did you come by the job?”
“Got tired of the other work I was doing,” Wright laughs. “I did security for 25 years. I was in charge of a security company in Arizona. I got tired of standing up all night.
“I started off in the back as a pin chaser, watching the machines for pin jams, collecting balls that got stuck. Once I learned a little bit about the back end, they moved me forward.”
Wright tells me he’s been married 17 years and has a 13-year-old son. His son has, “…Asburgers, and a little Tourettte’s. He’s home-schooled. He likes it here because it’s small and quiet. He had trouble in the big school and the big city. Here he doesn’t. Bowling is the first thing that he’s ever liked.
“The second year I was here I got into a league with my son. It was hard for him at first because he’s not good with big crowds. He wasn’t doing too well. Then I gave him a dollar for every strike, 50 cents for every spare. He got pretty good.
“We have a recap board that shows the highest bowlers, the ones who have the best averages. He’s up there with the second or the third highest score. He’s got a bunch of trophies and things.”
Wright takes me upstairs and down a narrow hallway into a workroom to look at pin-setting machines. This is a 1950s country mechanic’s shop. Tin ducts overhead, work tables, parts bin, the feel of oil and grease and the sound of big machinery. Everything is well-used. The noise is terrific.
Wright says, “I started out as a pinsetter. You’re supposed to walk back and forth along the machines (There is a small plywood walkway over the bank of pinsetters), and make sure that the pins don’t jam. These are the old machines. The distributor bar is all ball bearings. Sometimes the little cotter pin on the ball bearing will break, or the felt breaks. Usually, it’s a spring or a belt.”
We talk for awhile and then turn and retrace our steps along the hallway. Wright stops before a framed poster. The poster reads, “Marvel Heroes Bowling Club. Bowl and Get Your Favorite Marvel Heroes Bowling Ball & Bag.” There are depictions of Spider-Man, Iron Man, Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four. Wright says, “It is a piece of history. Marvel Heroes for the kids. You get a superhero ball, a duffle bag, and everything else for bowling the season.” Wright studies the poster, says, “Matter of fact, if you want that you can have it.”
“Well, sure Bob, I’d love to have it.”