You know someone is from Westbrook if she answers the question, "What's your highest bowling score?" with a question of her own: "Big balls or small?"
That's because Westbrook is the peculiar town that is populated with not one, but two bowling alleys. And just like the city's equally peculiar two libraries, the bowling alleys co-exist because they are the same. Only different.
Yesterday morning I trudged through the driving snow to Colonial Bowling Center, the city's candlepin bowling alley. I suppose it is only fitting that I endure a nor'easter en route to play a variation of bowling invented in Massachusetts and primarily enjoyed along the New England and eastern Canada coast. But more on that later.
Art, an older gentleman who had just returned to work from a stint in the hospital, greeted me when I walked in. It was about ten o'clock, and the snow had conspired with the mid-morning hour to discourage anyone else from venturing to the alley. I had my own personal bowling alley, and all it cost me was eight bucks.
Art set me up in the thirteenth lane, one of eight lanes on the upper-level of the two-floor alley. The lanes on each level are flanked by carpeted walls on each side. The left wall features the Colonial Bowling mascot--a bowlegged colonial man--firing a bowling ball from his musket into candlepins. And the right wall features the phrase "Maine is...Candlepin Country" in red cursive letters. The walls of the lobby feature an assortment of beer advertisements, Red Sox and Patriots paraphenelia, and numerous photos and records from Colonial's long history (the alley initially opened in 1938, according to Art, and was once one of three bowling alleys in Westbrook). Above the pins at the end of the lane hangs a sign advertising the latest bowling bingo numbers (not sure what that is) and the most recent jackpot winner (Don Meserve, $1,000). The latticed sign also features an American and Canadian flag, presumably to reflect each country's association with the sport.
To the uniniatiated, candlepin bowling is the easier form of bowling. The balls are smaller than conventional balls, the thinking goes, so it must be easier to put a lot force and control behind each roll. In fact, the opposite is true. The smallness of the ball (the ball is about the size of a healthy grapefruit and weighs between 2.3 and 2.7 pounds) lessens the force against the pins and its small size actually makes it more difficult to control. Candlepin balls require a delicate touch, as I quickly learned. Even the slightest spin can force the ball to slide from one edge of the 41" lane to the other. Moreover, the pins (dubbed candlepins because their equal-sized base and top cause the pins to resemble a candle) are required to weigh 2.8 pounds, only one more ounce than the heaviest ball. Indeed, candlepin bowling is so much more difficult than the more conventional ten-pin bowling that the world record score in candlepin is 245 out of a possible 300. And the Maine record, according to the International Candlepin Bowling Association (by the way, I recommend you visit their website if only to briefly listen to their hilarious candlepin bowling theme song), is 231. I'm not necessarily a bowling aficionado, but I'm pretty sure the best ten-pin rollers post better scores than that on a regular basis. In other words, my sorry scores (mid-70s) have more to do with the difficulty of the game than my, um, sterling skills. Besides, as the sociologist Robert Putnam would attest, bowling alone is just not very fun (you try coming up with a Bob Putnam zinger). So after three games, I headed to the alley's lower level to play some arcades.
It is often said that people go to Colonial for the bowling, but stay for the arcade and the food. Actually, I don't know if that is what's often said, but if it isn't, it should be. I mean, where else can you play as Kevin McHale and Reggie Lewis in NBA Jam while Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (just one of the one-hundred eclectic albums you can choose) thumps from the jukebox. And all this while your Italian sandwich (it's a new item on a diverse and greasy menu) and a $2.75 bottle of Geary's Pale Ale are being prepared by the crew upstairs.
There are worse places to hide out during a snow storm. There's no question about that.
- John C.L. Morgan