Thursday, May 17, 2018

On the Road Again, Chapter 3

Self-pinboying at the tiny Potter lanes. (Photo (c) Bonnie J. Schupp)

Bowling in Nebraska

is a small-town wonder

with a back-home feel

If you seek a one-word definition for the American Heartland, Nebraska should suffice. It’s big and red, and mostly flat expanses of farm fields. One of the first sights we encounter on Friday morning is a red barn wearing a huge sign that says, simply: TRUMP.

But it’s not all THAT bad. On our 2014 trip, we met warm, interesting people, meandering occasionally off Interstate 80 to find a hay-bale church in Arthur, a federal meat animal research center at Clay Center, a military vehicles museum in Lexington, a child-oriented science and technology museum in Aurora, a pony express station in Gothenburg, and an odd tribute to big American automobiles known as Carhenge.

This time, we are in more of a hurry and Nebraska is more than 400 miles wide. We overnight in Sidney, a community heavy in hotel rooms but light in entertainment. Still, I find a Nebraska tourism magazine and it includes a mention of our next attraction, in the town of Potter 18 miles west along U.S. Highway 30 paralleling the interstate.

Pinbusters Paradise

Potter is listed as having a population of about 350. It also has a tiny downtown just above the busy railroad tracks, and a bowling alley. Not just any bowling alley, though – it is reputed to be the only DUCKPINS alley west of the Mississippi.

Duckpins, for those unaware, was born in our native city of Baltimore more than a century ago… and it is a sport Bonnie and I enjoyed as kids. (She was a two-week champion on the televised children’s bowling show Pinbusters.) Many of the lanes have closed over the past two decades, with perhaps half a dozen surviving in the metro area. It features smaller pins, supposedly named for the way they flew up in the air like ducks when hit by the smallish, roughly six-pound ball. It is more difficult in scoring than with the bigger tenpins, but each frame allows for three balls being rolled rather than two.

We quickly find the building, but the upstairs bowling alley is closed – the door locked. There’s an adjacent flea market store, and the woman presiding over the counter calls a friend for advice on how we could check out the bowling alley. All it takes is the numbers for the door’s digital lock and, presto!, she leads us up a wide stairway – each step bearing an event in the history of Potter.

Then she leaves us, asking only that we turn off the lights and close the door when we’re done.

There’s just three lanes, and it’s the old style of manually resetting the pins and rolling the balls back along a double-sided chute. In the absence of a “pinboy” to do the work, it’s a self-service bowling alley.

 I take off my shoes, so as not to damage the restored wooden floor, and roll a ball down the middle lane. I put a spin on the ball, so it curves from right to left but misses the headpin – taking out some of the others. I run down the lane to remove “deadwood” pins, then run back and roll another ball. And another.

After I reset all 10 pins, Bonnie shoots a cellphone video as I try again. The ball hits a good spot, and the pins scatter with the instant whacking sound of the impact. I’m a child again. More than half a century of time is erased. 

On the wall is a printed history of duckpins, noting its birth and rise in popularity around Baltimore and bearing a photo of perhaps its most celebrated bowler holding a ball: Baltimore native Babe Ruth.

There’s an old dime-a-weigh scale, a jukebox, a record/tape/eight-track audio player with boxes of albums and tapes to choose from, and a couple of quarter-a-game pinball machines. So naturally I turn one on to give it a try – falling well short of the score needed to win a replay.

All that’s missing here, I think, is a tavern-style shuffleboard table. But there in a back room, behold! – a half-size table, with metal pucks and well-dusted with sawdust for slide action. And there’s a room full of long tables and chairs set up for Bingo.

Before leaving town early Saturday afternoon, we check in with the nice woman at the antiques and flea market, A Collective Gathering, and learn the row of buildings is owned by a nonprofit which aims to keep alive its businesses, including the store and bowling/community center, a café, and across the road a library/reading room building.

Potter may be a tiny town, but it's got spunk.
Next chapter: A Colorado weekend

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