Tim Rowland

March 05, 1997

This past weekend I was submitted to a severe form of torture devised by ruthless Mongolian Khans, who were known far and wide for the excruciating pain and suffering they inflicted through this particular brand of punishment.

This exact same procedure is alive and well today, although it is more commonly known locally by the name of duckpin bowling.

My friend Dave invited us out to the lanes, ostensibly under the guise of a birthday party. But Dave works for the Associated Press, and looking back, I now see this "birthday party" for what it was - a cruel plot to eliminate competition by disabling half of The Herald-Mail staff, most all of whom now bear what will undoubtedly be long-lasting emotional scars.


I think maybe I'd last been bowling 15 years ago, while still in college. Then, bowling the sport was secondary to bowling the grist for much good clean fun, such as stealing pins and integrating them into strange locations primarily having to do with cafeteria frozen-custard machines.

Somehow I seem to remember there being a game associated with these pins, and I even recall playing it a few times. In all, it seemed pretty harmless, certainly not the sort of thing bad dreams are made of.

So, I was in no way expecting this duckpin ambush. I assumed bowling was bowling and "duckpin" was some sort of innocent colloquialism, or perhaps a brand name like "Chiquita" bananas or "Prince" tennis racquets.

But duckpins as a sport is like that scene from "The Mikado" where the police chief punishes prisoners by forcing them to play pool with twisted cues and egg-shaped billiard balls.

My first question, upon surveying a lane, was "where are the pins?" People assured me that several little nubs that were apparent in the distance were actually the targets, but I didn't have my binoculars, so I can't say for sure.

Duckpins is played with softball-sized magnets which are rolled toward the nubs at the far end of the lane. But the magnets never get to the nubs because the gutters are made of cast iron and halfway down the lane - no matter how straight you rolled it - the ball will make a 90 degree turn and adhere itself to the gutter, which whisks the magnet safely past the alleged pins.

You get a couple of "practice balls" before each game. An evil Duckpin Troll who lives underneath the lane knows when you are throwing practice balls and de-activates the magnets, allowing you to actually hit the pins and build up a false sense of security, thinking perhaps you may actually succeed in the endeavor.

But when the game begins the Duckpin Troll switches the magnetic fields back on and the situation becomes hopeless.

If you could count on rolling all gutter balls though, at least you would know what to expect and could prepare yourself for the failure.

But the Duckpin Troll is always cooking up new experiments and trying them out on you to see how they will go.

One of his favorites is to let you roll what for all the world appears to be the most perfectly thrown duckpin ball ever. It speeds right into the pocket where it should be an unquestioned strike - but then "chop," the ball takes out a grand total of two pins, slicker than an Alabaman losing a tooth to a goat hoof.

Oh, in duckpins they give you three balls a frame all right, a sort of delusionary compensation for the increased degree of difficulty. But it's like the batter who once swung twice and missed at two Walter Johnson fastballs. He started walking back to the dugout, when the umpire reminded him he had another strike left. "That's OK," he told the ump. "I don't want it."

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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