Our leisure-starved reporter goes on a bowling odyssey to discover that no two lanes are alike.

by Zak Weisfeld

Like Jack Kerouac, Simon and Garfunkel, and Jesus in the book of Mormon, I have lately felt the need to go in search of an authentic American experience. But lacking the time or supernatural resources to make a prolongued quest of it, I decided to go straight to the source, the headwaters of American leisure—I decided to go bowling.

I wasn't alone. Because everybody bowls. This is the bit of prophetic wisdom bestowed by Mark Miller of the American Bowling Congress. According to his figures, 220 million people have bowled at least once in their lives—a figure that makes bowling almost as popular with the American people, statistically speaking, as sex. And wildly more popular than the quintessentially American activity of voting.

While I'm sure that many of you think that bowling, with all its flashy technology, hip marketing, and youth appeal, is one of those new sports invented so ESPN2 will have something to run between ads, the truth is that the roots of the sport run deep into pre-history. As far back as 5200 B.C., Egyptian kids were hurling a ball at a row of pins. It's even rumored that King Tut himself was a 240-average league bowler—but the archeological evidence is scanty on this matter.

Though bowling's origins are Middle Eastern, the tone and character of the modern game owes at least as much to Central Europe. It was there, around 200 A.D., that Germanic tribes started rolling stones at a rack of nine wooden pins. In a great historical coincidence, it was these same Germanic tribes who popularized another Near Eastern invention: beer. And it was this unforeseen juxtaposition—of rolling a ball at pins and drinking a malted alcoholic beverage—that must surely be counted as a seminal moment in Western Civilization, for this was the true spiritual foundation of bowling.

It was the Dutch who, in the 1600s, brought the game to the New World, where it spread like small pox. Bowling became so popular and so wagered upon that Connecticut wisely outlawed the Satanic pastime of "bowling at nine pins." But it was too late; the game had insinuated itself into the American psyche, and no little state law could stop it now. Instead, our wily forefathers simply added another pin, started a bowling lobby, and founded Akron, Ohio—the rest, as they say, is history. Soon, bowling was so popular that you could do it even in the hinterlands of Knoxville, Tennessee.

Out in Fountain City, just off Broadway, sits what is undoubtedly Knoxville's grand temple of bowling—Fountain Lanes. Above the thicket of fast food restaurants and gas station signs, a single steel pole topped with red letters reading "Bowling" alerts drivers to the alley's presence. And there, beyond the rolling asphalt hills of its parking lot, Fountain Lanes looms on the horizon like a 1960s bowling Pantheon.

Surmounting the broad stone and brick facade, a great, curving white arch beckons bowlers inside. Reminiscent of the days when McDonald's used to advertise the exact number of "millions served," the arch is the gateway to Fountain's 36 lanes of gleaming hardwood pleasure.

It is in places like Fountain Lanes that bowling battles for its future. On the rear wall plastic stars shine behind a glowing plastic screen, a decor now fashionably dated. But distracting the eye from the retro-hip ball returns and brilliant decor are those living icons of the millennium—television monitors.

The monitors here display both the score and animated shorts about each shot. A gutterball brings a dragon curling onto the screen and breathing fire on the ball; a spare picked-up shows pins hauled into the slammer; a strike wins a big golden X. But given the pace and style of video games and computer animation, something about Fountain Lanes' monitors feels even more dated than the decor.

For at its heart, bowling is not an information-age sport. Bowling is a sport of an earlier technological era—the Industrial Revolution. With its repetitive assembly-line pace and the clacking of the pin-setting machines, bowling hearkens back to the days of the UAW, taconite coke and limestone, of factory towns and steel plants, a day when Americans manufactured things. In a world with a golf channel and the Internet, bowling seems about as contemporary as Communism. Today, fear of the future lurks in the gutters and behind the snack bar of bowling.

Down at Western Plaza Bowling Lanes they seem to understand this implicitly and are ready to hunker down for the coming Dark Ages. Unlike Fountain Lanes' proud red sign, Western Plaza Lanes sulks beneath the rest of Western Plaza like a speakeasy—around the back and down the hill, and tell them Charley sentcha.

Like any good speakeasy, Western Plaza Lanes isn't going to impress anybody with its decor or advanced equipment. What it does impress with are its prices and its eclectic clientele. At $1.95 for an evening game, and a scant $1.50 for a day game, Western Plaza doesn't seem to have changed its prices since before electronic scoring was introduced. And unlike the swanky new scoring equipment at Fountain Lanes, Western Plaza lets you throw a few practice balls without charging you.

Western Plaza is also one of the only places in town where white families from the neighborhoods on the south side of Kingston Pike mingle with black families from the neighborhoods to the north. Men and women, rednecks and yuppies, geezers and young punks—all are brought together by the simple and undeniable pleasure of knocking things down. Western Plaza Lanes is like a little Knoxville United Nations, a place of healing and togetherness, where the beers are $1.69 apiece.

It's not that bowling is without its dark side. On weekends every bowling alley in the country has some version of Rock 'n' Bowl or Cosmic Bowling. Whatever name it goes under, these weekend evening gimmicks are typified by loud music, disturbing lighting, and annoying contests in the belief (probably correct) that only a complete sensory bludgeoning can lure America's youth out of its PlayStation bloodfests and Internet pornography expeditions and into bowling alleys. But even before that madness of Rock 'n' Bowl crowds the bowling alleys with people we all used to be and are now glad we aren't, certain alleys live closer to the heart of that darkness than others.

Just a block behind the mega-store-lined Kingston Pike of West Knoxville is Trucker's Lane. This dark, narrow road stretches through the sprawling service industry wasteland that underlies the Pike's neon and halogen retail wonderland. In a giant Quonset hut, just off Trucker's Lane, is the dutifully named Family Bowl.

Like many enterprises west of the Papermill exit, a certain current of Blue Velvet-like weirdness courses through Family Bowl. At first, nothing seems amiss. In fact, Family Bowl seems somehow more comfortable than other alleys. And, appropriately for its geography, not a single retail opportunity has been missed. Rather than the standard hamburger, fries, and beer of other alleys, Family Bowl will serve you a Pizza Hut pizza. You can get a draft beer (for $3) and there are waitress call buttons by every lane (hell, there are even waitresses).

But after a minute or so in the glaring fluorescent lights, the extremely peppy planetary decor begins to hint more at impending cosmic doom than a wacky plug for weekend Planet Bowling. It is in the minutiae that Family Bowl unsettles. Most disturbing are the lanes themselves.

Knoxville's only artificial bowling surface, Family Bowl's plastic lanes are built atop the ruins of older wooden lanes. This is troubling for the fact that the additional five inches of floor distort the perspective on the lanes and make it incredibly difficult to reach the hand blower. And with the crummy shoes I got, it was also difficult to get the appropriate slide on the slicker artificial floor.

Beyond the merely ergonomic considerations, however, the new floor caused spiritual difficulties as well. Frequently, as I prepared my approach, I was beset by brain-twisting visions of the old maple lanes curled and rotting beneath the merciless plastic gleam of modernity (strangely, I bowled the best game of my life in the perverse ambiance of Family Bowl).

Perhaps bowling won't be able to survive the coming monotonous, digital apocalypse. For despite the game's amazing spread across time and space, and Mr. Miller's impressive figures on bowling participation, there's evidence that the bloom is off the bowling rose. The number of certified bowling centers peaked in 1963, and league membership reached the impressive high of 4.5 million in 1980, but both numbers have started to decline in recent years.

And there is no longer bowling on network television. The only place to catch a televised bowling tournament now is on ESPN, just before they start re-running tape from last year's breathtaking street luge competition. But another game at Western Plaza Lanes gave me hope. Bowling isn't going to disappear. It's just that, like reading, it's starting to slip beneath America's cultural radar. Walk into any bowling alley and roll a few balls and it is easy to see why. Something about bowling speaks of another time and another America—maybe a better one.