Gerald Carbone: For The Love of Duckpin Bowling
Saturday, October 05, 2013
Town Hall Lanes in Johnston and share stories about duckpin bowling, a sport played in few places outside of Rhode Island.
For reminiscence, I have brought together Gene Fierlit and Dave Mulvey, both members of the Rhode Island Duckpin Hall of Fame. Each has bowled for more than 40 years, and in their time they’ve seen a lot: Swede Lavers’ last pro tour; exploding pins; Mulvey’s comeback from a fiery car crash.
“Some weird stuff though,” says Fierlit, a career printer who now works at Stop `N Shop. “A lot of weird stuff.”
“I don’t know if you’d call it weird or not,” says Mulvey. “I remember Swede Lavers’ last pro tour win. It was right here,” he says motioning toward the lanes.
“Swede had cancer at the time. Swede’s gone now, but—at the time, I mean, he was on his last legs.”
Somehow Lavers, a 6-foot-2 Marine with a shaved head, managed to bowl well enough to qualify for the ladder round, where bowlers face off one-on-one, winner advances till one is left standing.
“He was bowling against Charlie Pollack,” Mulvey says. “Swede throws a ball, and he goes down. He was so weak, he wasn’t able to get back up.”
A hush fell over the lanes. Lavers struggled to stand. Minutes passed. But he stood, and resumed.
“Make a long story short,” Mulvey says, “Swede wins the next two games and wins the pro tour. … I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house when they gave him the check, because we all knew.”
Down memory lane
Rhode Islanders have been bowling duckpins since at least the 1890s. According to the 1901 Providence Journal Almanac, the highest three-game set in 1900 was 325, a shockingly low score by today’s standards. Now pins are hollow and made of plastic so they fly when struck; but until the 1960s pins were fashioned from solid rock maple—heavy and hard to knock over.
“One of the weirdest things that sticks out in my mind,” says Fierlit—and then he lapses into a story about those old rock maple pins. They still used them when he was a teen bowling at the Darlington Lanes in Pawtucket.
“So this guy, George Gregory—big, big, big guy—he’s a mover, big guy. He throws the ball a ton. He’s shooting the three-six, now he’s shooting on wooden pins, hits it, shatters both pins. They’re gone. It was like an explosion.”
Mulvey survived an actual explosion. In the summer of `82 a car going 100 mph clipped the rear of Mulvey’s van. The gas tank blew. His burning van rolled three times, holding him, his mother, brother, and a family friend. Nobody died, but most were badly burned.
After nine weeks in a Boston burn unit, “the very first thing I did when I got home was I had my father go down and get my bowling balls.” And Mulvey crammed a ball into his bent and bandaged hand.
“I said: I will bowl again. Every friend I had in the world at that time was a bowler. They are the greatest people in the world.”
Carol Deshong, another duckpin hall-of-famer, approaches our table. “I spent nine weeks in the hospital, and two or three times a week her and her husband drove up to see me,” Mulvey says.
“It’s not because we liked him,” Deshong jokes.
“Where else are you gonna find that?” says Mulvey.
“We came here for Facebook,” Deshong says of her early bowling years. “If we wanted to talk to our friends, this was our Facebook.”
Gerald M. Carbone is the author of Nathanael Greene, and was a journalist for twenty-five years, mostly for the Providence Journal. He has won two of American journalism's most prestigious prizes—the American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award and a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. He lives in Warwick, Rhode Island.
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