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"Star Bowling at the Billiken"
By Dave Kiffer

May 07, 2005

Ketchikan, Alaska - Hall of Fame bowler Dick Weber died earlier this Spring and that got me thinking about my "misspent" youth at the old Billiken Bowl on Stedman Street.

jpg Dave Kiffer

No, Weber never rolled a strike at the Billiken, as far as I know. But he was the big bowling star in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the Billiken was in its final frames.

I had a book called Dick Weber's "Champion's Guide to Bowling" and I literally wore the cover off it carrying it to the bowling alley and back (and thanks to Ebay, I have a "brand new" copy). It was important to have the book at the lanes because then I could look at the pictures and compare my stance and delivery with that of Weber's.

I remember Felix Zamora laughing loudly from the desk as I went through Weber's four step (pushway, step, step, slide) approach over and over again. I held a light "star" ball in my right hand and the book in my left. It wasn't that easy trying keep your balance sliding up to the foul line while looking at a book in your hand to make sure you were doing it correctly.

The "star" ball's were the 8-10 pound balls that we youngsters used, to learn how to get the balls down the lane without finding the "gutters." Technically, the gutters were called "channels" but we never called them that. Probably because saying we "put the ball in the channel" sounded too much like we'd lobbed one into Tongass Narrows.

We kids wanted to leave that activity to the grownups who would drown their "bad" games in the smoky lounge on the water side of the Billiken. Reportedly more than a few "bad balls" (bowlers never choke, their equipment fails them!) were launched out back of the lounge. I never saw it happen, but then I was too young to be in the lounge anyway (wink, wink). But I digress.

Even with the star balls it wasn't easy to keep the ball in play. In those days, we'd never heard of the channel-filling "bumpers" they use now. I still remember the first time I kept a ball on the lane all the way down. I was about 4 ? or so. I remember it because I wasn't supposed to be bowling. I was hanging out with my little friends behind the ball racks as our mothers' competed in an afternoon housewifes' league. Naturally, we were more interested in the cigarette butts smoldering in the ash trays and the unguarded pizza slices on the chairs than the bowling.

During a break in the action (can't remember if it was a "smoking" break or a "lounge" break) I grabbed a star ball and let it roll from back by the scorer's table. It went really slowly. Everyone stopped to watch it. It kept rolling and rolling and rolling like the Energizer bunny in sloooowwww motion. It looked like it was going to come to a stop before it even got to the pins.

Someone started to walk down the gutter to fetch the ball. But it hit the head pin before she reached it. The head pin knocked over the five pin and the ball nestled on the lane like a piece of licorice stuck between a bunch of gapped front teeth. Everyone applauded. My mom was not amused.

Despite that auspicious start - and the fact that just about everyone in my family bowled - it took a while for me to repeat that feat of controlled "keggling." (Why do they call bowlers "keglers" anyway? Anyone? Anyone?) A couple of years later, I remember getting three strikes in one game leading a big score of "93."  Then took me something like five years to top that score. By the time I was in junior high I was averaging 140 to 150 which sounds pretty good as long as you don't compare it to my older brother who was averaging well over 200 in five different adult leagues.

At least it was a sport that I could do, primarily because it didn't involve swinging wildly at fastballs or lobbing up airballs from the top of the key. I was looking forward at being as successful as my older brother.

Then the unthinkable happened. Early in my high school career (can't remember if it was freshman or sophomore year) the Billiken closed. By the time it was replaced by the lanes at the Entertainment Center several years later, the ship leading to my "professional" bowling career had sailed.

After coming back from college, I was in a couple adult leagues at the new place and averaged up in the high 170s, but by then I had lost my desire to spend long hours drinking warm beer and inhaling second hand smoke.

Besides, I still hadn't mastered that weird little Dick Weber semi-stumble right as he released the ball. The "stumble" wasn't in the "Champions" book but you saw it every week on the ABC Bowling coverage with Chris Schenkle. The one time I tried it - in my early days - I launched the star ball two lanes to my right. Felix Zamora thought that was pretty funny too.

The Billiken building is now owned by the University of Alaska Ketchikan Campus. Sometimes when I am either taking or teaching a class there, I swear I can still hear Felix's laughter.

During a recent college remodel of the old building, some windows were punched in the street side of the building. College officials said they were hoping to make the building look more like a school and less like a........well, an old bowling alley. Nice try. Like throwing really hard and hoping the 7 pin careens off the wall, spins across the lane and converts a 7-10 split..

A couple of weeks ago, I heard someone trying explain that a meeting was going to held in the Robertson Building. There were blank faces all around the table.

"The old bowling alley?" She finally offered.

Heads nodded all around. The 10 pin is still standing.


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Dave Kiffer ©2005

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