There are many fine bowlers in the state of Colorado. There is George McDonald, who, in his 68 years on this piece of earth has won 36 state and local championships, a record that makes people like John Wooden, UCLA's Wizard of Westwood, look like a flash in the pan. There is Jim Chestney, who today expertly drills finger holes for leaguers from his suburban home in Highlands Ranch, but who in 1969 roared out of nowhere to victory in the Professional Bowlers Association Master's Championship, only to send the fame and fortune knocking at his door packing in a celebratory cloud of booze and parties.
Today, however, in the spring of the year 2000, the kegler of the hour, the Master of the Pins, is James Lambert. He has one gold tooth in the middle of his lower jaw. His right thumb is twice the size of his left, and the middle fingernail of the same hand is fused to his cuticle with a dab of superglue. His Aunt Kitty, out of Carrollton, Texas, is a member of the National Women's Bowling Hall of Fame. He recently learned that the man he thought was his stepfather actually was his real father all along (and vice versa), and he keeps the classic flat black 1958 Ripley ball his mother gave him in 1966, after her nervous breakdown, in a cardboard box over the bulk package of toilet paper.
All of which is to say that Jim Lambert pretty much represents what most people expect to find when they wander into a bowling alley. "I'm a white trailer-trash Texan," he says cheerfully. "Our nerve endings don't go to the end of our bodies. We're not quite on top of the food chain. In the middle, maybe. But definitely not on top."
He regards other bowlers similarly. A few weeks back, Brunswick, the giant company that manufactures much of the equipment found in bowling alleys these days, asked Jim to make a guest appearance on its Web site. The company wanted him to chat with some of its customers. Or, as Jim puts it, "To answer questions from stupid-assed, butt-cleavaged, flat-topped bowlers from across the country who can't figure this shit out on their own. If this dumb ol' boy from Texas can figure it out, why can't they?"
He turned down the suits on principle. But then he thought about it for a while and called them back. He suggested, "If you give me a free bowling ball, I'll do it." Brunswick declined, so Jim strongly recommended that the company shove it. "Idiots," he muses. "They're ruining this game."
There are an estimated 91 million bowlers in this country, throwing on 128,315 lanes at 6,398 centers. How it came to be that Brunswick was calling Jim Lambert, 48, of Evergreen, Colorado, at all is a matter of some debate among people who are acquainted with him. Even Jim has his opinion, although typically it is modest and indifferent to the big picture. "If you were to draw a line representing the trajectory of my life, there would be incredible spikes of good luck," he says simply.
And that certainly could explain it. There's plenty of evidence of Jim's luck. Getting out of the Vietnam War, for example, or hitting the lotto and becoming an instant millionaire at the age of 45. But, then, that's only one man's take.
Gail Port is Jim's best friend and bowling buddy. He is also one of the state's best bowlers. He was there on that charmed night in February, and he has a different explanation, one that hints at the divine -- or, at the very least, providence. "I believe in destiny," he says. "I really do. And when I add that whole incredible night up, I just believe it was destined to happen. There's no other explanation."
Maybe it would be best to start at the beginning, with the two lesbians. "They owned an alley in Dallas, where my mom and dad bowled. Sometimes they let me follow them to the alley. I wanted to bowl, and one day Alta and Virginia were watching me practice and said, 'If, after your mom and dad finish, you'll clean up, we'll give you lessons.' So I traded lessons for work. They even gave me a house ball. I was eleven years old."
He was one of seven kids. His mom was a hairdresser. She worked in her own shop, sweeping the Carrollton ladies' hair up into elegant statuary. Then, three times a week, after dinner, she would go over to Rhoton's Funeral Parlor and fix up dead women's hair, too, making sure they presented their best at their final social occasion.
When Jim was fourteen years old his mother had a spell, which he now recognizes as a nervous breakdown. Bowling runs like a strand of DNA through Jim's life and so, even now, looking back, no one is surprised that it happened at the Carrollton Lanes. It just seemed to make sense. "She was a good bowler," Jim says. "All the women in my family were. They certainly were big enough; they ought to be able to throw a bowling ball. My dad called them 'good winter women.' Whenever I would bring [my wife] Didi -- who isn't that big -- down to visit, he'd say, 'You gonna take that woman back to Colorado? She ain't gonna keep you warm in the winter.'"
On the day she stopped bowling for good, Jim's mom had a 186 average. As she had done thousands of times before, she stepped up and faced the pins at the Carrollton Lanes. And then she froze. She simply couldn't remember what came next. Jim's dad and some friends hurried out to where she was standing, gripped her gently by her arms and guided her back to the seats. After a while, when it became clear she'd never walk a lane again, she gave her ball to Jim.
His old man owned a trucking company; and then, when that went bankrupt, a heating and air-conditioning company. Everyone called him Son. He had quit school after third grade and had scrambled his way to where he was through little more than determination and hard work. Just how little became clearer when, one day when Jim was a teenager, Son came home with a sheaf of court documents in his hand and passed them to Jim's older brother. "Read these," he said. "Why?" the brother wanted to know. "'Cause I can't," Son answered.
Son bowled, too, although he didn't place any Texas records in deadly jeopardy. "He was a frustrated 180-average bowler," Jim recalls. "He was extremely uncoordinated. But he could throw a ball so hard you couldn't believe it. He had those giant Popeye forearms from driving trucks with no power steering." On those rare occasions he'd get a strike you could hear him from across the entire bowling alley: "Gaaawd al-MIGHT-ty."
Jim managed to make it to class a good eight years longer than Son, dropping out of school for good in the eleventh grade. A formal education may not have been in the cards, but that didn't mean Jim had no plans. "What I really wanted to be was a cop," he says. "But I had drank so much beer and got in so many honky-tonk fights...Well, I went to the chief of the Carrollton police department and said, 'What do I have to do to join the force?' He said, 'Join the Army and when you get out we'll wipe it clean.'" In 1969 Jim signed up, just in time to get shipped out to Vietnam.
One day, in the middle of basic training, there was a fire drill. While racing down some stairs, Jim fell and broke his back. It would cause him untold pain for years to come, and today his leg still sometimes goes numb. But he knows that things could have been much worse in Vietnam. The injury kept him out of the war, so Jim came to view the accident as a piece of extremely good luck.
Still, Jim could no longer bowl. The pain was just too much. When he quit throwing after six years of steady progress, he held a good-looking 195 average. It was a hard thing to give up.
Fortunately, life often presents its own solutions, and soon Jim was distracted in that fortunate and lucrative way that the best salesmen -- those infatuated by their own merchandise -- can be. He recalls, "I saw an ad in the paper: 'Sell pencils and pens.' I figured, 'Hey, everybody needs those,' and I went into business and fell in love with office furniture." Jim hurled himself into the business. He discovered he was very good at convincing people to buy office furniture. In 1980 he moved to Evergreen and started his own company.
Things had gotten so busy that Jim really didn't think about bowling at all. But one day in 1988, some friends talked him and Didi into taking a spontaneous drive to the Littleton Funplex for a few quick lines of moonlight bowling. Jim hesitated, but he didn't take much convincing. He threw a 228 that night, and after years of countless and various treatments his back barely hurt at all.
It's difficult for Jim to do anything casually, though. "So I went to Jerry Birch, this local guy I knew who had been a sort of a quasi-pro, and I said, 'Tell me what I've got to do to be competitive,'" Jim recalls. "He sat me down and three hours later I leaned back and said, 'Wow.' I didn't know anything about bowling: thumbweight, fingerweight, ball balance, lane oil. Nothing." Jim was not about to give up bowling again. He went out and bought a brand-new, state-of-the-art urethane Hammer and began throwing in earnest.
So you think you know bowling? "This," says Jim, ducking through a door in the back of his garage, "is my pro shop and cat shelter."
The room is small, about ten feet by eight feet. One wall is lined with built-in wooden shelves displaying a dozen or so bowling balls of varying hues. "Each of these balls is for a different lane, although I only really bowl with about five balls," Jim says. "And some of them I've retired. My 300 balls, mostly."
There have been twelve of those rare perfect games since Jim's comeback, as well as ten 299s and a handful of 298s. Last year, Jim decided to really put his mind to bowling, see what he could do. He joined four leagues, and when the year ended he held the highest average of anyone in Colorado, a 236.9 -- better than some men throwing on the pro tour.
In the middle of the room is a wooden worktable. A ball sits on a pedestal, elevated so that Jim can work on it more efficiently. Today he's tweaking the surface with 600-grit sandpaper to try to make it grip the lanes better. "The balls will do the same thing if you keep them clean," he explains. "But they're porous, and they soak up the lane oil." This causes uneven weight distribution, so if you're a very serious bowler you place your ball in a pie pan with some water in it and set the oven temperature to about 230 degrees. After a while, you'll see a slick of lane oil that has seeped out of your ball and is now floating in the pan. If you're Jim, however, you just sand.
A bowling ball, at its heaviest, generally weighs just sixteen pounds. Ten pins weigh 39 pounds, give or take a couple of ounces. Getting the former to generate enough energy to flatten the latter from a distance of sixty feet at an approximate speed of fifteen miles per hour takes some doing. So here is what Jerry Birch told Jim Lambert about finding success on the lanes:
To people unfamiliar with the properties of lane oil, it is a mystery why on some days their ball rolls true and slams directly into the pocket (the gap between the one and three pins), and on other days the exact same ball propelled by the exact same throw ends up on the Brooklyn side, or light. The difference is lane oil. Different houses spread their oils in different patterns and thicknesses. Just as conditions on putting greens vary from one course to the next, so, too, do bowling lanes.
Generally speaking, the oil begins at the foul line and spreads about 38 to 42 feet down the lane, where it ends. It is usually thicker in the middle 30 boards (42 boards comprise the width of a bowling lane) and then thins out toward the gutters. Once the ball leaves the bowler's hand, it rotates on top of this sheet of oil, building up friction. When enough friction is generated, and when the oil layer thins enough, the ball grabs the lane and is propelled by the spin toward the pins. The deck -- where the pins are set -- also collects oil. A good, consistent layer of oil will guide the ball through the pins cleanly. A heavily oiled deck, on the other hand, will permit the ball to slide, thus disrupting the ideal pin motion. Typically, a slippery deck leaves the eight or seven pin standing.
Naturally, none of this holds true if the lane has not been oiled in a couple of days, or if the humidity is particularly high (or low), or if you're throwing at a different altitude, or if the house suddenly decided to lay down an inverted oil pattern (thick on the outside, thinner toward the middle), or if the thickness is more or less than it was last time you bowled here, or if many other bowlers have thrown on the same lane before you and spread the oil into a wholly different pattern. Hence Jim's extensive collection of bowling balls.
Jim keeps a tattered notebook on every house where he bowls, with notes detailing lane conditions cross-referenced by time of year. For example, he says, "Take the Broadmoor, on Wadsworth and Mississippi. Their house in the winter has heavy oil in the middle and a very playable outside oil -- very workable if you want to throw inside-out. Now that's for fall and winter. In the summer, they don't tend to oil as much because fewer people are bowling. So you'll typically find dry heads [the area near the foul line] and streaked back ends. In other words, you'll get a very erratic back-end reaction. It tells me I've got to make drastic moves instead of minimal ones to get my ball where I want it to go." In the summer Jim will polish his ball rather than rough it to compensate for the traditionally dry conditions.
All of that information doesn't even begin to take into account the recent revolution in bowling-ball technology. Balls these days are multilayered spheres. At their core is an uneven, figure-eight-shaped weight. Where you drill your finger- and thumbholes in relation to the center axis greatly influences the ball's rotation. The ball's unevenness creates the spin, and a properly drilled ball, thrown with perfection in relation to the oil on the lane, will actually pick up speed just as it breaks, right before it crashes into the pins.
Jim's ball is drilled to emphasize fingerweight, and the holes are farther apart than normal so that he can place more of his hand on the ball's surface to improve control. Many bowlers take several balls to the lanes with them to account for conditions, and to attack particular pin configurations. Because he is good at varying his throw, however, Jim only takes one. "For instance, I can go out there and completely take the hook out of my ball by flattening my wrist," he explains.
It's a lot of information for practitioners of America's Number One Participation Sport. "Truthfully," Jim says, "I don't totally understand it. And I don't know anyone who does. It's gotten real technical, and you're talking about a bunch of beer-swillin', butt-cleavaged idiots who generally don't give a shit."
But Jim does give a shit, and he's been fortunate enough to be able to spend the time necessary to get a handle on the game of modern bowling. In 1997, Jim and Didi won the state lotto drawing. Their winning ticket was worth $3 million. "It was a five-dollar ticket, and the winning number was the first line," Jim says. "Pissed me off. I wasted four friggin' dollars. But it helped convince me to take early retirement." And it put the Cadillac SUV and the cherry 1972 454 LS5 El Camino in the garage.
The Cadillac is to motor about the mountains in style. The El Camino? Well, "My dad always had an El Camino, and I always wanted one," Jim explains. "To me, an El Camino indicated that you had arrived. When Son got out of a pickup and went into an El Camino, that meant he didn't have to pull service calls anymore, haul around all that shit. It meant he had made it."
Jim knew he didn't grow up in a perfect Ozzie and Harriet family. In some ways, life was just unpleasant. "One time, when I was about seven or eight, I fell out of a tree, and I came crying into the house skinned up from head to toe," he remembers. "My dad stopped me before I got inside and said, 'Stop right there. You ain't bleedin' in my house.'" The man was rough as rust.
But recently Jim learned that his family was even more complicated than he'd thought. The story goes like this: In the 1940s, as her sweetheart was being shipped out to North Africa to fight in World War II, Jim's mom promised to wait for his father. While he was gone, though, she met Son and fell in love. Still, in small-town Texas in 1945, your word was your life, so when her sweetheart returned, Jim's mom married him as she'd said she would. They had five children.
A few years later, though, Son and his family moved into a house down the street. Maybe it was fate -- perhaps even their destiny -- but it turned out that in 1951, with her husband gone to the Korean War, Jim's mom and Son rekindled their love. One thing had led to the next, and Jim was born in 1952. Later, Jim's mom divorced his father and married Son. He treated Jim well, and so Jim always considered Son his dad, even if he was only his stepfather. Because his mom had ended up marrying Son anyway, nobody thought to tell Jim of his real parentage.
Early last year, Son lay in a Texas hospital bed with a bad respiratory infection. Jim had traveled south to be with him. As they shared the vigil one day, Jim's mother called him over. "The man lying in that bed is your real dad," she whispered. Son died three days later, and Jim bought the El Camino soon after that.
"The best people I ever met in my life were in a bowling alley," Jim says.
Thursday night at the Captain and Crew League, the Swamp Lizards are taking on the Predators. "We decided to call ourselves the Swamp Lizards because the name SOL -- that's 'Shit Out of Luck' -- was already taken by our Monday-night team," Jim explains. "Next year I think we're going to be Team Hankey." Hanging off Jim's bowling bag is a Mr. Hankey doll, the singing turd from the South Park television series.
"Way to go, Port!" Jim yells over the crash and din of the alley. "You're an animal."
Port is Gail Port, who has just rolled a smooth but violent strike in the night's first frame. He and Jim have bowled together ever since Jim's comeback, twelve years ago now. "Plus he's a lefty, so he doesn't fuck up my shot," Jim adds. "And he's uglier than me, so I can look at him and laugh. And I am a better bowler than him."
Actually, the two men are about even. Two years ago Port won the state's best-average title with a typical score of 236. The following year -- last year -- Jim won the title with the same score. Averaged over a year, the two men's scores usually are separated by little more than a pin.
"C'mon, Wimpy!" Jim yells.
That would be Kirk Lowery, a short, muscular man with a wicked right-handed hook and a steady-as-a-house 222 average. "I call him Wimpy 'cause he looks like that guy in Popeye who eats all the burgers," Jim explains. Kirk just rolls his eyes at Jim.
Rounding out the Swamp Lizards are Jolene Poole, a tall woman and crack bowler with wild curly hair; and Didi Lambert. Even though the Captain and Crew is a handicapped league, the Lizards are about as close to scratch as you can get. The team gets about a dozen pins between them, and currently is in second place in the league.
"Jim is an intensely social bowler," observes Kirk, who is leaning back against the reception desk and watching Jim. Put another way, Jim can't seem to shut up. He knows every person at the alley, and he has something to say to each one -- even members of the opposing team.
"Shoulders! Shoulders, Roxie," he screams to a Predator who has just left the ten pin hanging. "You're dippin' your shoulders, babe."
To Jolene: "Way to go, baby. You're holdin' me up."
To Kirk: "Extend, Kirk. Extend."
To a woman holding a baby: "That's a nice-lookin' bowling ball. Sprout some arms, get the seven-ten every time."
On the lane to Jim's left, a small appreciative cheer sounds. Jim must know why.
"Hey, Minh," he shouts. "What'd ya pick up?"
"Four-ten," Minh says. "I can't get any strikes, so I'm working on my spares."
"Way to go, buddy," Jim says.
An older man stops by to jaw with Jim. This is Mac Pride, brother of country singer Charlie and a fine musician in his own right. "I've known Jim about three, four years," he says. "He's a good bowler. A good man."
"And he's a little man with a skinny ol' leg," Jim says, referring to Mac's disability.
"Listen to that shit," Mac says, walking away and shaking his head.
Tonight Jim wears a blue shirt with a yellow collar, un-tucked-in classic bowling style, sporting a Gunther Toody's logo. He has white pants and white shoes. Between throws, he chain smokes. Jim is a four-pack-a-week man. One of those packs he smokes at home. The rest he goes through at the alley, where the smoke from his cigarette drifts and mingles with the haze created by everyone else's.
Jim wanders over to Port holding a copy of the February issue of Mountain States Bowling News and points to a photograph of himself, Didi and Port at last year's national championship tournament in Huntsville, Alabama. "Here's a picture of me and my wife and my dad," he says. Port, who only just turned forty years old this week, shakes his head at Jim's unmitigated shit.
As Jim walks away Port turns serious. "Anytime someone has a big night there's bound to be a few frames where he gets lucky," he says. "You need that for it to happen. But that night, the way the pins moved..." His voice trails off at the mystery -- and, perhaps, unfairness -- of it all. Who knows why fate blesses one man and not another?
As the first game of the night for the Swamp Lizards ends, Jim glances up at the overhead scorecard. He has rolled a 220. But Didi's score is 233.
"She kicked my butt," Jim says happily.
This year, after he won the best-average title, Jim decided to take it easy, maybe bowl just a couple of leagues with Didi. (He ended up throwing in three anyway, after a friend had to bow out and asked Jim to take his place.) One of the leagues he stayed in was the Captain and Crew League, which bowls Thursday nights at AMF Arvada. Jim has been in the league for two years.
He liked it because it was big -- 32 teams with five members each -- and Jim likes being around people. But Arvada was also a technical challenge. "It has been known as one of the toughest shots in the state," he says. "Their oiling pattern is very inconsistent. The machines that put the oil on the lanes have a series of brushes, and they should be cleaned every other day or so, and I don't think the mechanics do that at Arvada. Port and I wanted to try a difficult lane."
Still, despite cutting back his bowling nights, it had been a tough winter. On February 10, for example, Jim had to be carried out of the lanes on a stretcher. Ever since being diagnosed with Graves' disease a few years back, he had been plagued by seizures, and he began seizing again that night. Someone had called an ambulance and he'd been hauled off to the hospital for observation and some tests. To Jim's friends -- and everyone in the Captain and Crew is Jim's friend -- the episode was cause for concern and worry and that's all. But for Jim it was humiliating, a reason to run away, maybe forever.
He says, "I told my wife, 'If I start having those damn flippy-flops in front of people, I'll quit bowling.' I was totally embarrassed. I'm very self-conscious. People told me, 'Oh, don't worry, nobody thinks anything of it.' God bless 'em. Anyway, they gave me Valium. But I came back the next Thursday not wanting to bowl. Plus I still had bruises all over my body from my muscles cramping up during the seizure."
So on February 17 Jim brought a new ball with him -- Didi's, actually. A burgundy number, only fifteen pounds instead of the sixteen that Jim normally throws. Jim figured he could use the break. Instead, in practice he was terrible. "I couldn't hit my ass with both hands," he says.
But rather than fiddling with his position, making adjustments until he got into a groove, Jim decided to take the lazy way out. "I decided I wouldn't move," he says. "I decided to stay on the same board -- 27 -- with a visual of 12. I just didn't care."
For Jim, this means that he stands on the number 27 board when he sets his stance. The board is near the middle of the alley. Then he points his toes toward the number 12 dot, which is a few feet up the lane. (When Jim's Graves' disease is bad and his memory is like a screen window, he'll tape a piece of paper on his left shoe reminding him which boards to sight in on.) If all goes well, with this configuration Jim's ball will roll inside out, to the number 7 board, about three-quarters of the way up the alley on the far-right side. There, the weight block inside the ball will flop over and drive the ball into the pocket. If you coated his ball with wet paint and rolled it toward the pins, the streak would look like a bulge on the right side of the alley, like one of those old silhouettes of Alfred Hitchcock's belly.
Apart from sheer indolence, there was another reason that Jim decided not to move around his shot that night, one that actually had to do with strategy. "I noticed in practice that all the other righties were throwing outside, a down-and-in pattern," he explains. "They started at the lower right and threw straight down the lane, until the ball broke late into the pins. And the oil was patterned like a Christmas tree, very light at the end of the lane." That pattern meant the other righties found their balls gripping too soon, building up friction early as the already thin layer of oil wore down. As a result, their throws were going every which way.
Not Jim's, though. "I created my own shot using whatever oil everyone else carried down the lane," he explains. His ball was rolling as if it were on a rail, like one of those kids' toys where the ball is guided through a maze on a track. "The ball was doing exactly the same thing," he says. "If you'd have put a dime out there, I would have hit it nine times out of ten."
The league started, as it does every week, at about 6:30 p.m.
Jim was his regular conversational self. Still, the Avalanche game was on the tube (they were playing the New Jersey Devils and were tied 5-5 in a back-and-forth thriller), so he was paying only polite attention to what was happening on the alley. In fact, it was in the eighth frame when Jim stopped for a moment, looked up and for the first time noticed that he'd thrown nothing but strikes. "You better start paying attention," he told himself. Later, he remembers, "I kind of had a feeling -- no, I knew I was going to get a 300."
Inasmuch as there is such a thing, bowling etiquette demands that if a person is nearing a perfect game he should be left alone. This doesn't mean he should be ignored. Rather, it means that anyone watching simply shouldn't treat him any differently than if he were throwing spares or leaving open frames. The reasons are practical and superstitious, and they are connected. It is a generally accepted belief that if you tiptoe around a person as he is approaching perfection, the spell will be broken. On the other hand, you don't want to be so chatty as to leave the impression that you're trying too hard not to be a distraction. Experienced bowlers have been cheated out of their own glory enough to know to leave it alone.
So Jim was permitted to act like himself, and everyone else did their best to do impersonations of themselves as well. In the tenth frame, as he walked to the lane, Jim turned and looked at Didi. He said, "Don't worry. I got this one. I got it." Didi, acting normal, couldn't have cared less. "She wasn't even paying attention," Jim complains. "She was talking to all them other old broads out there." Finally she looked up. "You think?" she said.
After the game, the other bowlers in the Captain and Crew surged around Jim. Mac Pride wandered over to give him a hug and a kiss. "All that shit," Jim says. "Old black men like to kiss on you. One day I said to Mac, 'Old black men like to kiss on you. Why is that?' He said, 'Shut up, white boy.'"
Most people who bowl throw game to game. League bowlers (whose numbers have dropped steadily over the past decade and today stand at a low of about 3.9 million) throw a three-game series and add up all their pins for a final score. Thus they report their scores as the sum of the games. A 600 series -- an average of three 200 games -- is considered excellent. A 700 series is superb. And an 800 series is a damn good day worth celebrating long and hard.
Jim had thrown an 800 series before. Usually, each time he had thrown a 300, Jim had proceeded directly into lassitude. "You know, the adrenaline is gone and you just want to relax," he explains. As a result, most of the series he had bowled after a 300 had been 700s -- an average of 200 per game following the perfect one. It's nothing to sneeze at. He couldn't ignore the track record, though.
Yet something seemed different about this night. Even then, while it was happening, Jim realized it had to do with the way the ball was moving -- or, rather, the way it wasn't moving. Jim recalls, "The ball was doing the same thing then that it had been the second frame of the first game."
Most good bowlers earn consistently high scores by staying one step ahead of lane conditions. That is, they read the patterns in the lane oil closely enough to predict when the shallow channels in the slick coating have changed enough to make their balls start behaving differently. But the guessing game is just that, and many potentially perfect games have been rendered merely high after a bowler has tried to anticipate and failed.
Jim wasn't about to chance it this time. "I never threw 24 strikes in a row, and I decided I wasn't going to blow it by trying to anticipate the change. I was just going to stay where I was.
The balls kept bowing to the right, and then, on the number 7 board, suddenly cutting to the left and crashing directly into the pocket, like someone was standing by at a railroad switch waiting for Jim's ball to arrive. When he reached the tenth frame of the second game, "That's when people shut up," he recalls. "They just stopped talking to me at all. Which is great. I told them all the other day, 'If you all'd just shut up I'd throw a 300 every time.'"
As Jim settled into position for his second throw in the tenth, he turned and looked at Didi again. "She was wiping her eye," Jim remembers. "And I thought, 'She's got smoke in her eyes.' Anyway, she's sitting next to Jolene. And they're looking down at some book between them. I thought, 'I got nearly 24 strikes in a row -- why the hell are they looking at those damn books?' I got kind of pissed off." But he turned away and concentrated on the white pyramid facing him, paced off his five-step approach and threw.
Even though Didi had seemed disinterested, Jim says, "When I threw the last one, and it was a strike, there she was, all over me. Come to find out later they both were bawling. And I thought, 'You know, I didn't feel this good -- this exhilarated -- when we hit the lotto.' I mean, two 300s in a row is phenomenal. Just phenomenal.
"And then in the third game I started striking again."
At its least complicated, sport is a search for spontaneous moments of perfection. The instant a basketball player hangs motionless in the air above his defender, preparing to release a dead-on shot. A grand slam in the bottom of the ninth. A 70-yard pass that grazes the cornerback's fingers and nestles into the receiver's hands. The instant a bass strikes your line.
But few sports presume to tell you what a perfect performance is. What is a perfect game for a hockey or tennis player? Can a jockey ride a perfect race? A baseball pitcher can throw a perfect game, but only with the complicity of his teammates. Even then he's certain to throw at least one ball.
Bowling is different. A bowler begins each game with the possibility of attaining perfection. Yet even bowlers themselves recognize gradations of flawlessness. Thus, if a 300 game is what most good bowlers aspire to, a 900 series is the Holy Grail.
The mere description -- three perfect games in a row -- doesn't begin to illustrate how extraordinarily rare it is. You are more likely to see a major-league pitcher throw a perfect game, a slugger bang more than sixty home runs in a season, a basketball player get a quadruple double or a football place-kicker boot a sixty-plus-yard field goal. Among the millions of bowlers throwing hundreds of millions of games, there have been, according to the Professional Bowling Congress, only three times ever that someone has strung together a sanctioned 900 series (one each in California, Wisconsin and Nebraska). You have better odds of hitting the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes without buying a magazine subscription.
At about 8 p.m. on February 17, Jim Lambert was two-thirds there. As his third game began, he kept on rolling his shot. The first two throws were clean strikes, grooved as if his ball were on a wire. By the third frame, though, the ball was coming in just a little bit heavy -- too high up on the head pin to instigate the seemingly chaotic but highly predictable helicopter pin action necessary for a solid strike.
"I knew that 'cause the four pin was staying up way too long for my good," Jim says. "And the fourth frame was very questionable. It was a sloppy strike. It was a 'Marv ball' -- it could have really been a split as a strike. I got lucky. And so that's when I moved."
Any change in the middle of a game -- let alone a string of 28 straight strikes -- is risky. It is not unusual for a bowler in a groove to make an adjustment and then spend the next three or four frames sighting in. It can be a painful transition. Often, you can tell when a bowler has made a tiny move by glancing at his score sheet. It will read: strike, strike, strike, nine-spare, nine-spare, nine-spare, before the strikes pick up again.
On most other days, Jim would have adjusted his throw by moving half a step to his left, trying find a clean expanse of oil to slide his ball through. But when he thought it over he remembered that no one else had been throwing down the middle of the lane, either -- they'd all been rolling outside-in. That probably meant the lane oil had been puddling toward the center, flowing into low spots and presenting an erratic oil slick for anyone foolish enough to try to use that part of the lane. So instead of moving left, Jim simply moved up. It was only about a six-inch adjustment. It meant that on every throw there was a chance he'd foul as he pushed into his slide. But he hoped the change would simply advance his shot up a few inches -- delay the break a split-second before the weight at the core of the ball kicked over and drove it into the pocket.
It did. His first throw after the adjustment was perfect. By the fifth and sixth frames, people had begun to take notice. Crowds were starting to accumulate around Jim's lanes. By the seventh frame, the two league teams bowling to his left had finished, and they sat quietly and watched. To the right, the non-league bowlers simply stopped bowling in the middle of their games and stared.
Jolene and Didi, meanwhile, were becoming self-conscious -- no, terrified -- of throwing in front of so many people. "We were just hoping we didn't fall on our ass or our faces," Didi says. Kirk, who threw just before Jim, tried to pretend nothing extraordinary was going on. "Why don't you try for a strike this time?" he'd ask as he and Jim passed near the ball-return machine. "I was a distraction to my teammates," Jim says.
And although he, too, was trying to pretend it was just another night out at the lanes, by now Jim, too, had to face facts. He mostly sat alone, with his head in his hands. The hockey game was over, so there was nothing to look at with feigned nonchalance. And if his friends had been reluctant to talk to him during the second game, Jim was now being treated like a leper with a wet cough. No one wanted to be the one to shatter the fragile magic of the night.
Indeed, by this point, Jim's eighth frame, no one else in the Arvada lane was bowling. It was one of those rare moments when there is a sort of paralysis of time, when everyone senses that they are watching something special that they may only drive by once. You can see it in some of the old pictures of Michael Jordan soaring above the rim. The action on the floor has simply stopped. It is as if the other players are trying to hold still long enough to take a mental snapshot of the instant so they can say later with certainty, "Yes, it was as perfect as I remember."
The eighth and ninth frames both went as smoothly as if Jim were back throwing in the first frame of the first game. His ball eased right and then broke left, perfectly and firmly into the pocket. He now had 33 strikes in a row. Outside of bar talk, it was the longest string he'd heard of. "Now, I've heard of guys throwing fifty strikes in a row in pot games" -- informal games where guys throw ten or twenty bucks in a pot, winner take all -- Jim says. "But you gotta understand, there's a lot of beer involved in pot games. And beer affects your memory."
Jim stood up to throw his tenth frame. He walked to the ball-return machine and reached for the borrowed fifteen-pound ball of Didi's. He turned and faced the pins. "And then Gail Port, that bald-headed son of a bitch," reflects Jim. "In the entire time we've bowled with each other, twelve years, we've never interfered with each other's game. But he came up to me, just as I was getting my ball. And he grabbed me by the shoulders and said, 'Now Jim, you know every time we get in this position we let up.' That is, you tend to be hesitant as you place the ball. But, I mean, we never do this.
"So I stopped and said to Gail, 'What's your point?' And he said, 'Don't let up. Be aggressive.'"
At first, Jim couldn't get over that Gail had broken protocol and come up and talked to him -- let alone touched him. But then, as he stood there facing the pins, Jim also began to wonder why Port had thought it was so imperative to say what he'd said. And that began to gnaw at him.
It was like trying not to think of a bear in a room when someone tells you not to think of a bear in a room. Jim tried to concentrate. He took his position, stepped toward the pins -- and threw too hard. "I knew it when I let go," he says. "It came in real light. The head pin shot straight across, missed the two pin big time. The five carried out."
Never mind the mechanics. When the throw was done, the two pin still stood. It had tippled as the nine other pins swirled around it. Jim looked at it, and then looked at it again, hard. But it didn't move.
There was a groan from the crowd, though only a soft one. And then there was a terrific explosion of applause. And no one moved. The moment was still so charmed, and why should anyone cut that short if he didn't have to?
Jim spared, and he hit the next strike, too. "I went back to what I was doing before Gail spoke to me," he says. "It was perfect." Out of 36 throws he'd hit 34 strikes.
Jim bowled an 879 series that night. It was good enough to earn him the state record for highest score ever in Colorado, and another one for the most consecutive strikes, too. According to the bowling congress, the score ties for 31st best ever. When Jim first learned that he was -- momentarily -- disappointed.
"Thirty-first?" he wondered. "How can that be when it was only 21 pins away from a 900? From perfect?"
"'Lot of people bowling," replied Didi.
That was later, though. It was a magnificent moment in Jim's life, as much for the fact that he had done it as for the fact that he had done it surrounded by so many of his friends. "I don't think I missed hugging a person in that entire alley," he says. "I was grabbing people in the Dairy Queen afterwards. I've never felt anything like that."
On October 8, 1956, in the fifth game of the World Series, Don Larsen, pitching for the New York Yankees, threw a perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Yankees won the game 2-0. Among baseball fans, it is still, even today, nearly a half-century later, considered a singular moment of pure, undiluted beauty.
But what if things had been slightly different? What would Don Larsen have done if his catcher, Yogi Berra, had held up his hand and walked out to the mound just before the final pitch -- and following that Larsen had given up a single? What must become of the person who, when you are teetering on the brink -- immortality beckoning on one side and a merely superb moment waiting on the other -- might very well have nudged you in the lesser direction?
Well, Jim will say, bowling is a great way to spend an evening. But rolling a sixteen-pound ball at ten pins sixty feet up an oil-slicked hardwood floor is only part of the pleasure.
"I didn't say anything to Port afterwards, 'cause I didn't want him to feel bad," Jim says. "With really good friends, you know where the line is for what you can tease about and what you can't. He doesn't tease me about being short and ugly, and I don't tease him about being bald. Besides, subconsciously, I probably would've missed anyway. I was just thinking too much."
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Later, Jim will lean back in his kitchen chair and look out his window at the Colorado mountains and ponder things. He will consider how, at times, the clearest glimpse of all of life's loveliness can be seen best from just this side of perfection.
"I think if I had bowled a 900, I would have had to pack up my equipment and quit. Somebody recently said to me, 'Well, you could take up golf.' And I said, 'Excuse me, have they put ball returns on golf courses and not told me?'
"Besides," Jim says, "I never thought of myself as perfect anyway. And I don't know anyone who is."