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  In Their Spare Time

There are bragging rights at stake for the Sleepers and the nine other teams competing in APL's bowling league for the 2005-2006 season. Like those who have bowled before them — in a tradition dating back to the 1940s — this year's keglers from Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab have gotten fun down to a science.

By Dale Keiger
Photos by Mike Ciesielski

At the Brunswick Lanes in Columbia, Maryland, Madge Kellner lofts a bowling ball toward the pins waiting 60 feet away at the end of lane 11. The ball sails several yards through the air before landing on the lane with a thunk and rolling on its way. An ideal roll hooks at the end of its trajectory to strike between the head pin and the three pin. But Madge, watching with her hand still overhead from her follow-through, has made a less-than-ideal roll that leaves pins standing in an unfortunate 4-10 split. Achieving a spare on her next ball seems unlikely. At least she knows what went wrong. As she explains to one of her teammates, "Ball's not working tonight."

Madge Kellner Madge's team is called the Sleepers. Her late husband was a longtime security guard at Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory. Her daughter, Margaret Reed, is on APL's payroll now as an administrative assistant, and tonight Madge is trying to help lift the Sleepers out of fourth place in APL's 2005-2006 bowling league. The current season, which began last September and will go about 35 weeks, has 10 teams vying for the championship, teams with names like That Ain't Right, Aces Over Kings, Bombers, and King Pins. The bowling alley — a term the industry has forsaken in favor of "bowling center" or, God help us, "family-friendly entertainment destination" — is a lively place on this rainy Tuesday evening. It contains about 30 lanes and all are in action. Nothing else sounds like a bowling alley: the resonant rolling basso of bowling balls and the sudden clatter of scattered pins against a background of public address announcements alerting keglers that their dinners are served.

We have a hot-dog meal ready for pickup.

Bowling with Madge on the Sleepers is Peter Crickman, a skinny, affable APL systems engineer who is also the league's president, a position of eminence that he attributes to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is his 15th year of APL bowling. Before tonight's match commenced against Dead Wood, Crickman explained a few things about the league and his team. The team's name derives from bowling terminology: "If one pin is hiding behind another pin, it's a 'sleeper.'" ("Barmaid" is another term for the same phenomenon, but that might not be such a great team name.) Five bowlers compose a team, and three of the Sleepers — Kim Hailey, Jerry Metz, and Jim Beatley — have no connection to APL other than the Tuesday-night league. Participation in the league by APL personnel waxes and wanes from year to year, and this season the league has had to include a lot of non-APL bowlers to field the 10-team minimum required by Brunswick Lanes.

Crickman, with his prized Pearl, a gift from his wife during college. For a while, Crickman says, the APL league considered merging with another group that's bowling tonight several lanes over, but called it off. The other, bigger league had too much of an appetite for strict enforcement of rules, such as the rule about everyone arriving on time. "In the spring a lot of APL guys play softball," Crickman says, "so they get here a little late." Two of the Sleepers are late tonight, and the three-game match begins without them; their scores will be entered as their averages minus 10 pins. This is not a good development, especially when one member of Dead Wood, Michael Carullo, starts off with three straight strikes. Jerry Metz of the Sleepers nails a strike in the fourth frame, and Crickman gets one in the fifth, but Dead Wood begins to build a lead as the Sleepers' Kim Hailey bustles in, late from her job in real estate. A few frames later, the last Sleeper, Jim Beatley, arrives with his son, Jimmy. Beatley drives for Ultimate Towing and had to go out on a last-minute job that has left the seat of his pants soaked from rigging the tow chain. Jimmy thinks this is hilarious and points out to everyone within earshot that his daddy's rear end is wet.
Madge nails a four-pin spare, Jerry rolls a strike, President Crickman scores a spare, and Jim rolls another strike. Madge, who is a great-grandmother, rubs her knee, which hurts.... If you've not been in a bowling alley for, say, a couple of decades, some things have changed. No longer do you keep score with a grease pencil on a projected acetate overlay. The lanes have been computerized, and digital technology notes the drop of every pin and automatically displays the score. Tonight the system keeps missing a pin here and there, forcing Metz to monitor the situation and occasionally override the system with a manual keyboard by his chair. No longer must bowlers suffer the indignity of ugly bowling shoes. Many of the competitors tonight wear white footwear that more resembles running gear. There has been one regrettable development: No one anywhere in sight is wearing one of those brightly colored, embroidered team bowling shirts. Crickman, for example, competes in a navy blue T-shirt and jeans. Madge at least has turned out in a lively Halloween ensemble that includes a turtleneck shirt decorated with pumpkins, a black sweatshirt bearing a cat in a witch's hat, and jack-o-lantern earrings.

I have a pizza with the works ready for pickup.

Dead Wood wins the first game handily, but the Sleepers start fast in the next match. Madge nails a four-pin spare, Jerry rolls a strike, President Crickman scores a spare, and Jim rolls another strike. Madge, who is a great-grandmother, rubs her knee, which hurts after a weekend of helping a pregnant granddaughter. "Her house is so nice, so roomy, but so many steps," she says. An index of how much those steps hurt is Madge's precise count, which she relates as she tells the story: four steps up into the house, 13 to the upstairs bedroom, 12 down to the basement. But, playing in pain, not to mention with a split thumbnail, Madge pulls out a tough spare, and players on both teams clap for her. The competition is all low-key and amiable, with lots of high-fives to celebrate strikes or spares. Awaiting her turn, Kim digs into her hot-dog-and-fries dinner while on her cell phone to resolve a problem with a real-estate transaction.

Encyclopedia Britannica notes that objects found in the tomb of an Egyptian child, circa 3200 B.C., included nine pins and a stone ball. In A.D. 1325, municipal regulations in Berlin and Cologne limited wagers on bowling to five shillings. The city of Breslau, Poland, gave the winner of a tournament in 1518 a prize of an ox. In that same century, Martin Luther built a lane for his kids, which indicates he wasn't always a sourpuss. Documentary evidence points to a somewhat later date as the inaugural year of APL bowling. The August 1944 issue of APL-JHU-Z — yes, it was meant to be pronounced "apple juice" — reported the first meeting of the rules committee that established the lab's first league. In 1960, there were four APL leagues, including one for married couples that, according to the March 1960 issue of The APL News, "boomed in popularity because it incorporates the family idea in bowling."

As befits an APL leisure activity, bowling does involve physics. As the noted 10-pin authority Isaac Newton observed, "The acceleration of an object is proportional to the force and inversely proportional to the mass acting on it." Or, in this case, a forcefully launched 16-pound ball will wham the pins a lot harder than a slow-moving eight-pound ball. Studies of bowling mention rotational axis vectors and Earth-centered inertial coordinate systems and 6-degree entry angles and rotational kinematics and, here and there, a null eigenvalue. All of which may or may not be on the mind of Hailey as she converts a tough spare, inspiring Beatley, whose pants have finally dried out, to tease her: "I taught you well, girl, I taught you well." The Sleepers tally three strikes in the seventh, two in the eighth, and roll to victory in the second game.

Small cheese pizza ready for pickup, small cheese.

The third game proceeds in a tense fashion, with Dead Wood and the Sleepers staying within a few pins of each other, frame by frame. Crickman, who has a 166 average, occasionally glances at Shane Hamlin, who is bowling a few lanes over for That Ain't Right, the APL team currently in first place. The week before, Hamlin rolled a 288, which means he damned near pulled off a perfect, 12-strike, 300 game. "Everybody was rooting for him," Crickman says. (It was a big night for the Hamlin household, as his wife Tracy scored the high game for women with a 232.) Shane, who sports an elaborate brace to help keep a firm wrist during his backswing, isn't doing quite that well tonight. Madge, on the other hand, rolls a strike for the Sleepers, hitting the left-hand pocket between the head pin and the second pin, what's known in the game, for some reason, as a Brooklyn. She observes, "Not bad for a 72-year-old woman, is it?"

In the ninth frame, Madge does it again as the Sleepers chip away at Dead Wood's 18-pin lead. Crickman takes up his Brunswick Pearl ball, which his wife bought for him in college, and rolls a spare in the last frame. He finishes with a respectable 188. Madge contributes a 156, 20 pins over her average, and the Sleepers pull out a 56-pin victory. They will move up in the league standings to at least third place.

As all the matches conclude, the bowlers change their shoes, pack their bags, and clear out rapidly. Apparently, there are no beer frames in a weeknight league that includes a lot of people with kids at home. Next week, the Sleepers will face Aces Over Kings, with second place at stake. Madge says goodnight and Crickman pulls on his coat. He shakes hands with a member of the vanquished Dead Wood and says, "Nice bowling with you."

Dale Keiger is a senior writer for Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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