I haven’t forgotten.
It would have been more than six decades ago, in either 1953 or ‘54. A Friday night I seem to recall. At that time I was a high school student in New Glasgow and a couple friends convinced me to drop by and take a look.
Hey, why not? It was only a couple blocks from home and there was nothing special going on that evening. There was no hockey game at the Stadium and, obviously, no television at home. There was time to waste.
I remember climbing the long staircase that seemed to go up and up forever. When I reached the top and opened the door, I couldn’t believe the atmosphere inside. The smoke was so thick you couldn’t see to the other end of the place. The noise and cheering were so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think.
I was curious and wanted to see more. But the crowd size made it hard to get a good view. A tournament was on and it was standing room only.
As I wandered through the smoke, I could see men, some with cigarettes hanging from their mouths, throwing balls the size of grapefruits down the lanes. At the other end, the balls were knocking over wooden pins, the activity producing an endless racket.
For the first time I was at a sports event that wasn’t being played on an outdoor ball field or in a hockey arena or boxing ring. It was my initial visit to the Vee-Eight Bowling Lanes, named for Vee-Eight Motors, the Ford dealership on the first floor facing the Norfolk Hotel across the street.
It was candlepin bowling.
I don’t know exactly what caught my interest so quickly that evening, but I liked what I was observing.
The sport would dominate my free time for the next 15 years.
I began bowling at Vee-Eight not long after that, and it grew into a passion when, a few years later, the focal point for the sport moved to the new Heather Lanes on the west side.
I got to love that place.
The new location opened just two months after I began working in New Glasgow for The Chronicle Herald, a job that involved a lot of irregular working hours – but a lot of irregular off-hours too.
It wasn’t long before manager Fraser Matheson, his assistant Jimmy Morrison, and mechanic-handyman Leo Ellsworth became good friends.
I bowled in as many leagues as possible. I bowled with Jimmy and anybody else who could spend daytime hours on the lanes. I bowled for nickels and dimes late at night and into the wee hours of the morning.
I bowled and spent so much time there that many of my newspaper contacts, like police and fire departments, knew where to find me when news was breaking.
I was there – bowling with Jimmy – on the day news broke that U.S. President John F. Kennedy had been shot.
So many memories.
I never became a top-level bowler, never represented the Heather at provincial tournaments, but I could average 103 and 104 in league competition. I never bowled a 400 game, but a few times I managed to go over 350. I never established league records, but once I recorded four consecutive strikes.
Mostly, I was having a great time.
There were lots of good people in the sport through the 1960s. I captained a few league teams and was able to persuade some of the premier keglers to bowl on those teams, like Gibby Hiscott, Ike Uhren and Garnie Wamback. Great guys.
When three New Glasgow teams were put together to face Antigonish competition in a series of matches, I got to bowl on a team captained by Doug (Tites) Cantley, with Aubrey Cullen and Don Fitzpatrick also aboard. Another enjoyable experience for sure.
For a while, Heather Lanes hosted a different form of competition called Scotch Doubles, in which teams were made up of just two participants – one male and one female – each throwing balls alternately. I had a wonderful partner in Janet Watters and, in 1964, she and I won the first tournament against some pretty darn good bowlers.
There was also the occasion back in 1963 when four of us entered a bowling marathon, our aim being to break world records. Organized by Matheson and Morrison, the event got great newspaper coverage from Charlie Stevens, assuring large crowds as we bowled from nine o’clock in the morning until the wee hours of the next day.
Joining me for the challenge was Don (Shadow) MacMillan, the best bowler in the foursome; along with Phil Carpenter and Paul McMullen.
What a time we had.
MacMillan bowled for 13 hours and 40 minutes, completing 115 strings with an eye-opening 108.2 average. Carpenter threw in the towel 20 minutes later, posting a 96.0 over 116 strings. McMullen and I kept going and going. Finally, at 1:20 in the morning, I threw my last ball, finishing 140 strings with a 97.4 average. Paul was behind me in strings, so he remained bowling for an additional two hours and 40 minutes, shutting down with an 89.8 average. Paul’s 142 strings and my 13,645 pinfall were new world records.
Also in 1963, when I brought Toronto Maple Leafs star Frank Mahovlich to the county for an off-season visit after the Leafs had won another Stanley Cup, a good crowd came by to watch Mahovlich bowl a match with Thorburn’s NHL star Lowell MacDonald and myself. That was another fun time.
During the first nine years on the west side, the Heather Lanes was my home away from home.
Good things, though, come to an end.
For me, bowling ended as quickly as it began. The Herald summoned me to the Halifax office, resulting in my wife and I moving to metro. That was 48 years ago.
I never bowled again.