Pulling The Strings

The strings still and the pins are quite now. Have been for a while now and now, it looks like they will remain quiet for a long time to come. I wrote this a while back and never got a chance to post it. We had to temporarily close our doors due to Covid and reading back over it now, it fills me with sadness to have it all shut down, but it also fills me with joy to know we built something pretty amazing for our team and our community. We will be back. Things may be different in the future, but we will find a way to build fantastic experiences, care for our team and community, and create meaningful moments to connect people.

I miss the clatter. I miss the connection. I miss helping people create memories.

I hope to see you all again soon…

When I took the role of General Manger for Ocean5 and Table 47, I’ll be honest, I didn’t get it. I didn’t get the point of building a center with 10 lanes of 10-pin bowling and 12 lanes of Duckpin bowling. Surely there was something better we could build to entertain people. What the heck do I know about running a bowling center?!?!? Nothing. Not a thing. Not a single stinking thing. Not just bowling, but two types of bowling? Duckpin bowling? Are the pins shaped like little ducks? Are water and hunting dogs involved? What had I gotten myself into?

Don’t get me wrong, growing up in the middle of the country, I have spent my fair share of time around a bowling alley. Every time we would go to visit our dad in Southern Illinois, we would inevitably end up at the bowling alley off of Highway 51. A crusty old place with 50 year old furniture and 100 year old dust bunnies, food that came from freezer bags, and the stale, permeating aroma of cigarette smoke.

For most of my life, this has been my bowling experience. Crusty, smelly places with terrible food and non-existent service. We went because we had nothing better to do, not because we loved bowling. My brother and I would roll our eyes and try to mentally prepare for another Friday night of getting slaughtered by our dad, and all of the smack talk that came with it. I don’t think either of us ever came within 100 points of him, and he loved to remind us ALL THE TIME.

While the games all blend together over the years, the thing I remember most, other than the tired vinyl benches that passed for seats at the lanes, was walking in. Arriving was tantamount to a receiving line at a royal ball. A royal ball filled with wranglers, boots, and trucker hats. The place was packed, the jukebox blared a mix of Hank Williams Jr and REO Speedwagon, and we would snake through the crowds for a full 45 minutes, shaking hands and kissing babies, before we ever arrived at our lane. My dad knew absolutely everyone and he made it a point to stop and talk to each and every person he knew. It didn’t stop after we got to our lane either. People would come up and say hello all night long, or dad would get pulled away to meet someone and our game would be on hold for 20 minutes until he returned. We were redneck celebrities and it felt good to be known. Beer flowed (soda for us), I finally broke 100 and my dad took home the win. That was bowling. I didn’t get the game, but looking back, I knew there was something special about rolling into that place, being welcomed, connecting.

So while we worked to build Ocean5 & Table 47 in Gig Harbor, WA, I really tried to wrap my head around why. I watched them lay the wood slats and spend weeks sanding, sealing, and tuning each lane. I watched them lay the machines in place, tighten the strings on the pin-setters, and adjust the rails on the ball returns. I watched it all from start to finish and I still didn’t get it. I didn’t understand what we were doing…

That is, until the first time I heard the distinct crashing clatter of the ball connecting with the pins. The building was still dark, construction dust covered absolutely everything and the heat barely worked yet, but I walked around the corner and saw half a dozen team members, each on their own lane, laughing, taunting each other and preparing to throw another ball. The string setters at the end of the lanes lifted the pins into the air, twisted and danced on their ascent and then slowly lowered down the pins that remained after the first throw. As I watched those strings dance, it pulled into sharp focus, what this was all about. It was about building a connection point, it was about building memories, albeit with better food and zero cigarette aroma. We were building, have built, a place where a community can gather and play, and belong.

One of the best parts, we added something new. The great equalizer. Duckpin Bowling. Take the best 10-pin bowler in the world, set them loose on a Duckpin lane, and any one of us might just have a shot at beating them. The best Duckpin bowler in the world has never managed to bowl a perfect game. In fact, there has never been a perfect game. The highest single game score ever bowled was 279, bowled in 1992 by Pete Signore J. (National Duckpin Bowling Congress, 2014).  No longer would families have to suffer a crushing defeat and the never-ending smack talk of the good bowler in their midst (dad, you’ve been challenged). Now, just maybe, the smack talk might be able to flow the other way. 10-pin is fun and filled with nostalgia, but Duckpin is my jam. Duckpin, however, almost never made it to our corner of the country though. We have the strings that hold the pins to thank for bringing us this fabulous game.

Duckpin bowling is one of the least known varieties of bowling, especially if you live outside the Northeastern US. Primarily because the inventor of the automatic pin-setter for the game of Duckpin, Ken Sherman, refused to sell his patent for the machine. Sherman, with little financial backing did not have the means to scale production and, as a result, it never expanded beyond the alleys where it began. No parts for these massive machines have been manufactured since 1973, so alleys have remained in the business of Duckpin, largely by pilfering parts from now defunct centers. (New York Times, 2016). Had it not been for the advent of the String-setters used at Ocean5, it would have been impossible to bring Duckpin to the Northwest. In a string pinsetter there is a string attached to the top of the pin. The string does not interfere with the pins when the ball hits them. At the end of each throw, the machine pulls the pins back into a rack and resets the pins that weren’t knocked down. Without this simple system, Duckpin would surely not be delighting our guests at Ocean5. We have these strings to thank for pulling Duckpin bowling up to the Northwest, for pulling all of the wonderful memories out of the dust of my brain, and pulling the WHY of Ocean5 into sharp focus for me.

Duckpin bowling and all the other fun that can be had at Ocean5 is about creating experiences. Creating FUN memories that will live on for generations, with friends, families, and communities. Come join the FUN.

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