“Your Total Strike Feeling”

Rather than the slackers or ironic celebrants, bowling camp attracts the strivers.

My week at bowling camp began in the lounge. I had arrived at Schneider’s Fishkill Bowl, in New York’s Hudson River Valley, just before five on a Sunday afternoon in July. Before me, there stretched an ample buffet. I loaded a plate and took a seat with a few lanky young men and a couple of not-lanky older men. John, a 48-year-old machinist from nearby Poughkeepsie, sat across from me. Next to me sat Rich, one of the coaches we’d be working with. The bowling banter started, as it so often would that week, with a simple question. “What’s your average?,” Rich asked.

“Oh, about 170, 180,” John said.

“Ready to make a move?”

“Definitely ready to make a move.”

So was I. I’ve been bowling since I was 7, sporadically and never with any sense of what I should do to improve. In recent years, I’d come to a middle-aged plateau and a state of general confusion. A lucky 200 would be followed by a string of 140s. It was time to seek professional help.

Outside the lounge, the concourse was strewn with ball caddies—rolling pieces of luggage carrying three or four bowling balls. My satchel carried a beat-up 15-pounder and my clownish blue-toed shoes. The bowling alley had the usual traces of 1970s aesthetic: Along the walls, a mural made of carpet depicted a tropical scene with white flamingo and sailboat. Against the far wall, a banner for Dick Ritger Bowling Camps featured the slogan Where camp makes champs.

We were told we’d be throwing the ball about 200 times a day. Instantly I worried about my shoulder, my rotator cuff, my elbow, my lower back. But the lead instructor, Bob Rea, explained that the “Ritger Method” would keep us from “overmuscling” the ball. We would develop “the feelings of bowling.” The arm swings like a pendulum. The perfect release comes from the right timing, tempo, and rhythm. “What comes out of that,” Rea explained, “is what we call ‘your total strike feeling.’”

Rea led a staff of nine other coaches, relentlessly earnest and upbeat, each of them—as if they had emerged from some midwestern town where all the people are strong and all the bowlers are above average. The sort of place Ritger himself was from. A star on the pro bowling circuit in the late 1960s and throughout the ’70s, the Wisconsin native teamed up with Rea and began hosting camps in 1976 (a family wedding kept him away from Fishkill Bowl this July). Today, they host three one-week sessions each summer. Most of the 59 bowlers in my session stayed in a dormitory at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, about 10 miles west, just over the river. We took our dinners at a cafeteria down a hill that affords a view of blue-green Mount Beacon, back across the Hudson.

For the first two days, there were no pins set up. We’d stand at the line, swing the ball back and forth, and release. Often a coach would stand at our side, holding the bowler’s wrist, guiding the swing. When the pins came out, I bowled with three retired gentlemen from Connecticut and the machinist from Poughkeepsie. Though the conversation was mostly about bowling, I heard not a single reference to either of the cultural touchstones so often associated with the game—the films The Big Lebowski and Kingpin. Those movies spin out darkly comic tales of male camaraderie and competitiveness, in which the bowling alley is a place of high kitsch and low living. Seediness, booziness, indolent escape. Such qualities have been connected to bowling in the American mind ever since Rip Van Winkle encountered bearded Dutchmen rolling “nine-pins,” partook of their strong liquor, and slept through the American Revolution.

Bowling camp attracts members of an altogether different American subculture—not the slackers, the hustlers, or the ironic celebrants who love the campiness of it all, but the strivers. One evening at dinner, I asked a bowler who looked a lot like Dustin Hoffman whether he’d ever rolled a perfect game. “I’ve got seven of ’em,” he said matter-of-factly. Actually, 14, he added, but only seven during sanctioned league play. An earlier session this summer featured the pro bowler Kelly Kulick as an instructor. She had attended camp as a teenager and just last year became the first woman to win a major professional tournament against top male bowlers.

A strong turnout of young campers suggested the growing popularity of the sport—especially among women—at the high-school and college level. The teens I observed rolled most of the six hours each day without concern for their cell phones.

By Friday, we had ventured deep into the technique and technology of bowling. We took a field trip down the lanes to feel with our fingertips the varying amounts of oil in the middle of the lane compared with the sides. We discussed the vexing problems of variable lane conditions. We learned about the angles helpful in picking up some of the 1,023 theoretically possible spare combinations. It felt like geometry class at times. But other moments felt like dance class, as we lined up, hands on hips, and practiced taking steps in steady tempo.

For bowlers determined to improve, the curriculum was entrancing. Returning students, who work in a group separate from the first-timers, are instructed in “the mental game,” and throughout the week I wondered what secrets were being imparted. One gent in his 60s had told me this was his eighth trip to bowling camp. As I drove home, I felt sure I wouldn’t approach that record of persistence. On the other hand … I could see myself returning next summer.