If there were gutter guards back then, we didn’t know about them. Oh, you know what I’m talking about. Those bumpers at the side of the bowling lane which are pulled up when children are bowling to keep the ball from going in the gutter every time it is sent spinning toward the pins. Actually, the historical record shows that these modern contrivances came along in the 1980s, first as carpet rolls set in the gutter, then as inflatable bumpers, and most commonly seen today as pull-up fences which guarantee no zeros on the score card (oh sorry, overhead display) for any young, sensitive child. But back in the 1960s, when I really, really could have used them, children were expected to learn the hard way, by experience. So, no gutter bumpers. It led to one of my most embarrassing memories.
My family went to a small church, with few families who had school-age children, so to get a decent-sized group, we did many activities with the high school and junior high school and even the elementary school kids all together. This particular night, we were bowling. With the restrictions many churches put on questionable activities in those days, I wonder that there were no eyebrows lifted at all those impressionable kids trooping into the bowling alley, with its bar along the back wall and the air so permeated with cigarette smoke that even a non-smoker could almost have made his own smoke rings in the space above his head. But there we were, from the lofty and sometimes haughty seniors all the way down to a lowly third grader who was haughty in his own way, being positive that he was going to make a bucketful of strikes to impress said seniors this night. It was not to happen in that manner, alas. No, the night was destined to be one of shame and disappointment for the young lad.
I stood, as I had seen the others do, with my rented shoes on the arrows pointing the way to the lane. The ball had been carefully selected for fit and weight. It was held with the fingers of the right hand and resting on the palm of the left, then was lifted and swung back as I moved toward the point of release. Exactly in the middle of the lane and, careful to stop before the foul line, I let go. The ball hit with a gentle thump, rolled down the center of the lane for a few feet, then headed sharply right and smacked the side of the chute as it slid dishearteningly into the gutter. What? How could this be? I was flummoxed for a moment, but recovered quickly, knowing that I had a second attempt to make at upsetting the ten pins way down at the end of the alley. No matter. They would all go down with the next roll. The ritual was the same; stand, lift, swing, release. Thump! Down the lane the ball rolled and abruptly headed for the left gutter. Zero! Zip! Nada! I had netted not a single pin for my first frame on the score sheet. Oh well…it was bound to get better, wasn’t it?
“Better” was not how I would put it. In all of that game, one pin went down the entire ten frames. One, single, lonely, mortifying pin. If memory serves correctly, it was on a gutter ball too. The ball rolled off the lane as it reached the pins and snuck back in to knock over the 10 pin. I was crushed. The older kids had a great time with it for most of the game, teasing and mocking as gutter ball after gutter ball rolled down toward the pin-setting machines (certainly not toward the pins!). As the game progressed, however, the taunts and gibes lessened and the sympathy began to flow. It was worse than the jeering. I remember leaving the bowling alley and sitting on the front steps until it was time to go…just to get away from their expressions of understanding and encouragement. I couldn’t get home fast enough that night!
Of course, you won’t be surprised to learn that I never bowled again and that I detest the game to this day. Actually, I’m happy to tell you that I bowled many more times with the other young people from my church and I really enjoy the sport (I can call it a sport, right?) to this day. No, the nature put into me and most of us, by the Creator is not the sort of spirit that quits when it is defeated. If anything, we seem to be more defiant in the face of battles lost, ready to do better the next time. Sometimes slowly, but often quickly, we improve, finding ways to avoid the embarrassing performance that lives on in our memories. Failure is an amazing professor, teaching an abundance of lessons, from technique to strategy, from humility to perseverance. I am suspicious of folks who have an easy time of life, realizing that their success is shallow, having come easily and without cost. I find myself to be a great admirer of those who achieve success through hardship, overcoming failure time and time again to rise above the crowd and to excel.
I wish that I could tell you that this describes me. It doesn’t…yet. I’m still working on it. In some ways, you might say that I’m a plodder. I just keep working at it, giving up and then returning to the task, time and time again. I may never rise above the pack. And, that’s okay with me. I love the old maxim, learned long ago in childhood days: “Virtue is its own reward.” We don’t do what is right because of the pay-off, or because of the glory. We do it because it should be done. Not a popular line of thought in today’s climate, but it still works.
Life getting the best of you? Been knocked down a few times (or more than a few)? Okay, it might be time to try a different plan of attack, but if you’re still breathing (and you probably are if you’re reading this), it seems to me that you still have time left to take another stab at it. Embarrassment? Disappointment? Hurt? Each one is just another hurdle, another opportunity to show your mettle. The sympathy and encouragement coming from the bystanders are there to help, not harm. Up and at ’em! Folks who love you are right beside you!
I’m going to keep plodding. I’ll keep learning. I’m fairly certain that I’ll keep failing…and trying again. There is still time for a few successes between here and there. Bring it on!
“To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence”
(Mark Twain~American author and humorist~1835-1910)
“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”
(Colin Powell~American General and Secretary-of-State)