Moving to Freedom, .Org(on)

Jake the Bowling Mechanic and Me

Public Domain illustration of a squirrel bowling with a crabapple and pine cones, from Beatrix Potter's 'The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin', published in 1903

I never met Jake, and I don’t recall his last name. (If I ever knew it. But it seems I must have known it at one time.) He died in 1992 after suffering a heart attack while inside of a bowling machine.

Jake was a skilled practitioner in the art of bowling maintenance. The testaments to this were the machines he left behind: Ten finely-tuned AMF 82-70 Pinspotters. Manufactured in the late 1960s or early 1970s, they’re probably still running today, enduring the punishment of bowling balls and pins crashing into them and perpetually standing the pins back up while returning the balls to their owners for another round of abuse. Their Sisyphean task may be appreciated only by those like Jake who tend to them. (A likewise Sisyphean undertaking.)

Jake’s death put Don in a bind. Don was the owner of Beacon Bowl, a small alley in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. The league season had just gotten underway, and Jake had been his only mechanic for more than twenty years. Someone put Don in contact with Mark, the head mechanic at a larger alley down the road, and Mark agreed to sit with the machines for Don’s evening leagues. “Sit with the machines” was an accurate job description. They were so well-maintained that there was little to be done. Needing the money, but also wanting to spend some time with his family, Mark offered a couple of shifts to his regular night mechanic at Earle Brown Bowl. That was me.

For the first year, I worked Monday nights and Friday morning senior leagues. It was a nice change of pace, to have only ten lanes to worry about instead of the thirty-six at Earle Brown. The machines ran so smoothly that I might get only one or no calls during a three hour shift. And Don paid us $10 per hour for this, while EBB was paying me $7. I’d sit in back and read science fiction books.

And I’d think about old Jake. Working as a bowling mechanic, the machines can consume your thoughts and create a lot of low-level anxiety around proper maintenance and handling random breakdowns of varying severity. It was stressful to have a machine down, with angry bowlers a lane’s length away. I was conscious of — and grateful for — the care and skill that Jake had devoted to this group of machines. I built up an image of him as a confident old pro, in contrast to my own uneasy beginner’s status.

I didn’t imagine his ghost haunting the place, but I did feel his presence from the many years that Jake had plied his trade there. In addition to the happy machines themselves, there were all the tools, parts, and supplies that supported the operation. They weren’t meticulously organized — there was a certain amount of clutter — but still, everything had a home, and the whole back end had a personalized feel to it. This had been Jake’s place. As at Earle Brown, there were many standard tools and parts whose purpose eluded me, and Jake had devised several contraptions that defeated Mark’s understanding as well. I had this strong sense that Jake could calmly handle anything on these machines, which contrasted with the worry I usually felt while the machines rumbled in their labors. And I think Jake must have ran the most cost-efficient back end ever for a bowling alley, using and reusing parts endlessly and creatively. It felt like a master tinkerers workshop back there.

And now Jake was gone. He had been in his late ’60s. I had never seen a picture of him. I only knew him by his work and the few things I learned from Don and others. I don’t think he had much in the way of family. No wife. No kids. I think his life had been this low-paying job at the bowling alley. For all his skill and experience at the job, Don had paid him less than the $7 per hour I was making at Earle Brown. At the time I thought it was sad and lonely, that life he led. Inconsequential. While I respected the men I worked with that knew this business of bowling maintenance, I thought the job was beneath me. I had fallen into the work while “taking a break” from college, and the thought of getting stuck in such a career was disturbing. (Around this time, I grokked Pink Floyd’s, “And then one day you find / Ten years have got behind you / No one told you when to run / You missed the starting gun…”) It was a life not meant for me. I was smarter than that, and meant to do greater things.

After a season of this, Mark moved on to take a job at the university bowling alley in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Don offered the top job to me: VP of Pinspotter Operations. (That wasn’t the official title, nor was it ever used until I made it up just now.) I was to become the “head mechanic,” with no underlings. It was just me. I had two seasons worth of experience at Earle Brown Bowl as an underling, and didn’t feel qualified to be out on my own. I didn’t know the machines. But with Mark’s encouragement and trust in Jake’s machines, I moved over there.

I had learned a number of things about basic maintenance and I attempted to nurture the machines proactively. I didn’t feel confident in my ability to keep things running indefinitely. Pinspotters are complicated, finicky beasts. They seemed hostile to me, threatening to break down at any time in any number of ways that would be hard to fix and keep a league game going. I worried about all the moving parts wearing out: bearings and bushings and other things known and unknown by me. I worried about all of the electrical parts. Without Jake’s expert — or at least someone’s knowledgable — care, it might all come crashing down at any time.

A few sources of anguish:

Yet the machines kept on keeping on. Was this Jake’s legacy? Helping a college dropout stay marginally employed? After a couple of years I went back to school, and for another two years the machines sustained me as much as I maintained them, allowing me a solid two to three hours of study time each night. I don’t think my return would have been as successful without this guaranteed and required block of time.

I got a degree in information technology, graduating during the dot com/Y2K bubble, and moved on to that “better” thing. Corporate I/T work has been good for me — the pay is certainly better, and I find the absence of angry league bowlers to be less stressful — but I don’t know if it’s comparatively much more satisfying as a career. I may be better suited to dealing with the phantom realm of bits and bytes than in the physical reality of belts and bearings, but I feel much the same way about the software I work with now as I did about the bowling machines then; I fear it could all unravel at any time. I still haven’t found my place. Maybe it’s because I’m not doing the kinds of software development that I’d rather do, but I feel the same desire to move on to that “next thing” as I did back then. It’s just that the next step hasn’t been as obvious to me as going to school and getting a degree.

And as I look out over the gulf that is the need to earn a living for another twenty to thirty years, I can more readily appreciate the way that Jake lived and died. I knew so little about him, of course, but I think he had found his place in the world. A place where he could exercise mastery over and autonomy within a domain. I like to think the work brought joy to him. It didn’t matter that it was humble and poorly paid. Perhaps he was perfectly happy and had all that he needed or wanted.

Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Work out what your own nature requires, and aim at that, even if it brings you no glory. None of us is forbidden to pursue our own good.” He also wrote a lot about how we’ll all die, along with everyone who ever knew us, and ultimately be forgotten. Somehow it’s not depressing to think about that. It makes me see the benefit in living on your own terms, finding satisfaction in the moment, and not being overly concerned with the prestige of your profession.

Jake’s been gone for nearly twenty years. His machines survived him for at least six more seasons, when Beacon Bowl was forced to close down to make room for the parking lot of the Regal movie theater. The machines were sold off, maybe for $5,000 each, which I remember as the going rate for a used 82-70 at the time. Where did they go? It seems plausible that they’re still toiling away today in their endless labor. Is Jake’s magic still alive in them? Is someone sitting with them, appreciating their loyal service?

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