MOUNT AIRY -- The weather was rainy, the kid was rambunctious, so the two of us spent the afternoon eating sizzling french fries and bowling a couple of duckpin games.
In the Midwest where I grew up, bowling meant two chances at rolling a big, heavy ball at 10 tall pins. But for many Maryland-bred bowlers, bowling means three chances at 10 squat pins with a light, softball-size sphere.
The game got started about 100 years ago when Baltimore Oriole John McGraw was looking for an off-season activity that wouldn't hurt the arms of baseball players. Or so the legend goes.
McGraw and his buddy, fellow baseball player Wilbert "Robbie" Robinson, were also looking for a way to stir up business at Robinson's Baltimore establishment, a combination cafe and bowling alley called the Diamond. So they whittled some of their 15-inch tall tenpins down to a little over 9 inches, and made the balls smaller. Robinson, just back from an Eastern Shore hunting trip, remarked that these smaller pins, when bowled over,
resembled a flock of ducks in flight. When a sportswriter, Bill Clarke, wrote up the tale, he coined the term "duckpins" and the game was born.
Over the years, duckpin bowling has spread to eight East Coast states, but Maryland is the stronghold. Even small towns like Mount Airy, a pleasant community of about 3,700 situated near ** the line between Carroll and Frederick counties, have their house of duckpins. Mount Airy's is called Mount Airy Bowling Lanes.
While the local history of the sport is impressive, what I like about the game is the homey feel of its houses. Compared to the mammoth tenpin establishments I grew up with, the duckpin houses of Maryland are pleasingly cozy and familial. The gal behind the counter dispensing rented shoes and scoring sheets is probably a relative of the proprietor. The proprietor is probably in the back of the house, retrieving a stuck ball.
Often there is a birthday party in progress. One of my favorite such parties was a family-style celebration for a friend turning 40, at a Baltimore duckpin house. That day, thanks to lightweight balls and the free-flowing champagne, the kids scored as well as the adults.
I like eating at bowling alleys. When the gal working the bowling alley snack bar announces on the microphone, "Lane four, your fries are ready," all the problems of the world, including your inability to hit the seven pin, seem to fade.
The french fries were one reason I traveled to Mount Airy. Don Vitek, who covers bowling for The Sun, mentioned the Mount Airy fries while giving me a rundown of bowling-alley eats. He was ecumenical in his assessment, mentioning food served at both duckpin and tenpin bowling centers. He spoke well of the barbecued ribs served at Country Club Lanes in Middle River, the Saturday-morning country breakfast at Hampstead Bowling Center, the beef stew at County Lanes in Westminster, the big lunch at Thunderhead Lanes in Taneytown and the crisp french fries served at Mount Airy.
In addition to having a duckpin house, Mount Airy was also the right distance -- about an hour and a half from our house -- for a car trip on a rainy day with my 9-year-old son. To pass the time I called the names of the roads that we had passed. The kid found the roads on a map and promptly announced we were going the wrong way. I told him he was misreading the map. A few miles later, I realized the kid was right. I had taken a wrong turn.
Once I got on Interstate 70, the turnoff for Mount Airy was easy enough to find. The first time down the town's Main Street, however, I missed the turn for the bowling alley. My son was worried that once again I had gotten us lost, but I soon found
Center Street and as we crested a hill the Mount Airy Bowling Lanes appeared.
Once inside, we got right to business. We rented our shoes, received a lane and put in an order for two helpings of french fries. Down at lane four, we got a surprise. Here we were out in the country, playing an old-time Maryland game, and a computer was keeping score. It took me a while to figure out how to make friends with the computer.
Having learned to keep score in the two-ball tenpin style, I had never been sure what to do in duckpin scoring when my third ball knocked down all the remaining wood. The computer told me that this was not scored as a spare. Any pins that the third ball knocked down were added to my score, but there were no bonus points.
Without these bogus bonus points, my already weak score dropped even more. I was told that the average score for a good duckpin bowler is 150. I rolled a 98. In my second game, my score sank even more. My son scored in the mid-80s, but was unhappy that he had lost to his dad. Which was why, after the bowling part of our expedition had ended, we sat down on the orange stools at the snack bar and ordered some comfort food. Another big order of french fries.