This crew bowls over adversity, with a lot of courage to spare

June 07, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

All in wheelchairs. A convoy of them. They roll into the Perry Hall Bowling Lanes and make their way to the starting lines -- men and women of varied ages, ethnic backgrounds and diverse financial circumstances but beset with a mutual problem -- multiple sclerosis.

They take the tenpin ball and, from a sitting position, direct it toward the pins. It will hopefully make contact with the intended target, but not always. Occasionally, it might stop en route with not enough momentum to carry to the end of the alley. But it doesn't have to topple pins because what the participants are doing is more important than the scores they produce.

There's Rev. Byron Counts of Jarrettsville, who said he came from a family of plumbers in La Havra, Calif., but is now a minister in the Church of Christ. He's 55 and 10 years ago was hit, out of the blue, with this disease that is a progressive crippler and difficult to diagnose.

His congregation in Bel Air erected handlebars around the pulpit to provide him protection from falling. And, then when his situation worsened, it made access available at floor-level so he could continue to conduct services. They obviously cherished his presence and the messages he delivered.

But the good preacher is confined to a wheelchair and, like all others in the league, bowls from his chair. A volunteer worker, something of a bowling "caddie," delivers the ball to his hands and then the wheelchair occupant lofts it down the alley. Others are similarly engaged in an individual sport that permits them to be involved as competitors.

"It's just not exercise that's important for all of us," he said with a voice that carried the clarity of freshly drawn spring water. "When people ask me how I'm scoring I don't answer. I might roll five straight lines and then go gutter, gutter, gutter. "But that's not important. It's about being involved, of course, but mostly it's the chance to encourage other people. Some are restricted to their houses or apartments. We try to give encouragement to others. You know I never feel bad when I leave the bowling lanes. I believe the same can be said for all the others."

And over there, with a tubular ramp to guide the balls on their way, is Evelyn Hackett, 78 and smiling at the world. Her vision isn't what it was but she's proud to claim a charter membership in the bowling league and also expresses pride that she continues to be on the scene to worship every Sunday at St. James Episcopal Church in Baltimore.

"I thank the dear Lord I still have strength in my hands and I can release the ball down the ramp," she said. "People like us just have to do the best we can and never give up."

Sam Lacy, sports editor of the Baltimore Afro-American, observed the bowlers at play and even sat in a wheelchair, taking on another sportswriter in a match of their own. He wanted to find out how it might be to bowl from such a restricted position.

"I like to emphasize," reminded Sam, with a laugh, "that I wouldn't do any better standing up." That says it for another reporter, too. It's totally amazing as the spirit that abounds and the assistance from the volunteers, such as Joe Sachs, 65, who retired from operating Lauman's Meat Stall in Hollins Market, and Joan Denzler, originally from Philadelphia.

"They all have smiles on their faces," said Joan. "And they cope as best they can with the problems of the disease. Whether they roll games in the 100s or in the 30s, it makes no difference. It's a diversion and a highlight for all of them."

Sachs agreed and added, "We receive a lot of self-gratification from the experience. It comes with realizing you're helping someone else."

Kay Beck of Overlea is president of the bowlers. "This establishes a camaraderie among all of us. We get exercise we otherwise wouldn't have. The volunteers are terrific and Mrs. Ethel Bird, who has been with the program since it started in 1961, is the backbone of it. When MS attacks you can tell yourself, 'either poor me or else get out of the house and do what you can.' It's obvious this is a tremendous help to our morale and attitude."

Mrs. Bird directs the schedule, through assistance from the Red Cross, which provides the transportation, and the gratis use of the lanes comes courtesy of the Perry Hall management. One woman in her first effort had a total score of 20 in 10 frames, but Mrs. Bird remembers she was so excited she called her husband long-distance to give him the news.

Some of the bowlers arrive shy and intimidated but the esprit de corps that prevails allows them to soon feel welcome and a level of comfort and relaxation follows. With Brooks Robinson, one of the grandest of all Baltimore Orioles, and an exceptional humanitarian, we watched this effort in 1962.

Only one bowler from then, Evelyn Hackett, is still alive. MS has a way of taking its toll. It drains the victims of their vitality, robs them of mobility and sometimes brings on depression.

But bowling provides an extraordinary opportunity. There's a glimmer of hope and certainly enjoyment. The bowlers might complain about the tough break they got on the split of the pins but never about themselves and a troubled personal situation.

Courage usually is not found in a bowling lanes but this is an exception, men and women in wheelchairs trying to achieve the best from themselves, asking for their aching, sensitive bodies to give the maximum. It makes you want to stand and cheer.

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