When Jason Harding first walked into Westminster's County Lanes Ten Pin Bowling with his grandmother, he was a 12-year-old novice with little understanding of spins, splits or lane conditions. Eight years and thousands of practice hours later, he is a certified pro with dreams of making some money off of his talents.
He is ready to go out on his own -- and he is taking the alley where he learned with him.
Plank by plank, pin by pin, shoe by shoe, Harding, 20, and his friends, with help from the occasional crane and forklift, have spent the past two weeks picking the place clean.
The process began in June, when the owners of County Lanes received an eviction notice stating they had to be out by this month to make way for a Food Lion supermarket. That gave Harding, who had dreamed of buying the alley, an idea.
He would purchase everything inside the alley, move it and become a steward of the game that he loved. But he needed capital -- $25,000 for the equipment, at least that much for moving and storage, and possibly a lot more to rent, buy or build another alley.
So he flew to Palm Beach, Fla., for a meeting with his uncle. His uncle liked the idea but said he needed time to think about it. The next few days dragged. Finally, Harding got the answer and the resources that he wanted.
Now, two years out of Westminster High School, he is one of the county's youngest businessmen.
"I admire the fact that he knows what he wants to do," said Chuck Ludwig, who owned County Lanes and taught Harding to bowl. "At his age, it's an excellent goal, and I haven't known many kids who would be able to do it."
Harding's parents and friends have also supported his plans. Since graduating from high school, he has taken a few college classes and helped his father with electrical work, but he said he always wanted to own a business.
Harding said his plans seemed an obvious fit.
"I think it's a good investment, and how many people get to do what they love for a living?" he said.
Harding also likes the idea of keeping an alley alive in Westminster, where bowlers have no alley at the moment.
"I want to make my place a lot like this one," he said, looking around County Lanes. "There are so many older people who've been bowling here since high school."
On a recent morning, he walked with the nimble gait of an athlete but couldn't show off his bowling technique because he was wearing a cast from a wrist operation.
County Lanes had just closed the day before, so the lanes still gleamed, scuffed balls still lined the walls, and pins still stood, waiting to be struck.
County Lanes opened in 1959, and Ludwig bought it about 15 years ago. He was starting his pro career -- he keeps an average of about 218 and has won money at numerous events -- so the idea of having a steady place to practice appealed to him.
He said he bought the alley hoping it wouldn't lose money. In the past several years, since he turned the books over to his wife, Berry, County Lanes has made a healthy profit, he said.
Ludwig estimated that 300 regulars and 1,000 bowlers used the alley every week.
Ludwig said he enjoyed teaching children and running youth leagues. He said Harding did not immediately stand out. Instead, Harding showed interest on his own.
He cleaned gutters at the alley to earn free games and took a job serving food at the counter, all to be closer to what he liked doing.
Ludwig said he has worked with plenty of more talented bowlers but said Harding shares his passion for the mental side of the game -- analyzing lane conditions, perfecting tactics for every conceivable situation and honing the psychology of match play.
"I'd say it's definitely due-diligence that set Jason apart," Ludwig said.
Harding bowled his first perfect game when he was 18 and earned his pro card, which allows him to play in cash events with the best bowlers in the country, last spring after maintaining a 210 average for two years.
About the same time, his wrist started to hurt, and he decided to have surgery, so he hasn't bowled in his first pro event.
Ludwig, 49, did not welcome the news that he would have to close County Lanes. He had quit his construction job and planned to keep the alley for another few years while starting a career on the senior bowling tour.
But his lease allowed the landlord of Westminster Shopping Center to evict him, so he had little recourse.
He recently opened a pro shop at Greenmount Bowl in Hampstead.
Standing amid the clutter of his new office on a recent afternoon, he described the loss of his alley as a bitter experience but said he was happy to give Harding a start.
"I'll do anything I can to help him," he said. "I wish him the best."
Harding has looked at several sites for a new alley but said he hasn't found one yet. He might have to buy land and build an alley, though he'd rather not incur such expenses.
He hired a Missouri company that specializes in moving bowling equipment to help him clear County Lanes. All the equipment will spend the next few months in four storage trailers.
Last week, County Lanes no longer looked the same.
Tools, boards and sections of metal shelving covered the floor. Most of the pins and balls were gone.
The night before, a crane had hauled the 1,500-pound machines that set pins up the stairs so a forklift could put them in storage trailers.
Only the lanes remained intact, and Harding and friends were about to pry those up. Soon, the space will be filled with dirt to provide a base for the incoming supermarket.
"I've been spending about 14 hours here every day," Harding said.
Then he encouraged several friends to sign their names in marker on a mural of bowling pins that adorns the wall.
"We're going to have everybody sign it and then take a picture of it to give to Chuck," Harding said.