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Bowling for fellowship

Each Wednesday, 72 Brainerd lakes area seniors gather at Jack's House bowling alley for an afternoon of league competition. Woven throughout the cacophony of rolling bowling balls and clattering pins is the melodic ebb and flow of conversation, t...

Lloyd Johnson, Korean War veteran and member of the Brainerd International Raceway senior league team, readies himself for a strike Wednesday. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch
Lloyd Johnson, Korean War veteran and member of the Brainerd International Raceway senior league team, readies himself for a strike Wednesday. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch

Each Wednesday, 72 Brainerd lakes area seniors gather at Jack's House bowling alley for an afternoon of league competition.

Woven throughout the cacophony of rolling bowling balls and clattering pins is the melodic ebb and flow of conversation, the gentle ribbing of teammates over frames gone awry and the infectious laughter of the kind only friends can share.

Bonding over a shared love for strikes and spares are bowlers from all walks of life-war veterans, educators, railroad workers, builders, hospital employees, farmers, mothers and fathers. Many originally hail from hometowns across the Midwest and beyond, but through employment opportunities, vacationing or chance, now make their homes in and around Brainerd. For these enthusiasts, who between them have hundreds of years of bowling experience, the reason most show up each week is not necessarily because of the game, but instead for the camaraderie.

"If you look around this league, I think what everybody has gone through has got to be a story in itself, each and every person," said Roger Bednar, league president. "Every person in this league is unique."

Among these stories are those of Rod Hanson, a WWII veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge; Lloyd Johnson, a Korean War veteran who was one of fewer than 20 in his unit to survive the conflict, and his wife Betty of 60 years, who worked in physical therapy at the Brainerd hospital; Betty Olson, who continues to bowl with the help of teammates despite vision loss that makes it difficult for her to see the pins; Bob Loss, a former railroad clerk and longtime member of the league who recalls bowling at a four-lane alley in 1950s downtown Brainerd; Richard and Lorna Klein, who together will celebrate their 62nd wedding anniversary in two weeks; and Greg Anderson, who passed along his love for bowling to Brainerd High School students for more than 20 years.

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Every single one of these league members-and countless others likely would have, given the opportunity-cited the fellowship offered by the tight-knit group as what they looked forward to most about Wednesday afternoons. For some, it goes deeper than the companionship found between the lanes to support in the loss of spouses, difficulties with health and conditions that make bowling difficult or impossible.

"I like the people," Olson said. "They've really been a godsend to me. I lost my husband about three years ago, and they were just like family."

Even some who no longer bowl continue their weekly pilgrimage to the bowling alley. Loss is one of those, who despite his disabled hand mingles among his bowling brethren. Some teams incorporate a hybrid poker game into their games of bowling, drawing cards after bowling strikes. Loss often controls the poker hand of one of his friends while the friend aims for strikes.

The friendships extend beyond the bowling alley to everyday life for many of the league's participants. Hanson and Loss have coffee nearly every morning together while Hanson reads the Brainerd Dispatch aloud. Cards and gifts are exchanged on special occasions and lunches are organized. People who once worked together in their careers or know one another from church now have another hobby to share, another place to meet in the company of friends.

On any given Wednesday afternoon, the billions of people on the planet are experiencing the full range of human emotion, the joy of a new life or the unexpected loss of another. At a bowling alley in rural northern Minnesota, a few dozen of those humans are showing one another kindness and love through the shared experience of a few games of bowling.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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