Picking up Spares


(Editor’s note: This story was originally published Feb. 18, 2009 in the Standard-Radio Post. We reprint it here after last night’s fire, which destroyed Turner Hall.)

By Matt Ward-

The first job for most kids typically involves throwing newspapers from a bicycle or selling lemonade by the glass.

Thirteen-year-old Nick Cortez is not a typical kid. His first job finds him dodging flying pins.

While modern bowling alleys utilize automatic ball return and pin-setting systems, Wed-nesday-night league bowlers at the Turner Hall rely on young pin-setters like Cortez to pick up the pieces after each roll.

Since starting on the job two months ago, the seventh grader said he enjoys making “easy money” handling pins and returning balls to the bowlers.

“The more pins they knock down, the easier it is,” he said. “It’s not tough or anything -- you just sweat a lot.”

After each throw, the pin-setter retrieves the bowling ball and sends it back to the bowler by pushing it down a wooden track.

Then, knocked-over pins must be collected and replaced within a frame hanging over the lane before the next throw can be made.

“All you really have to do is pay attention to the pins, so you know where to put them when they fall,” he said.

As a pin-setter, Cortez works two of the Turner Hall’s four lanes each night, while another pin-setter handles the other two lanes.

His partner on some nights, Willie McWilliams, is not the traditional pin-setter regular bowlers might be accustomed to seeing at the other end of the lane.

The 34-year-old used to set pins every week during his teenage years while his father bowled and has been called back to help out on occasion.

Despite his years of experience, McWilliams boasts that he has only been hit by a stray pin or ball four times, although he said watching pins fly past “sure makes your eyebrows raise.”

Cortez, on the other hand, has not been as lucky, as the young pin-setter has been hit with a bowling ball and flying pins have struck him twice in the head.

“Pins hurt more than balls do,” Cortez said, noting that pins have a greater chance of ricocheting and striking a pin-setter multiple times.

Speed and agility are essential to the job, he noted, both to avoid being struck and to get better tips from the teams.

“You gotta be quick (getting pins set up),” Cortez said.  “If you’re not quick, (the bowlers) are going to yell at you.”

McWilliams said that it is difficult to keep track of how far along bowlers are during the first game, but by the second match, he can tell what frame each team is on.

A night of bowling at the Turner Hall usually lasts between two and three hours, he added, depending on the skill level of the bowlers, since better bowlers help speed the game up with their accuracy.

“The (bowlers) that I like are ones that get strikes,” McWilliams said. “They only bowl one time (per turn) until the tenth frame.”

Between working days for Terry’s Tree Service and nights as a pin-setter, McWilliams said working in the alley takes somewhat of a physical toll.

“It makes you not want to go to work until about 10 o’clock the next morning after setting,” he said, adding that the most stress while setting is placed on the knees and lower back.

Many of the hall’s league of bowlers began their careers as pin-setters for their fathers and grandfathers before them, but Cortez, who has only bowled once, has no desire to join the bowling ranks.

“Basically, to me, all you do is throw a ball to knock down some pins. Big whoop,” he said. “I don’t think about it as a sport.”

But, bowling regular Sean Heep grew up with Turner Hall bowling, starting as a pin-setter at the age of 12 in the early 1980s, later moving to the other end of the lane in 1994.

Heep has a family history of pin-setting and bowling at the Turner Hall as his grandfather, Francis, was a top area bowler in the 1950s.

“There hasn’t been much that’s changed in 60 years,” he said. “My uncles and my dad all set up pins in the 1950s, my brother set up pins, now his son sets up pins -- it’s a third generation thing just with my particular family. I’m sure there are others.”

In its heyday, the hall offered nine-pin bowling in addition to the traditional 10-pin, Heep said, though nine-pin bowling provided an added challenge as pin-setters were forced to replace each pin to the lane by hand.

Currently, the Wednesday-night league has five teams who compete from September to March, though the group would like to expand.

“We would probably bowl longer or have another league,” Heep said. “But it’s real hard to find pin-setters.”

Though he can occasionally be found at modern bowling alleys, being a league bowler at the Turner Hall has a special significance for Heep.

“A lot (of the difference between normal bowling alleys and the Turner Hall) has to do with nostalgia,” he said. “It’s more intimate here. You’re looking at history.”