Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Men's Bowling

Every Friday afternoon my ninety-four year-old grandfather, John Schwartz, meets some of his friends at Coach Lite Lanes in Rolla, Missouri for three games of bowling. He says by the start of the third game, he’s ready to be home in bed, but the group of four women and sometimes as many men is social and entertaining. When he remembers to bring it, Grandpa wears a yellow thrift store button-down that my sister brought to life with a felt bowling ball and the nickname, “Love Tap,” spelled across his muscled back.

The first time I joined them, Grandpa and I were ten minutes late and the seven other, seventy-plus year-old bowlers were waiting with shoes laced, ready to roll. The group usually gets lunch together at Long John Silver’s or another fast-food establishment before the one o’clock start time, but had eaten at the alley that day because of Jeanne’s doctor’s appointment. Jeanne is ninety-one and bowled with a cotton ball Scotch taped to her arm, but that didn’t stop her from defeating me in the first game by twenty-seven pins.

I asked Ann how lunch was, to which she screwed up her face, indicating sub-gourmet. I was also a bit disoriented by the beverage situation.

“Do you have iced tea?” I asked Harold Fite, the alley manager.

“Maybe,” he said.

He returned with an inch-deep sample of tea in a paper cup.

“See if you can stand it,” he said.

“It tastes like tea,” I said.

“Alright.”

In the men’s restroom, laid at the foot of the urinal, is the most direct and practical bathroom mat I have ever seen.

When I mentioned it to my grandfather he said, “Really? I never noticed it.”

“Really?” I asked.

Coach Lite Lanes, thanks in part (perhaps) to that mat, is a clean facility offering an excellent deal to senior bowlers on Friday afternoons at a dollar twenty-five a game. Unfortunately, last Friday morning Jeanne was taken to the hospital with pneumonia, so most of the group was unable to attend. We heard from Nadine at Church on Sunday that Jeanne was now back home, recovering well.

Despite our concern and intentions to act respectfully, Grandpa, Bob Mottin and I went bowling anyway.

“What do you like about bowling?” I asked them from the back seat of Bob’s Taurus as we drove to Long John.

“Just the company, I guess,” Grandpa said. “There’s also a certain amount of satisfaction in letting loose of that ball if it hits, you know. If it hits. If it doesn’t, you wonder why.”

“We have a lot of fun,” Bob said. “A lot of laughs.”

“Who’s got the best victory dance?” I asked.

“I get a kick out of Nadine,” Grandpa said. “She does a little skip, a little turn on her foot.”

“You know,” Bob said, “for no harder than she throws, she gets more pin action. I can’t believe it.”

Bob started bowling in 1950 when he worked at the Ford Motor Company assembly plant in Hazelwood, Missouri. At that time he participated in an employee league, but Bob hadn’t donned his bowling shoes for thirty years before Bill Knight, the Rolla group’s highest average scorer, invited him along.

“Bill wanted to get me out of the house,” Bob said. “That was two years ago, after [my wife] Rita passed away. He thought I was spending too much time in the house.”

“We bowl in the Tuesday league up there and on Fridays, you know, and it kinda breaks up the week.”

Bob was particularly proud of a fundraiser he had participated in to benefit Miranda Blattel, a nine year-old girl living with Epidermolysis Bullosa, a rare genetic skin disease characterized by extremely fragile skin. The event was held at Coach Lite Lanes in September and Bob was photographed with Miranda by a journalist from the Rolla Daily News as the oldest participant at age eighty-four.

“Boy you want to see something sad,” Bob said. “And that little girl is so nice, you can’t believe it. You can’t even touch her cause she blisters. Her mom’s got to grease her complete body with Vaseline every morning and wrap with gauze. I don’t know how she could be that nice and be in all that pain she’s in.”

“We raised sixty five hundred dollars," he said. "The alley didn’t charge nothing for the bowling and we all paid twenty dollars a piece to be in it. And they had all these hearts that they stuck up all over the hall and they were a dollar apiece.”

“The little girls’ mother is a very good bowler,” Grandpa said.

“She teaches bowling to all the young girls up there,” Bob said. “Boy, you want to see strikes. Criminelly.”

Bob, whose average currently hovers at 109, has also experienced health problems that have challenged his game. On November 11th of last year, he dozed off while watching TV early in the morning and woke up to discover an absence of feeling in his right hand.

“I thought I had sat on it,” Bob said. “So I took my arm and I swung it around and around. It didn’t help at all. So I called Bill and I said, ‘Bill, I think I’m having a light stroke.’ And he said, ‘Bob, take two aspirins and I’ll be over there in five minutes.’”

Bill drove Bob to the hospital, where the medical staff administered an injection that returned the majority of sensation and mobility to Bob’s hand within two hours.

“Bill saved me,” Bob said.

Bob, Bill and my grandfather live in Indian Hills, a private residential community set on a 355 acre man-made lake. Bob designed and built the original teepee that stands just outside of the entrance gate and recently crafted a ship's wheel and anchors to adorn a twelve-foot lighthouse that has, to date, received only one complaint about its powerful spotlight. He became a permanent resident in 1980, the same year that he retired from Ford, where he worked for fifteen years on the assembly line before transferring to the stock department.

“That working on the line is miserable,” Bob said. “When they’re running forty cars an hour, which is usually about the lowest point you go, you’ve got to keep doing the same thing over and over, every minute and a half.”

Bob was much happier driving a tow motor out of the pre-delivery department.

“I had one time, Ryan, I worked eleven and a half hours a day, seven days a week and I worked like that for nine months without a day off.”

“Nobody could learn that job of mine because I had to go all over that plant to get parts. Even to get to the right department was a challenge. They had four repair lines and I’d keep all them going. It kept me busy, but I liked it because I never had no two days alike.”

Bob worked at Ford for thirty-one and a half years, having gotten a job when the factory opened in 1948.

“Were you in the War?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Bob said. “You ain’t gonna believe what I did.”

Bob was a Motor Machinist Second Class in the Navy and served on PT (Patrol Torpedo) boat three fifty in squadron twenty-five, operating in the Pacific. PT boat squadrons were nicknamed “the mosquito fleet” because they were small, fast vessels used to attack larger surface ships. Though they carried torpedoes, mounted machine guns and eventually five-inch rockets, PT boats were built with wooden hulls susceptible to damage.

“That was strictly volunteer,” Bob said. “They couldn’t assign anybody to those boats.”

“Because it was so dangerous?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “They had to all be volunteer. You had three thousand gallons of gasoline on them and if they hit that, you didn’t have to worry about swimming. A Jap twenty-five would go in one side and out the other. It was just so dangerous.”

“One time it took them two months to repair [our boat]. The carpenters, after they got done fixing it, put a nameplate on the front of it—El Patcho.”

Twelve enlisted men and two officers were assigned to each boat, and Bob, in addition to his responsibilities as a machinist, operated the number four torpedo and loaded the forty millimeter guns during air attacks. His squadron started in New Guinea and conducted combat operations throughout the Philippines.

Over hush puppies and fish fillets, Bob described the threat of suicide attacks posed by the Japanese Air Force.

“Well, you just never knew,” he said. “I still couldn’t believe it. Every time I’d keep waiting for them, when they’d actually make a dive, waiting for them to pull up.

“One time we wasn’t far at all from this big ship. It was a cargo ship and it had gasoline and torpedoes and they suicide dived it, and when that thing blew up, there was pieces coming down out of the sky that were the size of a railroad car.”

“We were putting heaters in the boats and everything, getting ready to invade Japan when they dropped that [atomic] bomb.”

“We didn’t know nothing. We couldn’t believe it when we heard it. We were dreading that invasion. We knew what was gonna happen. We didn’t have a chance of getting ashore.”

Bob’s high school girlfriend, Rita, had been waiting two and half years for him. They were married three months after he returned from the War, had two children, Robert and Susan, and were together for fifty-seven and a half years before she died on December 6, 2003.

“Yep, she was a good one,” Bob said.

After bowling, Bob waited in his car while Grandpa and I shopped at the local supermarket. As we left the parking lot, Grandpa and Bob got into a discussion about foreign automobiles.

“They tried twenty months to kill me and couldn’t do it,” Bob said. “The only way I’ll be in a Jap automobile, I’ll be in a pine box going feet first.”

“And, you know, a lot of people don’t figure this out. They’re doing with automobiles what they couldn’t do with the War. Taking over this country. A lot of people think, cause they’re made here in the United States…that ain’t the thing of it. The thing of it is that the main part of the money is going to Japan.

“But a lot of the parts from American cars are being made all over the world,” Grandpa said.

“Well,” Bob said, “that was part of these new contracts, John. With General Motors and all of them.”

“Yea, but it isn’t complete,” Grandpa said.

“Well, they’re trying to,” Bob said.

Bob told us about an acquaintance of his named Bill (not Bill Knight) who asked Bob’s permission to fish off of his dock.

“And he come down to the house and he was in a Nissan,” Bob said. “I asked him, ‘Bill, have you got any other car?’ He says, ‘Yea, I got a Dodge pickup.’ I said, ‘Well, the next time you come down, you drive that pickup, cause I don’t want that Nissan in my driveway.”

“Oh my gosh,” Grandpa said.

“He never came back,” Bob said. “That’s up to him.”

“Does any one you know have a…” I started to ask Bob. “Well, I guess you have a Japanese car, don’t you?” I asked Grandpa.

“Yeah, I do,” he said.

“Well,” I said, “you’re not driving the carpool, I guess.”

“Yeah, I don’t have to drive at all,” Grandpa said. “It works out well.”

The following day, Grandpa and I drove over to Bob’s house in my Volkswagen. Bob had offered to show me a book put together by PT Boats Incorporated that features photographs from the War and yearbook-style biographies of the men who served in those squadrons.

“I think there’s a lot of them gone since this book come out,” he said.

He also showed me a photograph that his daughter had framed alongside a medal she had purchased.

“When that was made,” Bob said. “I was nineteen years old.”

“You’re older than that now, Bob,” Grandpa said.

“Just a little bit, John,” Bob said.

Climbing the stairs to the second floor of Bob’s house, we passed a shelf full of miniature models of Ford automobiles. Halfway up the staircase, Bob had me turn around to look at the model PT boat he had spent four months constructing.

“Boy it took a long time,” he said. “Oh, man. It’s not just a block of wood. I made it like a real one. I put all the ribs in it and planked the outside of it. I made the case and everything. I made everything but the guns and the torpedo racks. I ordered them from a model company.”

“I had a set of plans to make the hull and that, but mostly it’s just what I remembered from being on it so long.”

Bob gave us a tour of the rest of his house, much of which he had worked on himself, including the upstairs fireplace. As we were leaving he showed us another model ship he had built inside of a palm-sized bottle and told us the story of celebrating the end of the War with beer cooled on the ship’s deck with fire extinguishers.

In the entry that Bob contributed to the PT servicemen book, he wrote, “I stayed with the PT 350 right to the end when they stripped her down, ran her up on the beach and set her on fire. This was a sad day because it was like losing one of your shipmates.”

We invited him to Grandpa’s house for a meal, but Bob said, “No, thanks. I’m okay over here.”

1 comment:

Aunt Sally said...

Ryan,
What an article!! I went from "belly laughing" to "serious" without even realizing it! WWII was such a defining event in Bob's life.. I have nothing to compare it with. Love your photo's--
Keep up the good work.