Bowling for America: League Night at Noyo Bowl
by Nicholas Heller, January 24, 2010
Fort Bragg’s Noyo Bowl is known locally as the place where Kurt Russell spent many a night hangin’ with his bowling buddies in Overboard--the ‘80s cheeseball classic about class war on the Mendo Coast. Yet Noyo Bowl does not embrace its Hollywood glory days. There’s no memorabilia on its walls. There’s no signed, framed portrait of a smiling Kurt Russell that reads: “I ate the Noyo Burger. You guys rock.”
I dropped in on Noyo Bowl on a league night last week to witness, what I thought, was a dying institution—the sort of place that could care less about quaint movie portrayals. What I found was the opposite: Noyo Bowl is a 50-year-old broke-down palace, yet it’s a living organism with a bowling alley, a diner (serving what locals have voted the best burger in town) and a bar (boasting few patrons and, if enough people show, karaoke on weekends). It is a spectacle to behold when all three are humming in unison.
Places like Noyo Bowl offer distractions that captivate fewer and fewer in a population less enamored with the all-American burger and fries, the karaoke nights and greasy spoons, the Budweisers and bowling shoes. Nothing could be closer to the forgotten ideal America, roaring with Chevy, Cadillac and Ford engines in a Bermuda Triangle of culture, where an all night diner (Denny’s), a burger stand (Jenny’s), a liquor store (Nello’s) and a bowling alley all co-exist within the same intersection, located just north of the railroad tracks along California’s great scenic by-way: Highway One. It is a scene that begs the question, “Where am I?”—or a place you never envisioned planting yourself unless you were experiencing some unbeatable hardship that forced you to join ranks with competitive bowlers. These are the joints where laws against smoking cigarettes indoors should never have been administered, where the nicotine stains on the ceiling still speak of perfect games and heated matches, where the ketchup bottle on the diner counter, varnished in grease, becomes hard to grip.
If you stumble into Noyo Bowl on a Wednesday night, you will find men with facial hair (required), women with bowling gloves and children occupying arcade games. At the bar you’ll meet Wanda, a hard-nosed old bar maid and veteran of thirty years who promptly checked my identification and asked, baffled, “You’re here to watch league night?” I also chatted with Ross, owner of Fort Bragg Septic service, who assured me I would find a nice girl (and possibly the Lord). After Ross kindly purchased me a beer, I wandered to the lanes, where league members were congregating and preparing.
At the top of the lanes, the Channel Surfers League employed various techniques to warm up: arm swinging, crouching, knee bending. Faces winced as bodies prepared for the apparently taxing task that is bowling, silhouetted against a large “Bud Light Welcomes You to Noyo Bowl” sign. Some wore blue uniform bowling shirts with “Channel Surfers” written across the back. Beer and sodas were consumed, and the sophisticated drank wine.
Suddenly, the lights above the lanes lit, illuminating the playing field, and players immediately began filling the allies with booming thunder and hollow crashing—sounds that rivaled the storm outside. Loud banter and friendly trash talk took hold: “You guys better watch out,” a man warned. His opponents, steadfast, did not respond, yet appeared unshaken. “Stay up! Stay up!” another shouted after releasing his ball, searching to pick up a spare. There was a constant, agonizing whine from behind the pins.
“I saw that Burt!” a man yelled from the comfort of his seat behind the lane, as Burt annihilated any evidence of standing pins.
Gee Bee, of team Tooth Decay, jovially made sense of the pandemonium for me. “I wouldn’t call this league night,” the middle aged, bearded veteran said. Apparently, these matches were part of what Gee Bee described as a “fun league,” which differs from a sanctioned league in that it does not have standards or rules. In a sanctioned league, you’d be recognized for bowling a perfect game, for instance, and you have to wait for each player to finish their turn before you have a go at it. “We make our own rules,” he said. This was evident. A sanctioned league probably would not allow team names such as Tooth Decay or In the Rough, or members named Lefty, Extractor, and Fonl.
As the night wore down, I walked to a wall displaying lane assignment schedules and a league standings sheet. From what I could decipher, Gee Bee’s team, Tooth Decay, was in the cellar. However, Gee Bee held the record for men’s high score at 222, followed closely by Soup at 218. In the final moments of match play, I gazed out upon the lanes to see Gee Bee, bowling ball in hand, set himself above the line and focus on the pins. He paused a moment, as if in deep meditation, before taking a few steps forward and swinging his arm back poetically. He flailed his arm forward and released, sending the ball whirling along the wooded lane toward the pins. After the dust settled, two pins remained standing. Gee Bee turned toward his team, shook his head, and took his seat. The next bowler rose and strutted to the line, trying not to duplicate Gee Bee’s attempt, in the waning florescent light of league night at Noyo bowl.