Bowling With Brockel 

  It ‘s the kind of shirt that John Travolta would be proud to wear, with subtle golden flecks that glitter through a white rayon shirt with “Lee” embroidered on its pocket. Even 25 years after the last game, it still emanates cool.

    The “Lee” that the shirt names, is none other than Lee Brockel, 79. After more than 70 years of bowling, Brockel can recall lots of bowling style—through the years he’s donned black and white wing tipped bowling shoes, various bowling shirts and even some bowling berets. He’s also collected many, many patches and even a belt buckle—all for excellence in bowling. And while all of these bowling memorabilia may be what the new generation calls ‘retro’, Brockel is a purist who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing these duds anywhere except at a serious bowling game.

   “You just wear the bowling shirt when you’re bowling,” Brockel explained, noting that the gold-flecked shirt wasn’t worn past the 70s.

    Bowling was—and still is—the only sport that showed its cool all the way down to its shoes. Let’s face it; what other sport could rock a white and gold woven rayon shirt?

   Beyond it’s sense of style, bowling was the sport of choice in Whitefish for decades—men and women participated and instructors at the bowling alleys ushered the young into the sport. In fact, for ten years (during the late 50s and into the 60s) Whitefish kept not one, but two bowling alleys afloat.

   The first bowling alley in Whitefish came about in the 40s. Simply titled Whitefish Bowling Lanes, the four-lane affair was located on Central Avenue (in the space now occupied by Imagination Station) and came complete with a lunch counter, stools and booths.

   This was before the days of automatic pinsetters, and Lee Brockel remembers the hustle and bustle of the job of pinsetter.

   “You’d pick up the pins, put them in their slots and then put the pins back down before you hopped up on the back (of the pinsetter). You’d sit on top and dangle your feet down. That was the fun part—the hard hitters could send the pins everywhere; you had to watch your feet or they’d get clobbered,” Brockel recalled.

   One pinsetter was assigned to two lanes—along with a scorekeeper who sat at the top of the lane. By the 40s the art of pin setting was already semi-automatic—the automatic ball retrieval took care of returning the ball, a task once assigned to the pinsetter.

   Brockel remembers the Whitefish Bowling Center as a popular spot for bowling and for lunches, dinners and homemade pies.

   In the early 60s a new bowling alley entered the mix. Ski-Bowl Lanes, as it was called, had 10 lanes and occupied the entire building of what are now Markus Foods and 33 Baker Salon. Riding the aftermath of 1950s television programming that featured hour and half hour programs dedicated to bowling championships, lessons and news, this new bowling lane brought the total number of lanes up to 14 in Whitefish.

   In the 70s, bowling in Whitefish suffered a bit of a decline. The alley relocated along US 93 South (now a Baptist Church)—but the condition of the lanes lacked the polish and precision of previous alleys.

    But in 1982, two men resurrected the sport of bowling for Whitefish. Larry Jenson and Duane Reich ushered in the modern bowling lane for our little town when the Pin-n-Cue was built in its present location. The 16 lanes were fully automatic, complete with air conditioner and automatic scorekeepers. The 80s also saw resurgence for the sport. By 1993, 79 million people bowled in the United States.

    These days, you can still find Lee Brockel at the Pin-n-Cue every Tuesday and Wednesday bowling a game or two or three, with his buddies. Three of these regular bowlers—Mike Howke, Clifton Williams and Brockel—have been bowling together since 1972. The other three have been bowling for over 120 years combined—Herb Moon, 77, Don Moats, 79, and Darold Gagner, 75.

   As these men begin their Tuesday afternoon practice game (Wednesday is league night), you can see the camaraderie and fun involved in bowling.

   “You get to meet a lot of people,” Darold Gagner notes as he picks up his fourth strike of the set. These days, fancy graphics mark his accomplishment as his teammates cheer him on.

   “Come on, get up that hill,” Brockel calls to his ball as it rolls towards the kingpin.

  The current owners of the Pin-n-Cue, MAC WHAT AND VINCE, have kept the sport of bowling alive and thriving in Whitefish. The Whitefish Bowling Hall of Fame adorns the wall near the register and on league nights, the parking lot is packed. If bowling is reminiscent of a kinder, sweeter time—those days are still very much alive at the Pin-n-Cue.

   Take for instance the three gentlemen bowling right now at the Pin-n-Cue. As his teammates admire the bowling memorabilia Lee Brockel has brought for this story, the bowling alley attendant comes over to admire that gold-flecked shirt and heckle the team on their third place standing in the summer league.

   As a testament to bowling’s changing image but steady popularity, the television broadcasts the 2008 championships—an outdoor affair of two lanes set up in beautiful Miami, Florida. The bowlers range in age from 20 to 50, all sporting very cool bowling shirts.

   Some things never change.