drop a pin during a fun new year

The Vrabel family bowlers

A few years ago, we began a New Year’s Day tradition of bowling at the Arsenal Bowling Lanes in Lawrenceville with my husband’s side of the family.

Established in 1938, this historic bowling alley is a swell place to be a on a cold winter day when sane folks stay indoors. Besides bowling lanes, it has an upstairs saloon which serves food and drinks. Better yet, it has an old-fashioned ambiance truly reminiscent of a simpler past.

With its fancy chandelier looming above the carpeted entrance hall, its dimly lit stairs, its dark burgundy wallpaper, and its kitschy pictures hung everywhere, the Arsenal Lanes almost has the look and feel of a 1930’s bordello. Deep red silky drapes even line one wall behind a life-sized bowling pin, supplying a striking backdrop for our annual family photo op.

But far from suggesting anything sleazy, its retro appearance evokes a less hectic time when families worked and played together more often than they do today. Perhaps that’s why we always have such fun bowling there on New Year’s Day and why we go back each year.

Bowling has a long and colorful history, dating back to ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire. In England, King Edward III allegedly banned bowling in 1366 so that his troops would not be distracted from their archery practice. But by 1511, bowling became popular again during the reign of King Henry VIII, an avid bowler himself who enjoyed knocking down pins as much as marrying new wives.

Bowling even made its way into the American tale of Rip Van Winkle, the foolish henpecked husband in the Catskill Mountains who is lured one night into a hollow where he watches a group of bearded dwarfs playing ninepins and then sleeps for 20 years after imbibing liquor.

Nowadays bowling is one of those rare activities everyone can enjoy, regardless of one’s age or athletic ability. All of us in the family—moms and dads, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, sons and daughters—join in the friendly competition.

Usually we pit the “guys” against the “gals.” And pity the team which has me as a member! No team with me on it ever prevails.

As the bowling balls roll down the lanes, their heavy, rumbling sounds mingle with the happy bursts of pins falling down hard. Not to mention our hoots and hollers. We scream and clap and shout, vociferously applauding the strikes, totally denouncing the gutter balls, and unabashedly broadcasting the score.

“Derek has a 96!”

“Whoopee! Victor got a strike!”

“Oh, no! Carrie got a gutter ball!”

“Al broke 100!”

“Guys are in the lead!”

“Ooh! It’s just a spare!”

“Two gutter balls in a row!”

Gutter balls are my personal specialty. I have transformed the avoidance of knocking down pins into a rare art form.  Never do I keep track of my embarrassingly low score. (At least it’s above zero, I tell myself, and I edged past Peri, our youngest niece—but just barely!)

Winning or losing, however, is definitely secondary to the joyful camaraderie of our family bowling day and, afterwards, going to nephew Jason’s cozy house for soup and pork and sauerkraut, carefully prepared by his wife Heather.

Walking there in the stark white snow along the streets of Lawrenceville, we take pleasure in admiring the colorful Victorian homes and refurbished brick row houses, as well as the renowned Allegheny Cemetery and the venerable Arsenal Park which once held a munitions factory during the Civil War. I ponder the sad story of the old Allegheny Arsenal where 75 people died on Sept. 17, 1862, many of them young girls, when gunpowder exploded and set the factory ablaze where children worked making cartridges for Union soldiers.

Arsenal Lanes carries in its name the memory of the Allegheny Arsenal and those who died there that day, but it now provides the perfect place to forge new memories, like the ones we create every New Year’s Day when we bowl our hearts away. I’ll take a bowling ball over a cannon ball any day.


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