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GUEST COLUMN: Remembering Sarnia’s 5-pin alleys

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By Bob Boulton, Special to The Journal

Bob Boulton

Whitey Stapleton, no one called him Pat back then, played defence for the Sarnia Legionnaires and went on to NHL glory.

A little earlier my father played third base, the hot corner, for the Sarnia Imperial Oil baseball team. He smiled whenever he recalled those days.

A little later, in the proud Sarnia tradition of exceptional athleticism, I won the SMAA High Double award – 299 – for 5-pin bowling. I lost my trophy, and can’t locate the records, but I assure you I was invited to the banquet and everything.

There were many 5-pin bowling establishments around town then, but I have personal memories of just three.

At the notorious National, on Christina across from the Capitol (now Imperial) theatre, six 5-pin lanes were located upstairs. Downstairs was a paradise for semi-delinquent youth to skip school, hang out, lie about our age and shoot inept 8-ball in the pool hall. Also, we could walk straight past the snooker tables to the cigar (ahem) store on Front Street and pretend to be legal age. Fooling nobody. Sadly, as we can now see, from Christina through to Front, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

Northgate Bowl may have been named Northgate because Exmouth was Sarnia’s northern boundary. If, though, it was named Northgate to take shameless advantage of Sarnia’s revolutionary landmark Plaza, ‘the first of its kind in Southwestern Ontario,’ then it would have been more honest to call it Just-A-Little-West-Of-Northgate. Where Life Labs is today, across from Cravins. My main memory is the claustrophobic feeling that gripped me as I clattered up the steep narrow stairs to the lanes above.

The alleys on Mitton south of Wellington, where The Rooted Lotus Tattoo Parlour is now, had been known by a variety of names but we always called it Barney’s. This was where I usually bowled and, as I may have mentioned, won my trophy. At a time when the far left pin – far right for left-handers – was the ‘counter pin.’ Knock it down or score zero for the frame.

And pin boys, not mechanisms, reset the pins by hand. One time, the fit as a fiddle pin boy with rolled up t-shirt sleeves, ran right up the alley after us because we threw a ball at him while he was still re-setting the pins. We must have thought he was trapped back there at his end. He was not. We also must have thought he shared our sense of humour. He did not.

5-pin bowling allowed us to focus, if only temporarily, on the understandable. To triumph and yell and laugh apart from an otherwise uncertain and confusing world. For others, maybe it was crosswords or gardening. Or the hot corner.


Bob contributes regularly to our Opinion Column. His verse, short stories, and articles have been published in a variety of small magazines. His blog, Bob’s Write from the Start, is aimed at others who are also renewing writers.

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