Archive for the ‘STORIES’ Category

A Christmas Story

December 25, 2018

To many people this time of year brings back cherished memories of the magic Christmases of childhood. But I always remember the Chicago Classic League, and its annual visit to Habetler Bowl.

The time was the early 1960s. The PBA Tour was on the rise, and the Classic League had passed its peak.  Yet the league still loomed large on Chicago’s bowling scene.  It had a history.  Twice a week, our four daily newspapers carried the scores of the Classic’s two divisions.

And there were the bowlers! The league boasted many of the legends we had grown up watching on TV—Joe Norris, Paul Krumske, Harry Lippe, Eddie Kawolics, and more.  Those demigods would be performing on the same lanes as our Saturday morning junior league.

The Classic came to our house the last Tuesday before Christmas. That date was important, for with school on vacation, it was easier to talk parents into letting us stay out to watch a 9:15 league.  Our proprietor, Rudy Habetler, was a former president of the Classic.  I like to think he secured that special date so his junior bowlers could attend the session.

The publicity blitz began around Thanksgiving.  Large posters were hung on the Habetler Bowl walls proclaiming that the Classic League was coming.  The message was echoed on the outside signboard for the enlightenment and edification of the motorists along Northwest Highway.  Around the middle of December, the Classic League Yearbooks appeared. These were digest-size booklets crammed with pictures, statistics, and schedules, and we eagerly scooped them up.

The big night finally arrived. Portable grandstands had been set up behind the last eight lanes, and spectators began filling them as early as 8 o’clock—which produced some nervousness among the 150-average bowlers in the early league who suddenly had an audience.  Then, a little before 9, the Classic Leaguers began drifting in.

Everything about them said class.  They were freshly barbered, spoke in low voices, and smoked seven-inch cigars.  They carried leather bowling bags and wore silky shirts with the finest embroidery.  When they took to the lanes to warm up, even the bottom-rungers managed to get a devastating curve out of a hard-rubber ball with no apparent effort.

Don Eberl (1941-1998)

Each year there seemed to be some new phenom who had been tearing the league apart. His name might be Jim Stefanich or Don McCune or Les Zikes Jr.—with the final suffix, since Les Sr. still bowled in the Classic.  One year the promising rookie was our own Don Eberl, a graduate of Habetler’s Friday night scratch league.

Of the actual bowling I recall very little. There was roo much to take in.  My most vivid memory is of Eddie Kawolics coming out of the box with the first seven strikes.  Another time there was an old-timers’ match.  Rudy bowled along with some other vets.  What made this special was I got to watch the great Adolph Carlson in action.  It was the only time I would ever see him bowl.

And then it was over. My friends and I came out of our trance.  We drifted sleepily into the night toward our homes, declaring that we would show up a half-hour early for league next Saturday, so we could try out the tricks we gleaned from observing Andy Rogoznica or Lou Cioffi.

Going home from one of these sessions, I had the aura of the Classic League reinforced for me. It was long past midnight, and as I walked down Foster Avenue, a police car pulled up next to me.  Vacation or not, Chicago youth had a strict 10:30 curfew.

When I told the officer where I had been, his face brightened, and he asked me how the Biasetti Steak House team had done. He then told me to get into the squad car—and gave me a ride home.  He spent the trip talking about Vince Grzelak, Biasetti’s young phenom.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

First published in BOWLERS JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL in December 2008.

For this story and 89 more, buy a copy of my book THE BOWLING CHRONICLES.  Available on Amazon.


The Patriotic Bowling Tournament

June 21, 2018

In the spring of 1917, the United States entered World War I.  Among the unforeseen results was the largest bowling tournament the world had ever seen.

Germany was the enemy, and anti-German hysteria was sweeping the country.  Schools dropped German language courses.  Opera houses cancelled Wagner programs.  Restaurants changed sauerkraut to “liberty cabbage.”  Some resident Germans were tar-and-feathered.

Because bowling was still close to its German roots, some super-patriots talked of outlawing the game.  With many proprietors and tenpin officials sporting German names—Bensinger, Baumgarten, Bruck, Schuenemann, Mueller, and so on—the major players sounded like a roll call of the Kaiser’s General Staff.

It happened that many army recruits from Chicago were taking their basic training at Camp Grant, near Rockford.  Word reached home that the recreational facilities at the camp were limited.  The boys didn’t even have a bowling alley.

ABC Treasurer Pasdeloup

ABC treasurer Frank L. Pasdeloup announced the solution in Bowlers Journal in February 1918. The city and state bowling associations, along with the local proprietors, were going to build bowling facilities at Camp Grant.  To raise money, they planned to stage the Patriotic Bowling Tournament.  Now all the doubters would know that bowling truly was an All-American game.

Over the next few months, the tournament committee rounded out the details.  They decided to make the Patriotic Tournament a full-blown “ABC-style” show, with Team, Doubles, and Singles events.  All male bowlers in Illinois were eligible.  Entry fees were set at a modest $1 per event.  Bowlers would be allowed to shoot at the establishment of their choice.

The last proviso set the tone for the tournament.  With so many houses involved, scoring conditions couldn’t be consistent, so the Patriotic Tournament would forget about competitive standings.  Prizes would be awarded through a blind drawing.

Public response was enthusiastic.  As Patriotic Tournament Week got closer, entries poured in.  Some leagues simply added an extra week to their schedules and bowled as a unit.  Churches, fraternal societies, athletic clubs, offices, and factories all organized teams.  At the Chicago Stock Yards, rival meatpacking companies engaged in friendly competition to see which one would field the most teams.  Armour won, and had to reserve an entire floor of Wabash Recreation to accommodate its bowlers.  The largest contingent from a single business was the 104 teams representing the Crane Plumbing Company.

The games began on Saturday, May 25.  One bowler at Prima Recreation got into the patriotic spirit by showing up dressed as Uncle Sam.  A total of 1,066 teams participated, including 134 from towns outside Chicago.  The Doubles entry was 762, while the Singles attracted 1,585.  All entry figures were records.  In fact, the biggest bowling tournament up to that time had been the 1916 ABC at Toledo, with 756 teams.

The concluding festivities were held at Randolph Recreation on June 22.  Former ABC president Judge Howard was master of ceremonies.  Medals were presented for the highest scores in each division:  Team—Olsens (3223), Doubles—Hank Marino and Bob Rolfe (1336), Singles—Robert Phelps (759).  Then the Judge began drawing for the prizes.

The monetary awards were in the form of war certificates and thrift stamps, ranging in denomination from $1 through $20.  Various businesses had donated merchandise.  Boxes of cigars and subscriptions to Bowlers Journal were hot items, though the prize list included socks, straw hats, fountain pens, a new bowling ball, a case of marshmallows, and an “assortment of cookie treats.”  Everyone who bowled in the tournament received a red-white-and-blue badge.

The Patriotic Bowling Tournament raised $2,646.48, an impressive sum in 1918.  Unfortunately, government red tape then began to tangle things.  Army officials backed out of their commitment to provide a building for the lanes.  Angry words were exchanged, letters were fired off to the Secretary of War.  Both the YMCA and the Knights of Columbus were approached to co-sponsor the Camp Grant bowling facility.  Neither group was interested.

At last, the Great Lakes Naval Training Camp agreed to accept the gift.  Ten new bowling lanes were installed at the base.  On December 19, 1918, the facility was formally dedicated.  Its work finished, the Patriotic Bowling Tournament committee disbanded.  By then the war had been over for a month.  But in this case, it was the thought that counted.

First published in Bowlers Journal, October 1995.  For this story and 89 more, buy a copy of my book The Bowling Chronicles.  Available on Amazon, or from McFarland Publishing for bulk orders.  A great gift for any bowler!

In Search of Johnny King

March 20, 2018

First published in Bowlers Journal International, May 2011. 

Johnny King celebrates his ninetieth birthday this month.  In bowling’s golden age of the late 1950s, he was a legendary figure.  And like most legends, it’s sometimes hard to separate the fiction from the fact.

To begin with, his actual name was Howard King.  Growing up in Cleveland during the Depression, he was forced to drop out of school and go to work in a factory.  He eventually became a precision grinder.

King didn’t make his bowling mark until he was in his thirties.  Then he won the Cleveland Match Game Championship twice, and in 1956 posted the city’s highest league average, a lofty 223.  That same year he took home one of bowling’s biggest checks in the George London Dream Tournament.

Now he began to appear on TV, and the legend began.  In 1957 King was all over the tube.  He scored big on two syndicated film series and even rolled a 300 game in front of the cameras.  The year ended with King the top TV money-winner, with prizes totaling over $25,000—about $200,000 in today’s money.

King was fun to watch.  He bowled with a long cigar stuck in his mouth, approaching the line slowly and smoothly, sending the ball out onto the lane without a sound.  Then he went into action with a dazzling array of body English.  A teammate claimed that King used to practice his moves in front of a mirror.

Johnny King was a star.  More women were bowling, and they became some of his biggest fans.  The ladies liked Johnny. Johnny liked the ladies, too.

He moved to Chicago to bowl with Buddy Bomar’s Munsingwear team.  That caused a flap, since King had already promised to join the Pfeiffer Beer team of Detroit.  Pfeiffer captain Lou Sielaff, ordinarily a soft-spoken gentleman, blasted King all over the bowling press.

If King was bothered, it didn’t show.  He won the first of two straight Chicago Match Game titles and finished fourth in the World’s Invitational.  He made exhibition tours for AMF.  During an appearance in Indiana, King averaged 277 for seven games.

He was a tough opponent, and looked for very edge.  During one match, King flicked some cigar ash onto the side of the approach and started sliding his shoe through it—which made his opponent start worrying about sticking.  Another time, on the bench during a TV match, King pulled out a mirror to comb his hair.  The mirror reflected the glare of the overhead lights onto the other bowler, just as the man was releasing his shot.

King was also known for his prowess at gin rummy.  He won so regularly that many people refused to play with him.  Others kept coming back for more, trying to figure out how he did it.  According one bit of locker-room gossip, King could have won the 1957 World’s, but ran out of gas after playing cards all night.

He continued on Bomar’s team, then bowled the 1961-62 season with Fresno in the National Bowling League.  The NBL folded after one season, but King and some of his ex-teammates won a Classic Division eagle as the California Bombers at the 1963 ABC.  That December he won his only PBA title at Hialeah, Florida.

He was living in Florida and selling liquor dispensing equipment when he was tapped for the first Great and Greatest Tournament in 1978. He teamed with Johnny Petraglia and finished in the middle of the pack.  It’s worth noting that King was the only “Greatest” invitee who is not in the Bowling Hall of Fame.

And that’s it.  I’ve talked to dozens of bowlers and writers and bowling officials, and nobody knows what happened to Johnny King.  For the last thirty years, he has communicated with the bowling world strictly through rumor.

Happy Birthday, Johnny.  And if you get a chance, drop me an e-mail.

Update: Some months after this article was published, I learned that Johnny King had passed away in Florida on March 12, 1998.

For this story and 89 more, buy a copy of my book The Bowling Chronicles.  Available on Amazon, or from McFarland Publishing for bulk orders.  A more useful award for your league champs than one more trophy!


Pioneer Don Scott

February 1, 2018

February is Black History Month. That makes it an appropriate time to remember one of bowling’s pioneer African American pros, Don Scott.

A native of Cleveland, Scott learned his bowling as a teenage pinboy in Akron.  He began making a name for himself in local league and money matches during the 1950s.  He also won a number of events sponsored by The National Bowling Association, the black-oriented group created during ABC’s segregated days.

When the PBA was launched, Scott was one of the first blacks to join.  His proudest moment on Tour came in 1961.  The premier PBA event was the National Championship, and that year it was being held in Cleveland.  Charging out of the box in front of a hometown crowd, Scott topped the qualifying field of 192 entries.  He finished ninth in the tournament.

Don Scott (1927-2010)

The 1960s was a time of transition for America.  Many large businesses which had ignored black Americans now awoke to the fact that there was a huge untapped market out there. With his tournament success and outgoing personality, Scott was a natural to spread the gospel of bowling.  AMF signed him to its advisory staff to roll exhibition and stage clinics, and the Cleveland-based Carling Brewery hired him for similar work.

In 1964 Scott became the first African American to appear on the “Championship Bowling” TV show.  The series was at the peak of its popularity, and carried at least as much prestige as the still-new PBA Tour.  “We bowled in Akron, and Harvey Firestone from the tire company was one of the sponsors,” Scott remembered.  “He told [the producers] that he had a lot of black customers who were buying his tires, and they got the message.  It came down to J. Wilbert Sims and me.  I had been competing around Ohio, and most of the white bowlers knew me.  AMF was sponsoring the show, I was with AMF, so I got the nod.”

Admittedly nervous, Scott still did respectably.  He bowled against two future Hall of Famers, George Howard and Carmen Salvino, beating Howard and losing to Salvino.  His 1216 six-game total put him in the middle of the show’s 24-man standings.

Though he belonged to the PBA for nearly twenty years, Scott never bowled a full Tour schedule.  He had a bowling center and other businesses to run in Cleveland, and didn’t have much free time.  So he stuck to those events “a tankful of gas away” in places like Detroit, Buffalo, and Waukegan.

Besides, the competition was getting tougher.  “When I first went out there, if you carried a 203 or 204 average like I did, you cashed,” Scott said.  “Then it started to go up to 205, 206, 211, 212, just to cash.  I was still the same, but instead of cashing, now I was on page eight of the standings.”

Scott encountered very little racism in his PBA days.  The other bowlers were generally welcoming and supportive.  Scott remembers one episode with a chuckle.  He was sitting at the lunch counter at a tournament venue in Miami, and the waitress repeatedly ignored him.  Scott happened to mention it to Bill Allen, one of the Tour’s leading stars and a native Southerner.

“Allen got really excited,” Scott says.  “He told me, ‘You don’t have to put up with this! We’re going to tell Eddie [Elias]!  We don’t have to stay here!’  I finally had to tell him, ‘But Bill, it was a black waitress.’”

Scott eventually moved on from bowling into other ventures.  For more than thirty years he operated the country’s largest black-owned nightclub.  He and his wife Val raised three children “who never caused me the grief I caused my parents,” and who carved out successful professional careers of their own.

In 2000 Don Scott received the Congressional Black Caucus’s Unsung Hero Award to honor his bowling achievements.  He still lives in Cleveland, and plans to get copies of his old TV matches, “so my grandkids can show off to their friends.”

First published in Bowlers Journal, February 2007.  For this story and 89 more, buy a copy of my book The Bowling Chronicles.  Available on Amazon, or from McFarland Publishing for bulk orders.  A more useful award for your league champs than one more trophy!

Bowling’s “Cinema Verite”

October 26, 2017

They say that life imitates art. One of the more colorful cases of this maxim has a bowling angle.

The original Scarface was one of the movie hits of 1932. Starring Paul Muni as a thinly-disguised version of Al Capone, it chronicles the rise and fall of a brutal bootlegger in Prohibition-era Chicago. Onetime city-beat reporter Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay, so the film carries the stamp of authenticity.

About halfway through the story, Muni decides to eliminate rival mobster Boris Karloff. Karloff learns of the plot and disappears. But he can’t stay put. One night he goes bowling.

Muni is at the theater when word comes that Karloff has been spotted. So our scarfaced hero and some henchmen head for the bowling alley. And they don’t take their bowling equipment with them.

Out on the lanes, Karloff is happily spilling pins. Muni and crew enter unseen. “Just watch this one,” Karloff tells the guy next to him.

Boris Karloff goes bowling in “Scarface”

Into his delivery goes Karloff. Just as he reaches the foul line gunshots ring out, and he crumples to the floor. The camera, however, follows the ball down the lane. The ball hits the pocket. Pins scatter—all except the 10-pin, which spins crazily in circles a few times before finally toppling over.

Film critics loved the bowling scene. They praised director Howard Hawks and his use of the slowly-toppling pin as a symbol of Karloff dying off-screen. In fact, the whole idea of killing a character in a bowling alley was brilliantly original. That had never been done.

Gangland applauded the film, too. Members of the Capone mob were tickled to see their exploits portrayed on the giant screen in glorious black-and-white. One of those mobsters was Machine Gun Jack McGurn.

Jack McGurn

A trusted Capone lieutenant, McGurn was reputedly the lead gunman in the notorious St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Yet he didn’t fit the public image of a gangster. McGurn dressed in conservatively-cut charcoal gray suits, and charmed those he met with his gracious manners. He could discuss history and literature insightfully. Disdaining the wicked city where he made his livelihood, he owned a bungalow in sedate, suburban Oak Park.

McGurn was also a sportsman. As a golfer he was good enough to qualify for the 1933 Western Open and play the first six holes in one-under-par, until some spoilsport cops turned up to arrest him. In winter he was a regular 200-shooter at Avenue Recreation on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

On St. Valentine’s evening in 1936, McGurn decided to roll a few lines. Along with two friends he journeyed into the city, arriving at Avenue about midnight. McGurn and his pals removed their outer clothing and prepared to bowl. Suddenly, three men rushed in, brandishing pistols and announcing a stickup.

Reports of what happened next are confused. Most of the patrons dove for cover. So did McGurn’s companions. The intruders ran up to where McGurn was standing and shot him three times before he could draw his own gun. Machine Gun Jack died on Alley Two with a house ball in his hands.

Within hours the papers were on the streets with extra editions. McGurn’s death was bigger news that FDR, Hitler, or the turmoil in Spain. One homey touch was the unsigned Valentine left on his body—

“You’ve lost your job,

You’ve lost your dough,

Your car and your fine houses.

But things could be worse, you know—

You haven’t lost your trousers.”


The murder was never solved, credited to the usual “Person or Persons Unknown.” What’s unmistakable is the eerie echo of Karloff’s death in Scarface. Someone had seen the movie, been impressed by the staging, and decided to copy it.

A few observers claim that bowling’s image problem dates from the McGurn slaying. By extension that puts the blame on screenwriter Hecht and director Hawks. Certainly their Scarface scenes put bowling in a sinister light.

But they might have done worse. They might have given us Dreamer.

First published in Bowlers Journal, November 1993.  For this story and 89 more, buy a copy of my book The Bowling Chronicles.  Available on Amazon, or from McFarland Publishing for bulk orders.  A great Christmas gift for any bowler!


Wrong Foot Louie

October 12, 2016

Watching Lou Campi bowl was fun.  Especially the first time you saw him.

He was a little guy with glasses and a soft smile who looked like a sawed-off Clark Kent.  As he shuffled into his approach, your immediate impression was that he was crowding the foul line.  No room for him to slide.  Then he was suddenly spinning the ball out onto the lane.  With the crash of the pins, your brain finally caught up with the visual images of Lou’s style, and you realized what had happened.  Campi had finished his delivery on the wrong foot.

To summarize—Lou Campi was a right-handed bowler who slid to the line with his right foot.  If you think that’s easy, try it some time.

Many noted bowlers have had offbeat styles, and all of them have claimed their way was really an advantage.  But not Wrong Foot Louie.  The way he told it, he had played a lot of Italian bocce as a kid, got used to delivering the ball off his right foot, and it was too much trouble to change.

Campi Campi was born in Verona, Italy, in 1905.  The family moved to New Jersey when Lou was fourteen.  Papa Campi was a stone mason, and his son followed in the trade.

Though he didn’t get around to tenpins until he was well past thirty, the bocce master swiftly made the transition, averaging over 200 by his second year.  With his crazy style, he won quite a few money matches before the other bowlers wised up.

By 1947 Campi was a big name around North Jersey and New York City.  Andy Varipapa had competed against Campi in several leagues, and chose him as a partner in a challenge-match for the BPAA Doubles title. The pair won the match, then successfully defended their title in the tournament the following year.

During the 1950s Campi bowled with the Faber Cement Blocks, the finest team in the East—and a fitting sponsor for a stone mason.  In 1957 he teamed with Lindy Faragalli to again capture the BPAA Doubles. Besides the doubles title, Campi won several individual events that season, and was named a first team All-American.  He was also a finalist at the All-Star Tournament four times, finishing as high as third place.

His wrong-foot finish aside, Campi did not hesitate to restructure his game.  Long after he’d become famous, Campi switched from pin-bowling to spot-bowling.  He also developed the unique “Campi Twin Grip,” a four-hole drilling in a rectangular pattern that allowed him to vary his grip as the night wore on.

Campi was also one of the early stars of TV bowling.  On one show he won two automobiles.  His greatest performance, though, was on the East vs. West Bowling Sweepstakes program.

For fourteen straight weeks Campi defeated the Who’s Who of bowling—Carter, Weber, Nagy, Lillard, Lubanski, and so on. The station even extended the show to see if someone could beat him.  By then they’d run out of challengers.  Bill Lillard was brought back for a second try, and Campi was finally beaten . . . by three pins.

That incredible television streak may have been the peak of Campi’s career.  He continued to bowl with the Fabers and give exhibitions for AMF into the 1960s, gradually winding down from big-time competition.  When he was elected to the ABC Hall of Fame in 1968, he was managing a bowling center.

Yet for all his accomplishments, Campi may be best known today as a bit of historical trivia.

Question:  Who won the first PBA tournament?

Answer:  Lou Campi at Albany, New York, in 1959.

If you’re doing the math, you’ll note that Campi was already 54 years old when he captured that inaugural PBA event.  Thus, pro bowling had a senior champion before it had a regular one.

Lou Campi died in 1989.


First published in Bowlers Journal in February 1993.

The Gerbils of Hollywood Bowl

September 8, 2014

I wrote this bit of fiction in 1989. I finally managed to sell it to a magazine–which promptly went belly up before they printed it. A few months later I started writing for Bowlers Journal, and forgot about writing fiction. I recently rediscovered the story among some old files, so here it is–

A gerbil is a furry rodent about eight inches long, weighing roughly three ounces.  They generally come in earth-tone shades of brown, grey, or dull yellow.  In the United States, they are among the most popular of children’s pets.  Gerbils are gentle, curious, quick, prolific, not very intelligent, and absolutely harmless.

With all the bowling alleys I have been around, I never had much contact with gerbils.  Most people never do, except for the parents of small kids, and the people who breed the little suckers for cash—breed the gerbils, I mean.  But of course, thanks to Kennelly Grushke, we have all become more gerbil-conscious.  So to set the record straight, I will tell you how it all happened.  You might say I was there from the beginning.

As everyone knows, Kennelly Grushke is the proprietor of Hollywood Bowl.  The name is glitzy, but the place itself is what you would call a “traditional” bowling alley—a dark, musty, second-floor, sixteen-alley joint. It might be the oldest bowling room in Chicago.  Certainly it fits in with the rest of that tired old commercial strip along Milwaukee Avenue.  Kennelly’s grandfather installed the alleys in 1925.  There was a speakeasy on the first floor then.  Now there’s a government office.  That must be progress.

From Labor Day to May Day, the bowling business is easy.  You’ve got your steady leagues, and there are a certain number of customers who wander in for a casual line or two.  It’s the other four months that are hard.  People want to be outside in the fresh air and nice weather.  Once the leagues are finished with their schedule, a lot of places just close down.

Kennelly could never accept this.  His parents had named him after the mayor of Chicago, and that might have been the reason he always dreamed big.  He saw himself as a smart guy, a promoter.  He figured it would take only the right idea to get people flocking to Hollywood Bowl in the slow months.  So every summer he had a new scheme.

" . . . a tired old commercial strip along Milwaukee Avenue."

” . . . a tired old commercial strip along Milwaukee Avenue.”

One year it was a summer bowling league, with first prize two tickets to Vegas.  Another year he tried “candlelight” bowling—turn out all the lights except for the pindeck and have people bowl in the dark.  He lost money on both of those.  Then there was nude mixed bowling.  You can imagine how that was supposed to work.  Trouble was, Kennelly couldn’t get any women to sign up.

So when I was leaving the place one night last April, at the end of my league season, I asked Kennelly what he had planned for the coming summer.  He surprised me by saying he didn’t know.  I laughed.  Then I told him:  “There are only two ways you are going to get people up here in the summer—sex or gambling.  And you’ve already tried sex.”

Now as a rule, Kennelly is not really bright.  But sometimes he is bright enough to take my advice.  He bounced my bit of offhand wisdom around for a few days.  Then one evening I met up with him along Milwaukee Avenue.  He had this mad gleam in his eye and he was smiling.  Immediately I knew that he had cooked up another summer plan for Hollywood Bowl.

It happened that Kennelly had gone over to his sister’s house for dinner.  He was a bachelor, it was Tuesday, and that’s what he always did for a meal on Tuesdays.  He was sitting around the living room waiting to eat and began watching his eleven-year-old niece.  She was playing with her pet gerbil.

Kennelly remembered gerbils.  He had raised his own when he was a kid—but not for long, because they had kept getting away from him, and then he had to chase them around the bedroom for an hour to get them back in their cage.  Now, watching little what’s-her-name play, Kennelly marveled at the high-tech solution to his old problem.

The kid had a clear plastic globe about as big as a soccer ball.   The globe snapped open around the equator.  She put the gerbil inside and twisted the two halves shut.  Then the gerbil could run around inside all it wanted.  Pretty soon, the animal would figure out how to maneuver the globe so it could roll itself around the room.

That’s when the inspiration had hit Kennelly.  It was an awesome moment, he told me—like when Edison invented the light bulb, or Ritz invented the cracker.  Kennelly had the answer to his summer business problem.  He would hold gerbil races at Hollywood Bowl.

Now all he needed was an Indian.

Ready to race

Ready to race

Among the people who frequented Hollywood Bowl, the closest thing to an Indian was Huey Tallhead.  Huey’s father had been half Cherokee and half something else, his mother both-halves Italian.  Old Mr. Tallhead had died when Huey was a boy and his mother had married another Italian.  Huey had grown up Italian and had married his own Italian, Lena Rinaldi.  Huey was about six-foot-four, and actually did look like an Indian.  But he lived Italian, ate Italian, and swore Italian.  Still, he was enough of an Indian for Kennelly’s purposes.

So Kennelly had left his sister’s house without eating and was on his way to see Huey.  Having nothing better to do, I decided to tag along.  After all, the Tallheads had the finest selection of Italian wines in the neighborhood.

We got to their bungalow and walked right in—they never seemed to lock their doors.  Huey and Lena were camped out on the living room floor, watching TV.  I started to sit on the plastic-covered sofa, until Lena shook a finger at me and motioned toward the floor.  Kennelly and I settled ourselves on the carpet beside them.

Without any preamble, Kennelly began to explain his plan.  After about a minute, Huey yawned and let his attention drift back to his TV program.  But Lena smelled money.  She encouraged Kennelly to go on.

Basically, Kennelly’s wanted to use the plastic gerbil-globes and hold daily gerbil races.  To make it pay, he needed to have pari-mutuel betting.  And the fastest way to establish a gambling enterprise is to claim Indian—I mean, Native American—sovereignty rights.  They had casinos all over the place.  Why not an Indian gerbil track at Hollywood Bowl?

That was the thrust of Kennelly’s argument—that and the appeal to the dignity of Huey’s people, how the venture could promote Native American ethnic consciousness, bring about greater respect from the world, and . . .  Lena stopped Kennelly short.

“What’s in it for us?”  That was getting to the point.

So Kennelly went back into his speech about Native American civilization, the joys of a multicultural America, the importance of giving Huey and Lena’s children an appreciation of their rich heritage—and maybe 25% share of the profits.

“Not enough,” Lena came back.  And Kennelly went on about his admiration of Native American mysticism, and how he might go to 30%.

“Better,” Lena said.  “Now what do we get up front?”

Lena knew Kennelly’s track record too well, and figured that 30%–or even 100%–of nothing is still nothing.  So Kennelly gritted his teeth, and allowed that in the interest of promoting cross-cultural understanding, he could manage a $1,000 deposit to seal the deal.

“Fine,” said Lena, and shook Kennelly’s hand.  Then she remembered something.  She poked Huey in the ribs to get his attention away from the TV set.

“Huey,” she said.  “We’re getting a thousand dollars.”

Huey looked up with a start.  He hit his forehead with his hand and rolled his eyes.  “Marone!” he exclaimed.

I won’t go into all the details about what happened next.  But as I said, when you can claim Native American sovereignty rights, things move quickly.  About a week after Kennelly made his deal with Huey and Lena, the Chicago City Council held a special hearing on the gerbil track.  I don’t know what kind of jurisdiction they had, but in Chicago, you always make sure you get your alderman on board with whatever you are doing.

Huey came to the council meeting.  He was decked out in a buckskin outfit and feathered headdress that Kennelly had rented for him, though he looked a little green from too much calamari the night before.  He posed for a lot of pictures for the news photographers and TV people.  Alderman Kubowski walked up and posed with him.  Kubowski was going to introduce the legislation in the council.  Kennelly never told me exactly how he managed that. I’ve got my suspicions.

Finally the meeting started, and Kubowski launched his speech.  He wasn’t more than three sentences into it when a noise came from the gallery.  The reporters, the aldermen, and everybody else woke up, and stretched their necks toward the disturbance.  Even the mayor was startled.  But Kubowski kept on with his speech like nothing had happened.

There were maybe ten of them there, marching around the gallery, chanting and waving signs.  “Fair Play for Native Americans,”  “First Americans’ Rights”–things like that.  None of them looked like they were Indians.  They were white, thirtyish, and wearing the kind of casually-worn-out clothes that cost hundreds of dollars.   Alderman Kubowski’s assistant hurried over to where Kennelly and Huey were sitting, at the rear of the council floor.

“Get up there and talk to them,” he hissed.  “They’ll ruin everything.”  And he looked back at his boss, who was still speaking.

Kennelly and Huey found the stairs and headed for the gallery.  At the sight of Huey in his costume, everything stopped.   Huey stood nodding benignly at the protesters, and Kennelly slid forward and began talking rapidly.  He was never smoother, never more persuasive.  As if he needed any, he had another incentive now—one of the protesters pressing close to him was a bronzed blonde with a curled-down lower lip, a dead-ringer for Kim Basinger.

The city council was fully cognizant of the rights of Native Americans, Kennelly assured the group, and the gerbil-racing proposal would certainly win endorsement.  This is a great day for our common cause.   So perhaps you fine friends of the Native Americans might move the demonstration to the sidewalk in front of the building, where you could attract more general attention?

That seemed to satisfy them.   Kennelly added that he hoped they would all attend the grand opening of the Hollywood Bowl Gerbil Track.  He said it to them all, but when he said it, he was staring directly at the Basinger Babe.  She looked back at him earnestly, and assured Kennelly that they would not think of missing the grand opening.

They all filed out.  Kennelly’s eyes followed the Basinger Babe as she moved down the steps.  The last guy in line stopped, turned toward Huey, and began rambling some strange words with a lot of consonants at him.  Huey seemed puzzled, until Kennelly whispered that it was probably an Indian language.  When the guy stopped, he held up his hand in that old “How” pose that Tonto used to do.  Huey gave him a weak smile and held up him own hand.  Then Huey let loose a loud belch.  The guy looked puzzled for a moment.  Then he belched back.

Meanwhile, down on the council floor, Alderman Kubowski was getting near the end of his speech.

*  *  *

I have to give Kennelly credit.  Once he got the city council’s blessing, he went all out.  He ran newspaper ads, radio spots, and announcements on the public-access cable channel.  The story of the Indian gerbil track had been picked up by the national wire services, and the network and cable news shows.  Kennelly began receiving messages from all over the country, from people who thought they must own the world’s fastest gerbil.  He encouraged them all to bring their animals to Chicago.

Kennelly planned a six-week racing season.  There would be ten races on the card, every night of the week except Sunday.  The schedule was to be kicked off with a grand Fourth of July extravaganza.  And after the first season succeeded, who knew what the limits might be?  A cable TV contract?  Franchising?  Trading cards?

I suppose I don’t have to say too much about what happened on the Fourth of July.  It’s been all over the news and the cover of People magazine.  But since I was there, I will go on with it.

When I got to Hollywood Bowl that evening, I didn’t recognize the place.  Red-white-and-blue bunting was stretched all over the front of the building, and along the walls of the stairway up to the second floor.  The main bowling room was covered with the stuff.  There were some weird little trees set in pots at various places.  Banners with Indian-style symbols hung from the ceiling.  And displayed everywhere were plaques with the official logo of Kennelly’s new venture—the silhouette of a running gerbil wearing a single feather.

The race course was going to be the first six alleys.  The pinsetting machines had been removed, and the gerbil-owners would climb into the pits from the room in the rear.  Then they would put the globes holding their animals on the alley.  At the signal, they would release the globes, and the gerbils would start rolling themselves up the alleys toward the finish at the foul-line, about sixty feet away.  That made for all sorts of possibilities, especially if one of the gerbils rolled his globe into a gutter.

Metal bleachers flanked the race course on three sides.  Off to the right, over the unused alleys, a false-floor had been laid down.  On top of this stood about twenty betting booths.

Huey was back in his rented costume, of course, and he walked around waving at people while smoking a large black cigar.  Lena was on hand, but she was more interested in counting the gate.  It was a full house, about 300 people, as good a turnout as at any of the gambling boats cruising the downstate rivers.  Kennelly was pleased to see the Basinger Babe from the city council demonstration was in attendance.  He would talk to her later.

It started off well.  The gerbil-owners paraded out holding their animals in the plastic globes.  There were about two dozen people in the lineup, many of them carrying three or four racers.  They stood at attention on the alleys, the lights dimmed, the local Cubs scouts raised the American flag on a little poll, and the St. Robert Bellarmine School band played the national anthem.  Then Huey took the microphone to thank everybody for coming—I remember his whole speech, “Thanks, everybody, for coming.”  Alderman Kubowski was there, too, and looked like he wanted to make a speech.  Kennelly kept him away from the mike.

Kennelly clanged a gong once, to stop the betting.  He announced the first race of the evening, then gave the bell another three clangs.  On the last clang, six gerbil globes came rolling out of the pits and down the alley.  They were off!

To tell the truth, I was surprised at how fast and how straight the gerbils could roll the globes.  With a $250 prize for the race, I suppose there was incentive for the owners to give them some training.  Anyway, the whole event took maybe two minutes, about as long as a horse race.  A dark grey stallion named Speedy Seymour won in a blowout.  Of the other five, Herb the Gerb rolled off the alley halfway down, got stuck in the gutter, and never came out.

We were just settling down to begin betting on the second race when one of the owners came running out from behind the alleys, yelling for Kennelly.  He found Kennelly standing around by the betting booths, and started dragging him back, all the while waving and babbling hysterically.  I went along to see what the trouble was.

Kennelly and the other man had stopped in the doorway of the pit room, behind the alleys. Coming around the corner, I bumped into them.  Then I saw the fight.  It was those same ten protesters from the city council meeting, going at it against the gerbil owners.  In the middle of the struggle was the Basinger Babe.  She was opening the gerbil cages.

I looked over at Kennelly.  For the first time since I’ve known him, he wasn’t saying anything.  He just stared, and moved his lips around without a sound coming out.  Anyway, the protesters were doing enough talking.  They were chanting again.  This time it was: “Free the animals!  Free the animals! Free the animals!”

At last, Kennelly woke up.  He pushed his way through to the Basinger Babe, grabbing her by an arm.  With all the noise, I couldn’t catch exactly what he said.  Something about how he had thought they were on his side.  What about Native American rights, he wanted to know.

She pulled free of him and started chanting:  “Free the animals!  Free Native Americans!  Free the animals!  Free Native Americans!”  Then the rest of them took it up.

The gerbils were swarming through the pit room.  The commotion had excited them.  The owners scrambled around trying to recapture them.  Some of the animals jumped into the pin pits, away from the noise and toward the light.  A pack of about thirty of them burst out onto the alleys and began running every which way.  Somebody yelled “Rats!”

That started the spectators stampeding.  There was a dash for the exit doors.  More shouting of  “Rats! Rats!”  The gerbils were taking off in all directions, which didn’t help matters.  I saw Kennelly go charging out of the pit room, probably trying to get to the microphone to calm everybody down.  The surging crowd swallowed him up before he could get ten feet.

Within a few minutes, they were all gone—spectators, protesters, gerbil owners, gerbils.  I had been pushed out into the street with the rest of them.  Now I crept back upstairs looking for Kennelly.  He wasn’t there.  Nobody was.   The only sound came from some torn bunting flapping in front of a broken window.  I turned out the lights and left.

You remember how the media played it up the next day.  All the cable stations and even the network news had something to say about the gerbil riot in Chicago.  There was talk of arresting Kennelly for being the source of the disturbance, but Alderman Kubowski didn’t want any kind of investigation, so everybody tried to forget what had happened.

That was difficult to do along Milwaukee Avenue.  Because within a few weeks we began to see them.  Baby gerbils.

When they first started to show up, a scientist from Northwestern arrived, poked around for a few hours, and told us the wild gerbils were just a temporary aberration.  The predators would get them.

I’m not so sure.  Six months have gone by, and there are more gerbils around than ever.  They even seem to like the snow.  There have been sightings reported as far away as ten miles.  The other day, a woman in a Michigan Avenue boutique lifted the lid of a toilet and found a spotted gerbil staring up at her.

Kennelly has gotten through it all okay.  The bowling season is in full swing and business at Hollywood Bowl has been good.  Lately, the Basinger Babe has been coming around the neighborhood, studying the gerbils in their natural habitat.

Rumor has it that Kennelly has been teaching her how to bowl.