(Fred Lynch) [Order this photo]
By Bob Miller
It's noon on Senior Monday at Cape Girardeau's West Park Lanes, and the buzz is picking up. The bowling lanes aren't turned on yet, but the sitting areas will soon be filled with scores of college students on the right side of the building and a few dozen bowlers ages 55 and older on the left.
The seniors are starting to gather for their lunches. Dean Scott, a 66-year-old from Jackson, and Bob Windeknecht, spry at 77, are munching on their Darryl burgers, prepared by the alley's manager and cook Darryl James. They invite me to take a seat.
I'm here to do a story about this weekly gathering, which is not a league but rather a casual event for retired folks to roll a couple of games without the pressure of team competition. The event is growing; every week about 35 seniors show up to eat lunch and try to win back a few bucks if they knock down colored pins. They get a little thrill for winning a dollar if they hit a red pin when it is in the head position. If they get a strike in that situation, they win a free game. (If they miss, they're bound to get some razzing from Mike Freeman, 67, of Chaffee, Mo. He's a good-natured trash-talker.)
So I talk with Bob and Dean a little bit while they finish their burgers. I learn that Bob started bowling seven years ago. His first year he averaged a 108. Like a fine wine that gets better with age, he is averaging about 150 now.
I ask Dean why he likes the noon gatherings, and his answer is not surprising. The camaraderie. The challenge. The activity. But Dean soon changes the topic, and the story about the thrills of senior bowling takes a bit of a turn.
"You know what you ought to do a story on," he says. "There's a guy down in Jackson who is 98 and he does it every week."
"Ninety-eight?" I say.
Scott calls to a couple of buddies. I find out the man's name is Windy Winchester.
Windy Winchester, it turns out, is something of a legend in the Cape Girardeau County senior bowling subculture. Someone shares that he once fell while bowling and needed medical attention that required stitches. He refused to leave until he completed the frame. As legend would have it, the ageless Windy Winchester rolled a spare, and he earned a standing ovation.
Then someone shares another story. Just last week a fellow named Cletus Lux bowled a 265. Cletus is 91 years old. Another gentleman, Jim Bradley, who turned 96 on Tuesday, bowls in the Thursday night senior league.
I stick around to watch some of the Monday lunch event, and they were all having great fun, of course. High fives after strikes and teasing.
But I'm still thinking about these 90-somethings. A bowling alley employee copies a report that shows Lux's bowling scores since last August. He'd surpassed the 200 plateau four times before his 265 game on Feb. 17. He averages about a 165 overall.
When I reach Cletus by phone later, he can't be more unassuming. Living now in Benton, Mo., he's had pretty good luck with his health. He does arm exercises, walks regularly and plays golf once a week when weather allows.
He has scored as high as 287 when he was about half the age he is today. He can't remember the last time he hit 260, but he's proud of his three-game score of 637 last February.
"I got the first five in a row," he recalls of his recent 265 game. "Then I left the seven pin ... I felt real good. My buddies kept congratulating me, some from other teams congratulated me too."
Cletus says he'll continue to bowl as long as he can, and as long as his buddies want him to be on the team.
Jim Bradley is quite proud of his ability to roll his 12-pound ball at 96. He averages a score of about 130. He bowls two or three times a week between his Thursday nights in the senior league at West Park Lanes.
"I do very well for my age," he says. "I do a lot of the things I used to do. I'm just a little slower at it."
It's clear that bowling is a lifelong activity. Before I head to Jackson lanes on Wednesday to meet Windy Winchester, I wonder how common it is for someone in his or her 90s to continue bowling.
I contact Bowl.com, the nation's bowling governing body, and a representative points me to a story about a man named Ted Muller who was still bowling in a league at the age of 106. I make a call out to California and learn that Muller stopped bowling a few weeks ago. His legs just gave out.
Could that make Windy Winchester the oldest league bowler in the U.S.?
A gentleman in Syosset, N.Y., by the name of Gene Scala likely has that title. He is 105 years old, and averages 123, according to a woman I spoke to at Syosset Lanes.
Windy Winchester may not be the oldest in the U.S., but what about Missouri?
Windy Winchester is about as strong as any 98-year-old man could hope to be. This newspaper did a story on him in 2008, when he was only 96, and he hasn't missed a beat in the last couple of years. Windy Winchester was a fireman and carpenter in his working years. He and his wife D'Orsay live in Arbor, Mo., in the shadows of Advance.
He is not exuberant, but I can tell he still loves the game. He carefully wipes his ball with a rag and cradles it in his left arm before stepping up to the line.
He rolls that ball down there, a natural right-to-left curve and it goes a little faster than one might expect. Not so fast that the pins crash upon contact, but it doesn't wop-wop-wop down the lane like a child's push might do. In the third frame, the lack of power comes at a cost, and he rolls a split. He makes a frustrated gesture, and comes back to the rack frowning.
A couple of frames later, I take a seat next to him. He's wearing thick glasses. He's a little hard of hearing, too, but we manage.
"Yeah, I was a good bowler as a young man," he says. "Close to a 200 average."
His wife told me he once rolled a 299, one pin shy of a perfect game.
I ask him about the story on the fall and the bleeding, and finishing the frame.
"Yeah, that's right," he says. He doesn't make much of the ordeal, but it scared his wife to death.
He steps away midway through our conversation to take his turn. He hits a spare, and gets a five from a teammate. This is not an unusual occurrence. He averages 133.
Windy Winchester turns 99 in July. When I asked him why he still does it, he says he has a goal of bowling at 100.
It turns out that Windy Winchester is the third-oldest bowler in Missouri. The manager at the state's bowling association, curious about my inquiry, graciously sent out e-mails to all of the alleys in the association. There is a 102-year-old from St. Louis and a 100-year-old in St. Joseph. There's also a 98-year-old in Kansas City who averages a 191. No, that was not a typo. Fred Finkeldei, 98, of Kansas City, bowls in four leagues; his highest average is 191.
At the Jackson Lanes where Windy Winchester bowls, there's a wall with the names of everyone who has bowled a perfect 300.
But the 60-some senior bowlers in Jackson and the 30-some people in the senior leagues at West Park Lanes aren't chasing 300 anymore.
They're chasing some fun in retirement. But most of all they're chasing Windy Winchester.
They're chasing 100, bowling's most impressive number.