Lessons from the alleys

Feb 19th, 2012 | By | Category: Career advice, career choice, competing, competitive peers, grades, skills

I went bowling with some friends yesterday afternoon. I am not a regular bowler and really haven’t bowled for several years. I did set pins when I was around 14 for a couple of years at the local Elks Club. They had four alley’s and we used to have to set doubles. That is we set pins on two alleys. When the club closed we had to sweep and straighten up the bowling area. The job paid 10 cents a line. For every game we set, we got a dime. On a good night it came to a little over a dollar and hour.

Setting pins is not heavy work, but it is very aerobic with very little time to rest between rolls. Watching the automatic pen setters, effortlessly set frame after frame made recall the fast paced hustle of the pins boys jumping between alleys keeping up with the bowlers. They did not like to wait, and a pinsetter who could not keep up did not last long. New pinsetters would start on family night where it seemed to take forever to get through a line, until the boss thought you were ready to move to setting for the leagues.

Even pinsetters are in competition. The faster and more reliable you could set pins, the more likely you would be selected to set pins for tournaments and special events. A contest could run all day and into the evening, and the pace was very fast. It took a lot of stamina to set doubles for a tournament, but the pay was usually a couple pennies more per line and there were tips. Tournaments were about the only time that pinsetters got tips at the club. In addition, it was only the more senior kids who were selected to work. Some of the pinsetters were actually out of high school, and still setting pings. It was a rough and tumble group of guys who while generally good-natured, didn’t hesitate to settle their differences with an uppercut. It was best to be friends with everyone and not take sides in individual disputes. A good lesson that has served me well though out my career.

It took about six months for me to work my way from setting one lane on family night to doubles on league night. In one way it seemed like an accomplishment, and in another like a slipping down a path towards what the older guys had. A hard job that paid little. By the end of leagues, ran a couple months, I decided that pinsetters was not a good career choice, and I started looking for another after school job. In the meanwhile I met Chubb’s who was a pin setter, but made a few extra dollars for scheduling and making sure that the alleys were covered. It was not uncommon for people to call in sick at the last minute or worse yet just not show up. Chubb’s would get a call a few minutes prior to when the alley opened telling him he was short on pinsetters. This would mean that he had to scramble to find someone to come in on short notice to set pins and Chubb’s had to get in there quick to cover until a fill in pinsetter arrived. Sometimes Chubb’s would just set for the entire shift. It was really a lot of responsibility and hard work for just a few extra dollars. I once asked Chubb’s why he stayed on at the alleys when he could get a better paying job with regular hours in the mill. Chubb’s told me that he started setting pins when he was about 13. He like the extra money and work as often as possible to maximize his earnings. As the years went by he became more senior, and the club management gave him the job of scheduling. In the mean time Chubb’s let his school work go, dropping out of school at 16. At first he though it was cool to be out of school and working at an early age. He felt independent. When he turned 18 and was old enough to work at the mills, he found he could not pass the simple entrance exam, so rather than go back to school, he stayed on at the club. Now he was in his 20s working along side high school kids and making about the same money.

I quit setting pins and moved on to another after school job with better hours and more interesting work, but setting pins was real experience and taught me some very valuable lessons.

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