The little bowling alley at the Jefferson Barracks VA Medical Center is a lively place on Thursday afternoons when patients from the spinal cord injury unit are bowling and shooting the bull with local veterans who volunteer at the lanes.
On these six wooden lanes -- amid the victorious clatter of strikes and the thud, thud, thud of gutter balls -- men and women with life-altering injuries find cheerful encouragement while learning how to use adaptive bowling equipment to knock down the tenpins.
Steve Miller, whose lower body is paralyzed, bowls while seated in his wheelchair. He rolls the ball down a portable ramp positioned at the edge of the lane. Miller, 56, is from Versailles, Ky. He worked as a landscaper until he fell and broke his back in three places several months ago.
“I’m learning a new life,'' he said. "But one thing I’ve learned is that it’s a different kind of man that lives this life. I’ve found a lot of great guys here that are veterans, and they’ve given me a lot of encouragement.’’
There are no automatic scoring machines at this alley, which opened in the late 1950s. They keep score the old-fashioned way -- penciling in the numbers, frame by frame, on paper sheets. But it’s not about the strikes or spares, say the volunteers who help the VA staff keep the place running.
“The stories you can hear. You have to come in here and sit down and see it for yourself,’’ said Ed Rousan, a Navy veteran from St. Louis who helps out at the lanes.
The bowling alley is located in one of 14 buildings slated for demolition as part of a $360 million upgrade that's already under way at the medical center. The VA has agreed to provide space -- but no funding -- for four bowling lanes in a new rehabilitation complex scheduled to open in 2017.
The volunteers are determined to raise $500,000 to construct and equip a bowling alley in that space.
“If this isn’t here, we’re at a loss,’’ Rousan said. “We need our bowling alley.’’
Miller says bowling has been the one physical activity he has enjoyed during his lengthy treatment.
“I didn’t think it would be very much fun, but my first game I beat my instructor,’’ he said. “Since then, I come back here once a week.’’
Miller said it will be a shame to see the current bowling alley close.
“I hope they can open another one,'' he said. "Because everyone loves to bowl.’’
“You Can See How Many Veterans It Helps”
The bowling alley is a rarity -- one of the few still operating on the premises of the nation’s 152 VA medical centers. It has the feel of a mid-century bowling alley -- minus the pizza and beer -- with décor so old-style it’s stylish again.
A yellow and beige fiberglass bench with sleek chrome legs runs the width of the lanes. Gutters are painted red, white and blue. The vintage Brunswick pinsetting machines creak but still get the job done.
A new bowling alley will serve veterans for many years, just as the current one has, said Jim Donahoe, who led the local fundraising effort for the Fisher House at Jefferson Barracks. He is helping with the bowling alley project, which they’re calling “Bowling for Veterans’ Health.’’ He hopes local service and civic groups and businesses will step forward to help, as they have in the past.
“The pinsetters here are over 50 years old. And I think this bowling alley opened in 1958, so it’ll be around for a long time -- and you can see how many veterans it helps,’’ Donahoe said.
The fundraising committee is working with H.E.R.O.E.S Care, a nonprofit that helps military members and their families. The campaign is just getting started, but the goal is to have a new bowling alley ready when the rehab complex opens in three years.
Herman Lugge, supervisor of recreation therapy at Jefferson Barracks, said the bowling alley is used each week by about 500 veterans recovering from strokes, spinal cord injuries and other debilitating health issues.
“We have a very tight-knit group of veterans out here, and the rehab potential that bowling presents is tremendous,’’ he said. “The social aspect of bowling -- talking to somebody as you’re sitting there and cheering them on. The camaraderie. It’s just fantastic.”
Lugge said that having a bowling alley at a medical facility is unconventional, but it fits with the St. Louis VA’s philosophy about the importance of leisure activities in physical therapy.
“As far as my therapists are concerned rock climbing is a rehab potential. It’s a challenge, and it’s an obstacle that can be met. Trap shooting. Golf. There is no way the VA can provide all of those things,’’ he said. “We try to provide as much as we can and then we take the veterans into the community. The bowling alley is important to have here because the veterans can use it every day. If we go to some external place in the community it takes manpower and it takes time. We don’t always have that.’’
Because the lanes are open to outpatients, the benefits reach beyond the walls of the medical center. The bowling alley is also a social outlet for homeless veterans being treated in the medical center’s rehabilitation domiciliary program, Lugge said.
“They’re learning how to utilize their leisure time in a more positive and effective way,’’ he said.
Time has taken a toll
Original plans for the new rehabilitation center didn’t include a bowling alley, Lugge said, but the veterans convinced VA administrators to provide the space.
“They listened to our veterans. They listened to me,’’ he said.
He believes the VA’s decision to provide the space but not the funds is understandable.
“The VA has a core responsibility for veterans to treat them for a variety of illnesses, both physical and mental. The bowling alley, with all of the constraints that the government is under, is not the main focus when you’re looking at major pieces of equipment for open-heart surgery and things of that nature,’’ he said. “There has to be some lines drawn somewhere.’’
Time has taken a toll on bowling alleys that were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s at other VA facilities. As the lanes and equipment aged and fell into disrepair, many were closed. Sometimes, community or service groups step forward. That was the case at the VA medical center in Salisbury, N.C., where the bowling alley reopened last September after renovations were funded by the Armed Forces Families Foundation.
In St. Louis, volunteers and local bowlers have kept the lanes open, Lugge said. They repainted and paid for equipment repairs about 10 years ago when the bowling alley was in danger of closing.
“The St. Louis bowling community has embraced it. They donate funds for the purchase of bowling pins and different operational costs,’’ he said.
Lugge said the bowling alley couldn’t operate without the volunteers.
“If you see our paraplegics and our less able people bowling -- and all the volunteers rallying around. If there would be 10 inches of snow, they’d be here to help,’’ Lugge said.
“Maybe I will give it a try.”
Bowling takes a special kind of effort and equipment when arms or hands or legs don’t work anymore. Adaptive equipment -- ranging from ramps to weighted balls -- can be tailored for each individual’s functional level, said Matt Luitjohan, a recreational therapist at the medical center.
“We have veterans who bowl by using a stick in their mouth to push the ball off of a ramp. We have other veterans who are able to bowl with a regular ball sitting in a wheelchair,’’ he said.
Bowlers can become proficient at aiming the ball so that it rolls off the ramp at just the right angle.
Because almost everybody has bowled at some point in their lives, Luitjohan said it is a good way to introduce patients to adaptive sports.
“When we say, ‘Let’s try bowling,’ they say, ‘I can’t bowl. I can’t stand. I can’t walk.’ It’s a very big learning curve to convince them that just because their legs don’t work the way they used to they can still do things they used to enjoy doing,’’ he said.
The physical therapy is important -- and the patients enjoy the activity.
“Not everybody is interested in bowling the first couple times they come down here,’’ Luitjohan said. “They watch the other veterans bowl. They shoot the bull with the volunteers and the other veterans and start to feel a little more comfortable and a little more willing to try it. That in itself is therapy which then leads them to say, ‘You know what? Maybe I will give it a try. ’ ’’
“St. Louis is a bowling town”
Rousan said the bowling alley is a gathering place -- a place to go for some veterans who have few places to go. Many are on military pensions and can’t afford the prices at commercial lanes.
“We have outpatients -- veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and all the way up through now who come in here and use this bowling alley,’’ he said.
The veterans are hoping local bowlers might help with their campaign.
“St. Louis has always been a big bowling town,’’ Rousan said. “Tropicana Lanes, Crestwood Bowl, Dick Weber Lanes, Sunset Lanes, Du Bowl, South Twin Lane. Just all over the place. Major tournaments come here. You have traveling leagues that come here to bowl.”
Until 2008, the city was home to the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame. Legendary pro bowlers Don Carter and Dick Weber, charter members of the Professional Bowlers Association, hailed from here. Champion bowler Pete Weber, Dick Weber’s son, still makes his home here.
For older veterans, bowling was a part of growing up in St. Louis, but younger veterans also enjoy the sport, Lugge said.
He pointed out that bowling organizations have sent hundreds of portable bowling lanes to U.S. troops serving overseas.
“They still enjoy it,’’ he said. “It’s an activity that’s been handed down over the years from generation to generation.’’
Rusty Ezzell, 45, of Praire du Rocher, Ill., said he usually drops by the bowling alley whenever he comes to JB for an outpatient visit or to have his wheelchair worked on.
Ezzell, whose lower body and legs are paralyzed, said that it takes practice to master this kind of bowling.
“After you bowl about three or four frames you start getting the idea, but I’ve got to admit I probably haven’t bowled over 100 since I got hurt,” he said.
Ezell said it helps the veterans to mingle, to talk about injuries and get things off their chests. Some patients stay in touch after they leave the hospital.
“I try to bowl here at least once a month,’’ he said. “You can take your frustrations out on a ball and 10 pins. A lot of the patients come down here. It gets them out of their rooms. You spend time with other people -- make friends. It’s therapeutic.''
How to help
* For more information, visit the “Bowling for Veterans’ Health” Facebook page.
* Contact Jim Donahoe at 314-973-0012 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Donations can be mailed to: Voluntary Service, VA Medical Center, #1 Jefferson Barracks Road, St. Louis, MO 63125.
* To make an online donation, go to the Donate page of the H.E.R.O.E.S. Cares website. (Click on “Proceed to Donate” link, and be sure to enter the word Bowling in the comments section.)