Tom Burgander touches several bowling balls until he finds his, one he knows precisely by its texture and weight. Colored bright red, the ball stands out like a clown’s nose. Not that it matters to Burgander. The 51-year-old has been blind since birth.
On lane 14, he reaches for the three-foot-high railing at Bowl-A-Vard Lanes in Madison and glides his hand along the slender rail. With three steps, he unleashes the ball as if wanting to shatter the pins, not simply knock them over.
Pins rattle, but it’s not the thunderous strike sound. Pittsburgh resident Burgander knows some pins remain.
His playing partner, 71-year-old Ken Roehl – who is blind in one eye and has six-percent sight in the other eye – moves his face within an inch of the red-dotted pin recorder on the ball return to see what remains.
“One, two, nine,” Roehl of Madison tells Burgander, who nods at what specific pins he needs for a spare.
Burgander feels for his bowling ball again. He reaches out for the rail again. He glides his hand along the rail again. He bowls.
There’s a jolt sound. Burgander frowns.
“Missed it,” Roehl says. “Off to the left.”
Yes, the blind bowl. Totally blind people bowl. So do partially blind people.
“It’s the best-kept secret for 60 years,” says Louise Lawitzke, a sighted Michigan woman who served as tournament director for the 45th annual Midwest Blind Bowling Tournament in Madison last weekend.
“I spoke to the Lions Club in my hometown last week. They deal with the blind, but one man asked (with shock), How do they bowl?’ ”
“Like everyone else,” Lawitzke responds. And inflatable bumpers do not sit in the gutter to make the game easier.
The Midwest Blind Bowling Tournament, which offers $8,000 in prize money, also relies on local support. Madison’s Tom Jeray, blind in one eye with 2-percent sight in the other, serves as the event’s co-chairman.
Having secured the Midwest tournament for Madison two years ago, event organizers reserved enough hotel rooms for nearly 400 bowlers: 114 totally blind, 134 legally blind and 150 sighted supporters.
Jeray bowls in the Madison Dreamers League with nine other severely sight-impaired members. The city’s other blind bowling league has 11 participants.
“Do you know what we call our league?” asks Richard Perzentka of Madison. “The Madison Outta Sight Bowling League.”
Now in his mid-50s, Perzentka began bowling during his teens. Before that, at a school for the blind in Janesville, he wrestled and ran track.
Legally blind since birth, Perzentka cannot see a bowling lane’s arrows, often used by fully sighted bowlers to guide their ball, less than a few feet from the penalty line. Still, Perzentka, who works for a vending machine operator and does janitorial work, averages a remarkable 181. He also bowls in sighted leagues and ranks as one of the country’s best legally blind bowlers.
His wife, Karen, who is totally blind, serves as an advocate for blind people. She speaks to schoolchildren and raised two children – both adults now and fully sighted. Her bowling average is in the 80s.
Joining the Perzentkas at the Midwest Blind Bowling Tournament is Brent, 27, their oldest child.
“In the last couple of years, I’ve realized how well they’ve done for themselves,” Brent says while his parents bowl. “My mom takes vacations on her own. My dad’s a better bowler than me. He’s got me by about 10 pins.” He laughs. “But I can beat him at golf.”
Richard Perzentka opened the Midwest tourney with an impressive 191. He describes a strike sound with relish: Booosshh!
In his second game, Richard struggles. In one frame, he leaves one pin standing. How could he tell so quickly?
“The sound was there for a strike. But I could see a little bit of white thing down there,” he explains. “If it’s a strike, I can see all the white of a full rack of pins because they reset so quick.”
His next ball hooks beautifully into the pocket. The pins never had a chance.
“That,” he says with a wide smile, “is the sound of a strike I was talking about.”
“I got the rest, right?” Burgander asks Roehl, who responds in the affirmative about a completed spare.
Burgander, who averages 107, sits back satisfied. He asks me if I see a Coke plastic bottle he left under another table on a different lane. I retrieve it and ask about his background.
He lives in a condominium in downtown Pittsburgh, walking distance from his job as a business attorney. Working with speech and Braille display computers, he works smoothly, he says. Co-workers aren’t surprised he bowls.
“I ski, I run, I swim and I scull on rivers,” says Burgander, who wears dark glasses. “They know me and they know this is something that’s plausible.”
Burgander developed a friendship with Roehl at one of many regional blind bowling tournaments.
When Burgander heads to the wrong lane, Roehl wisecracks, “What’s the matter, don’t you see too good?”
Now retired after working at a factory and in food service, Roehl is a star elderly bowler, sighted or not. He averages 176.
“I see the lane, but I don’t see the pins,” Roehl says. “I see the blurs. I bowl at the blurs. If you get enough blurs down, you get a good game.”
Moments later, he tells Burgander that he thinks it’s the 10th frame. Roehl moves his face against the electronic scoreboard. “Yep, it is.”
Roehl hits a strike.
“I get a kiss now,” he says and walks to his sighted wife, Ginny Roehl, who sits nearby. Both widowed, the Roehls were married 12 years ago.
The kiss is a ritual they have. He bowls a strike and they kiss.
“I wore her lips out one day,” Ken says.
Ginny blushes. “He had 17 strikes in two games.”