At 95, plenty of life left in bowler
I had planned to meet him a week earlier, hoping to publish a piece honoring him on his 95th birthday Thursday, but just finally getting to sit a spell with Earl Bilton – and sharing some birthday cake with him and his friends – was well worth the wait.
“He is 100 percent gentleman,” said Diana Elliot, coordinator of the senior bowling league at Prosperity Lanes in Grass Valley. “He’s just a pleasure to be around. And he’s got so many stories.”
And the guy can roll a pretty mean 10 frames.
At 95 years old, one would be doing well by simply scoring their age.
But not Earl.
While he admits the years have robbed him of some of his strength and flexibility, Bilton bowls every week in league play. He doesn’t have much of a choice. His teammates make it clear that they need him and his 133 scoring average.
“This guy’s good,” said 84-year-old Ward Melching, also a regular at the alley. “Just like all other bowlers, he has good days and bad days.
“But the good days are the best of fun.”
Earl rolls with Melching each week as members of the Peg Legs, the team currently holding first place in the Thursday afternoon league standings. Earl says he’ll continue coming out each week until either he’s not having fun or until his teammates start to “holler” about his bowling.
Judging from Thursday’s birthday bash, neither is likely to happen anytime soon.
Earl figures he’s been bowling regularly since the ’60s, when he and his wife, Lou, started heading to the alley as a way to socialize with friends.
“I didn’t bowl when I was a boy,” Earl said in the southern drawl that has stuck with him since growing up in tiny Venus, Texas. “When I was a kid, the bowling alley wasn’t the place for kids to be. It was more like going to a bar.
“I think that’s why they got the name ‘alley.'”
Even though he says he never really got competitive about the sport, he did get pretty darn good at it, scoring in the high 280s on several occasions.
That perfect 300, however, has proven to be allusive Ð so far.
“I never did get to 300,” he said. “I’d always mess up in the 10th frame.”
The booming laugh he let loose in looking back on those near-misses, and the smile he wears on his face, makes it clear that a bowling score isn’t likely to get him down anytime soon.
Life’s been too good to him to let a game get in the way of his happiness.
He served his country all across Europe during World War II, after being drafted into the Army and stationed primarily in Belgium. After the war, he and his wife moved from Texas to Southern California.
He was blessed with the love of his life in 59 years of marriage.
And so, when Lou died in 1993, Earl moved to Lake Wildwood to be near his family.
He’s now the next-door neighbor to his daughter, Kay, and son-in-law, John, who gave him two grandsons, who in turn have given him even more sources of pride with a pair of great-grandchildren.
“You can’t beat that,” he says with a smile, just before his friends begin to sing “Happy birthday” to him.
He says he comes to Prosperity Lanes each week “for the people” and that he bowls for fun. But he and his fellow seniors will also tell you the exercise certainly hasn’t hurt their health.
“I’m a diabetic,” said Melching. “Every time I go bowling, I have a good blood reading. So it’s great. I’m sure it’s the same for Earl.”
“I think it’s like most people who do sports,” said Elliot, the league coordinator. “They’re well-adjusted, happy and just a joy to be around.
“If I can still do this at 95, I’ll be happy. If I can still even get down here at 95 I’ll be happy.”
Earl offered just one piece of advice for the rest of us weekend warriors hoping to still be able to let the good times roll at his age.
“I just worry about the things I can do something about,” he said. “The things I can’t do anything about, I forget them. That’s it.”
Brian Hamilton is sports editor at The Union. His column is published Saturdays. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 477-4240.
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