Thursday March 6, 2003 12:37 AM

Last Saturday evening we took Isaiah bowling for the first time.

Our good friends from church, L and H B, had taken their young daughter E, who is a few months younger than Isaiah and who he currently plans to marry, bowling for the first time the Saturday before and had so much fun they decided we should all go together, so we met them at their house at 5 pm and then stopped for some pizza on the way to the bowling alley.

They had reserved a lane with bumpers at the bowling alley in the student union of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. It's not only nice and new, but inexpensive and totally non-smoking so it's a good place to take a 2 year old (E) and a three year old (Isaiah). The only down side was the loud hard-rock music growling out of the air all around us. Isaiah is frequently scared of too-loud noises, but it didn't bother him at the bowling alley even though it complicated voice communications a little bit.

Before we arrived, Isaiah didn't have much of an idea what bowling was about. I'd tried to find something online to show him Saturday afternoon, but all I really came up with was sites that were selling bowling gear, or sites which showed scores and pictures of smiling guys standing there bedecked from head to toe with logos and advertisements holding up their favorite brand of bowling ball. I found a link on the PBA website to watch some tournament live, but when I clicked it, it asked me to login or sign up with a credit card number, so Isaiah actually saw bowling for the first time in person mere moments before his first attempt at it.

The bowling alley was set up with a brand new, fully automated scoring system which was cool, but it didn't work when the bumpers were up. That was OK though, because L was our official scorekeeper for two reasons. The first was that she's pregnant and couldn't bowl anyway, and the second is that she's the only one of the four of us adults who knew how to score bowling. Even though the scoring machine didn't keep score, H put our names on it to show our bowling order- Isaiah, E, Ruth, me, and finally H. I was glad he did that because I was constantly looking up at the screen to see if it was my turn yet.

Isaiah, with help from Ruth, was up first. Ruth carried the six pound ball to the foul line and sat it down. Then Isaiah grabbed the ball with her and they gently rolled it down the lane. With a little help from the bumpers, they actually knocked down a decent number of pins for Isaiah's very first bowl and Ruth's first in a few years. On his second try, Isaiah (and Ruth) left a few standing, but they did pretty well for a first time. E was an old pro. She actually carried the ball to the foul line herself and then, with a little help from her dad, rolled it down the lane to hit a few pins.

When Ruth's turn came around, she shocked me with the number of pins she got! I couldn't believe that after not bowling at all for several years she could do so well on her first shot. I figured she must have spent a lot of time bowling in the past. My first turn, of course, looked just about like what you'd expect from someone who hadn't bowled since the fourth or fifth grade and hadn't been very good even then, but with the help of the ol' bumpers even I got a few pins down.

As our first game progressed, I realized that Ruth's initial dumbfoundingly good luck was just that- rusty good luck. Her first few bowls continued to impress me, but as the game wore on our scores came closer and closer as her luck wore off and my concentration produced the slightest of improvements. Isaiah's play continued in much the same manner- just hanging out and fooling around until it was his turn to go up and have Mommy help him bowl.

Since the automatic scorer was not online, we had to press the reset button on the ball return after each bowl. Isaiah, of course, was fascinated by the button and we had to keep telling him to leave it alone. E, too, was fascinated by the button and kept fooling with it. I don't know what it is about a button that generates such a hard to resist attraction to kids. Elevators, doorbells, calculators, anything with buttons constitutes what the lawyers like to call an "attractive nuisance". They just sit there begging to be pushed. What will happen? Will it make a noise, or make something move, or just feel "buttony" when pressed? I have no idea what the attraction is. I would be lying, though, if I said I never felt that pull myself. Irrational and inexplicable, but at 35, I still feel the same pull towards an un-pushed button I did when I was a little kid. It's just easier to resist now... Usually.

In one of the last few frames of our first game, I smelled popcorn and looking around, I spied a kid with a bucket of the stuff with the logo of a well-known brand of microwave popcorn on the side of it. It wasn't long after that that Isaiah wanted popcorn, too. So we finished the first game and decided to get a snack. The popcorn turned out to be semi-self-serve. You give the dude at the counter $1.70 and he gives you the bucket which you then microwave yourself. I'd never seen microwave popcorn packaged like this was. It was bucket about eight inches in diameter and seven deep and there was a plastic membrane across the inside about two inches above the bottom which covered the popcorn. The counter guy suggested I start with two minutes and listen to see when it was truly done.

I stuck the bucket in the oven, set it for two minutes and hit start. Pretty soon it started to pop.

"Hey, look- it's popping, Son."

"What? I can't see," he said leaning towards the transparent door of the oven.

"Don't get so close, Isaiah or it'll fry your eyeballs like eggs."

"It could fry my eyeballs? Like eggs?"

"Yeah, so lean back- see, you can see it popping now without leaning in so far."

"Fry my eyes like eggs, that's funny! Then I'd have egg-eyes... Hey- it's popping now! Look!"

When the popcorn was done, we got a bottle of Cherry Pepsi (they didn't have Coke) out of a machine and went back to where Ruth was sitting with all our stuff while the Bs got some popcorn and soda, too. After they'd gotten their snack and joined us, we debated another game. The kids hadn't been bad, exactly, but they were behaving in a manner that was making us all rather more tired than bowling alone would have. That is, they were having fun the way kids their age do, I guess, complete with plenty of "knock it off"s, "leave that alone"s and "Get over here, NOW"s. I asked L if she was getting tired and when she said she was fine, we decided to play again.

By the time the second game got under way, I was little bit warmed up and could actually tell that I was improving by simply thinking about what I was doing. Getting better probably would be an overstatement, but less lousy would not have be exaggerating too much. Ruth had helped Isaiah throughout the first game and now I wanted to try. My plan was to show him how to roll the ball on his own so that he could attempt to bowl unaided.

I carried the ball to the line for him and set it on the floor. I told him to hold his hand out just so, and that we'd roll it together. The first couple of times we tried this, I didn't make him put his hand low enough to get his palm behind the ball and when he bent his fingers back against the inertia of the heavy (to him) ball he complained that it hurt. The next frame we bowled I showed him how hold his hand a little lower. This time he didn't hurt his fingers, but it took about two minutes for the ball to get to the pins and barely knock down two. My plan paid off, though, because when his turn came around again, he wanted to try "all by himself". Ruth carried the ball to the foul line for him and (once she'd backed away in compliance with his insistent request) he gave the ball a mighty shove.

Once again the ball took it's sweet time getting to the pins, but with the generous help of the bumpers, it did knock down a pin or two. Evidently this wasn't good enough, though. As soon as he walked back to us he began to cry. "I didn't do it right," he cried. I assured him that not only had he done it right, he'd done a very good job. After sniffling a few minutes and being reassured and re-reassured that he'd done OK, he finished the frame and not only finished the game on his own, but was even carrying the ball to the line himself by the end of the game.

We all had a good time, but by the time frame ten came around we were all more than ready to go. The grownup bowlers were getting a little stiff and tired and the little bowlers were getting a little cranky and tired- after all, it was almost ten o'clock! Isaiah said he liked bowling and that he'd had a very good time and wanted to go again sometime.

I suspect, however, that he would have said the same thing if we'd just had popcorn and soda and sat around letting him push the reset button all night.