It is October 15, 1989 at Camino Bowl in Mountain View, Calif. Dave Bolles, who has made the finals of a major on the PBA West Region tour and will have a shot at bowling the Tournament of Champions with a top-four finish, curls up in the fetal position on a bench in the bar, ill and falling asleep after telling the tournament director that he is too sick to go on.
He has no idea that just a few hours from now he will attain bowling immortality, that this is the week he will tell people about for the rest of his life.
“Now I’m starting to get chills,” Bolles will recall 20 years later. “I’m literally shivering, I can’t eat, I feel horrible.”
Maybe it was a bit of bad food back in Vegas, where he led a super regional at the Showboat just two days before, only to leave with a second-place check and a lesson on how champions close out wins.
Maybe the Greek church he left in his final frame before lunch — when he found himself with the match in hand and three strikes away from a 260 game — was just too much to swallow after that blown lead in Vegas.
“I was so mad at myself,” Bolles says. “I don’t remember ever being that mad. I thought ‘Here I go again. I’ve got this chance and I’m not taking advantage of it.’ I got myself so worked up that by the time I went to lunch I couldn’t eat.”
Whatever it was that assailed Bolles before the final block at Camino that day, it would hardly be the only thing for which he would have no answer.
And maybe that’s the point. Maybe the moment you stop trying to explain things is the moment you start understanding them.
It will all come back to Bolles tonight, all the things that didn’t add up at the time but will soon come together in ways he could never have imagined: That among the people he met back in Vegas was Tom Jordan, who had just bowled a certified 899 series. That all the 300s he himself had bowled always seemed to come in bunches — those back-to-back 300s he shot in league years ago, the four 300s he shot in three days as a youth bowler. Or that 300 he bowled in the very first game of a local sweeper at this same house a couple years back.
That would become a prelude to the most surreal moment of his life.
For now, though, all Dave Bolles knows is that he hardly has enough energy to pull himself up off that barroom bench this afternoon. And he knows that the first ball he threw in warm-ups for that last round felt like it weighed a hundred pounds.
“I had no ball speed,” Bolles recalls of those first few practice balls. “I remember thinking ‘Just let me throw a couple of shots and see if I have enough energy to go.’ I had just no expectations at all. I didn’t care if I finished last. I didn’t care if I bowled 100. I just said ‘OK, I’m gonna try.’ I didn’t want to let anybody down.”
Bolles thought he knew something else, too: that it was all gone now, all the dreams he had of making the resident pro team, of bowling the Tournament of Champions alongside the greatest names in bowling at the time — Brian Voss, Dave Ferraro, Marc McDowell. He’ll never get there now, not on a stomach so sick it nearly knocked him out of the event for good.
What he’ll soon know for sure, though, is just how mistaken he was.
But if anything is to be learned from what happened next, it is that sometimes the moment you stop pressing for your dreams is the moment they come true.
When, exactly, that occurred to Bolles is anyone’s guess. Maybe after the first 300 he shot in game six, just a couple of games after a sip of stomach medicine restored the energy he thought he had lost for good.
“It was a teaspoon of this liquid stuff and it tasted like candy,” Bolles recalls. “I mean it was so sweet. Well, now I’m starting to bowl good and I’ve got energy and things are clicking.”
Or maybe after the 300 he shot in the very next game, by which time his two-game series of 600 catapulted him into the tournament lead with one match to go.
“I had been working out hard with Sam Baca, and there were just a couple things I remembered. Just get to the line, just get as low as you can and just accelerate,” Bolles recalls. “Because I had no ball speed. It sounds so simple, but hey, if you ever get in a slump, try to get low and accelerate, because it works!”
Well, that’s one way of putting it. Those who witnessed what happened next saw more than just another adjustment that “worked”; they saw an adjustment that brought on miracles.
Bolles had come a long way from that barroom bench by the time he stood nine strikes into the final game with his first PBA title all but in the bag, a long way from the split he left in the first frame of this block and the thought that it might have been better to let people down.
“Now I’m bowling better than I ever have in my whole life. Jerry (Buckholz) keeps pushing me; he throws a double,” Bolles recalls of his opponent in that final match.
Bolles could not have known then that the match was already over. It ended as soon as Buckholz converted a spare in the very first frame. Six frames later, Len Nicholson, then the PBA Western Region Tournament Director, locked eyes with Bolles and saw a look he would never see in another man’s face again.
“When I went down to the settee area to sign checks and do some paperwork, I already knew he had back-to-back 300 games, and so I didn’t want to be any kind of a distraction,” Nicholson, who is now known for his Phantom Radio show, recalls. “But at one point I peeked over and he’s just looking at me, and it was just the most surreal thing, it’s hard to describe. He’s looking at me with the calmest smile you could possibly imagine; it was like his mind and soul were somewhere else but his body was there and striking at will. It was totally unbelievable.
“I had to look away; I am shaking in my boots sitting there because this guy’s on the verge of immortality. To shoot three 300s to go from seventh to win your first PBA title! He wasn’t even supposed to be there; he was sick as a dog at noon and he wasn’t gonna bowl. I talked him into bowling.”
Bolles will draw lane 11 for that final 300 — exactly the same lane to which he was assigned for the preceding 300 game.
“Dave’s wild,” Nicholson says. “He’s into numerology. The connections he makes with numbers will just blow your mind.”
So surely it was not lost on Dave that 11 plus 11 equals 22, the number of the lane on which he bowled his first of three 300s that day. Just as it wasn’t lost on Nicholson the day he checked in at the Showboat weeks later and discovered that the legend of Dave Bolles had followed him there.
“The woman behind the desk says ‘Hey, it’s your lucky day! You’re on the eleventh floor — seven-come-eleven!’”
What she failed to mention was that Nicholson would be spending the night in, of all room numbers, room 1111.
“Now I get in the room and lay down in the bed and look over at the phone, and the phone’s blinking. It’s a message from my wife. I pick up the phone and look at the clock, and it’s 11:11 p.m. And I tell my wife ‘Hey, I’m in room 1111, man, it’s going to be a lucky week!’
“Then I can’t even go to sleep, so I get up and reach in my pocket and I have $11; I have a 10 and a one in my pocket, and I say ‘That’s it!’ I get dressed, and I head for the roulette table. I place $11 on the number 11. The guy spins the wheel and it lands on the number 1. He grabs my money and I say ‘Hey, just for the hell of it, let’s roll it again.’ So he spins the wheel again and it lands on the number one again!”
“When he told me that I went back to look at my score sheet, and I saw that I had been assigned to lane 11 for the last two 300s I bowled,” Bolles says. “I went back to Lenny and I said ‘Lenny! You’re haunted!’”
The rest, as they say, is history. Bolles got his last three strikes, his third consecutive 300 in the final three games of the tournament to attain the dreams he brought with him to the center that weekend, dreams he fulfilled at a tournament for which he arrived so late that he missed the practice session — the only time in his life that he has ever missed the practice session at a PBA tournament to this day.
But history didn’t rest there. Forty-eight hours later, Bolles turned on his television along with millions of other Americans to watch the San Francisco Giants take on the Oakland A’s in the 1989 World Series. And like those millions of other baseball fans, he watched the screen go snowy and blank as the stadium writhed in the most destructive earthquake to strike there in nearly a century.
“All of a sudden, the TV goes blank, and my bed starts shaking,” Bolles remembers. “When the TV came on the first thing I see is that the Bay Bridge had collapsed.”
The papers would record a full moon that weekend, one of the strongest full moons in years. And maybe that’s as good an explanation as any for what went down that week — the mysterious illness that assailed Dave Bolles out of nowhere, the 900 series he bowled just hours later, the historic earthquake that followed, or the phone call Len Nicholson had with PBA Regional Director Ted Hoffman after Bolles’s final strike.
“When I called Ted Hoffman to tell him what had happened, he just started laughing, and then he said to tell the person he was having dinner with. He handed the phone to a man and the man said ‘What happened?’ I told him, and he said ‘That’s great! But are you kidding?’ I said ‘No! Who is this?’ he said, ‘This is Larry, Dave’s dad! Here, tell his mother!’ And he hands the phone to Dave’s mom. I mean, that was just an unbelievable coincidence.”
Nicholson, to this day, insists on an explanation every bit as bizarre as the events he witnessed that week.
“Dave is just a really strange guy,” Nicholson says. “I think he caused that earthquake. I’m serious.”
Or maybe, sometimes, we’re better off just not trying to explain things at all.