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Tinker bowlers live life between the gutters

Long-time Tinker bowler Merle Norman takes a look down the lane at the Tinker Bowling Alley recently. Norman has several 300 games and 800 series to his name and is part of the tight-knit bowling community on base.(Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

Long-time Tinker bowler Merle Norman takes a look down the lane at the Tinker Bowling Alley recently. Norman has several 300 games and 800 series to his name and is part of the tight-knit bowling community on base.(Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Karl Dooley lines up several feet in front of the foul line and purposefully thinks about nothing. There's cacophony in the background, a veritable din of crashes and unintelligible conversations. But at the foul line there's an invisible bubble of silence, created by sheer force of will. In the bubble there is no time. There is only the open lane. There is only the synthetic ball in hand.

If Dooley were in the Marine Corps, he would be a sniper. Instead, he just hunts bowling pins.

"I just do my thing," Dooley says. "I just try to do the same thing every time in the same way. Bowl at the same speed, hit the same mark and just let the ball do its job."

If you boil his strategy down, Dooley let's the ball do most of the work. Simple. But what he doesn't tell you is that he's a scratch bowler -- one of the best Tinker's ever seen.

Dooley first shadowed the Tinker bowling lanes as a young Airman in the '80s. Serving a several-year stint, he moved on to other assignments. But he wasn't done with Midwest City. In 1993 he came back and finished out the remainder of his U.S. Air Force days at Tinker and stayed in the area after retirement from his civil engineering post.

On the outside, people call him Karl. But inside the Tinker Bowling Center there's another name people have for him.

"Karl is the legend," says Tinker bowling league treasurer Mike Cumella. It's a typical Wednesday night at the Tinker bowling lanes and pinsmen pervade the lanes.

Cumella talks as he points to Dooley who's busy at work in the bubble of silence. "Watch how smooth he is, watch his style. He's just so smooth. Look at that, look at that."

If you're into the sport, there's one thing you would trade your non-bowling arm for: consistency. And Dooley's got it in spades.

"He's the same, week in, week out. Very consistent," Cumella says.

But what does Dooley say? Is he really a legend?

"No, no. I just come out here and try to be consistent," he says.

He'll claim consistency while shirking legend status. But with a 228 average and numerous 300 games and 800-series accomplishments to his name, the proof is in the ten-pins.

But Dooley isn't alone. Although he runs with the big dogs on the Tinker bowling circuit, there are others, too. His teammates, to name a few.

And depending on whom you ask, this is actually the most important part of bowling. The camaraderie. The good times. The tell-tale ambiance of the alley.

"I just come out here to hang out with the guys. I picked up bowling because I used to play professional golf and it gave me something to do in the winter," Merle Norman says. He's Dooley's teammate and a Tinker standout to boot.

And their team? Perhaps you've heard of them...

"People see us coming and they go uh-oh, it's Hellifino. That's our team name," says Dennis March, another teammate of Dooley. And if a band of three cords isn't easily broken, a band of five is pretty dang hard to beat. And it shows.

Hellifino, rounded out by other teammates Brett Nidiffer, Tracy Applebee and sometimes Bud Applebee, won the Tinker league championship last year. The year before that they placed second. Word on the street is they're typically the squad to beat in the 18-team Commander's Trophy League at Tinker. And it makes sense when you look at Hellifino's scores.

"Really we just compete against each other," March says. "Merle has carried a 200 (average) for the last 10 years and I've always been just a little ahead of him. But this year he's caught up with me. We're both averaging about 223 which is my highest ever and I think (Merle's) too. Karl usually has a 228, but he's dragging the anchor."

Hellifino currently holds first place, but with 13 weeks remaining in league play, things could easily change. The Terminators are holding a close second place on Hellifino and For the Money currently holds third place. It's no walk in the park.

And while team Hellifino represents one of the league's elite, in the end it's mostly about the fellowship.

"I get to see a lot of my old friends, the old crusty guys," March says. "Bowling's fun but seeing the old guys, that's the real fun."

Like all good friends, March has seen some milestone accomplishments in his teammates' lives.

"I was there for Merle Norman's first 300 game and I've been here for Karl's third, fourth and fifth 300 games and a couple 800 series," Dennis says.

And March has been bowling at Tinker for a long time too. About 20 years, actually. He remembers a time when the bowling alley wasn't as pristine, and when the leagues weren't swelling with teams like they are today.

In the 1990s, the league got a much-needed boost when former 72nd Air Base Wing Commander Col. Robert Gambrell was a regular on the lanes. His participation in the league registered on the score sheets, March says, pointing out Gambrell's 300-point games and 800-series. But the commander's presence was also a boon to participation, as younger Airmen got to rub shoulders in a positive environment with the base's upper echelon.

Gambrell set the trend, and it's one that continues to the present. Eric Harmon, the 72nd Air Base Wing and Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center command chief master sergeant, is a regular to the Tinker bowling league too.

As participation has improved over the years, so have the facilities. March spoke highly of the Tinker Bowling Alley management in keeping the machines chugging and the lanes spotless. And to further satisfaction, the bowling alley management has plans to install new machines sometime this year, March says.

So while it's the tenets camaraderie and consistency that permeate the ten-pin scene, bowling at Tinker wouldn't be complete without a third "C" word in the mix. While the bowlers talk about friendship at the alley -- an observable commodity to be sure -- what would life be like without some friendly competition to round things out?

"I compete against myself along with my teammates," March says. "I've been bowling so long it just falls into place and if I don't get a strike, I'm not happy."