A bit of bowling wisdom came to Lori Marchi as she was filling in another low score for her last-place team.
"You gotta hit the head pin."
Marchi, of Oak Park, and many of the women who make up the Early Birds bowling league at Circle Lanes in Forest Park, may never develop the release that finds a consistent path to the elusive pin.
But they return to the timeless bowling alley every Wednesday morning to try, over breakfast muffins and amid the cheers and laughter of solidifying friendships.
There are 30 regulars, a few who joined the group shortly after it formed in the early 1970s. A bowler in her 40s may be on the same team as an 80-year-old but the fun they share fills in any generational gaps.
"It's a very warm group but a little bit crazy," said Doris Kirk, 79, of Oak Park, who passes out score pencils and collects dollar bills for a split-the-pot drawing that takes place after the first and second games. She does this as other bowlers throw practice balls. "I don't like to warm up because that's when I get a strike. I want to save my strikes for when they count."
Arms and cheers were in the air on the end lane in the middle of game two when the four bowlers on Beth Swaggerty's team rolled strikes in the same frame. They took a moment so the scoring display showing the four Xs could be photographed.
Swaggerty, the league president, considers herself a relative newbie, having joined the group 10 years ago. A couple of new members are added each year. Swaggerty sometimes brings her dog, a golden doodle named Callie, to Circle Lanes and organizes events like, baseball hat day, apron day and dress-up day. She also makes sure the teams take turns providing breakfast.
"When I was interviewing for my job, I negotiated having my Wednesday mornings to bowl," said Swaggerty, assistant executive director of Oak Park Residence Corporation. "I'm here for the camaraderie. It's a highlight of the week for me."
When a co-worker got ready to retire, Swaggerty convinced her to join the league.
In the league's early years, there were 16 teams of four and a babysitter. Now with kids grown, some in the league cherish how they've grown old together without feeling their age. One bowler, former Oak Park resident Jean Cozzi, is 80 and drives from Elmhurst to continue her bowling.
Dr. Karen Walker-Ward, of Oak Park, has been bowling with the league for 22 years and when a visitor kidded her about doctors usually golfing on Wednesdays, she was quick to say she goes golfing when the league takes off for the summer in mid-May.
Many say Chris Majkrzak, of Oak Park, is the best bowler and one, Liz Schacht, 77, also of Oak Park, rolled a 228 a couple of weeks back. It doesn't seem to matter that there are bowlers who sometimes don't break 100.
"We definitely bowl better than our scores reflect," said Bonnie Curatolo of River Forest, who is on the team that is in "rock-solid" last place.
She has only been with the Early Birds one year but said it "feels like I've been here my whole life. They're just so adorable and sweet."
Still, not every frame is marked with a strike, spare or laughter.
Jerry Hills shuffle-steps, releases and slides, hopefully watching the ball roll towards a spare. The ball finds an empty space and her out-stretched arms and furrowed brow suggest she is incredulous.
"I keep thinking it can't get worse," she said. "But it does. Oh well."