My Brother Jim & I – A Story About Bowling … and Much More

Here is one of my all-time favorites among the articles I wrote for PARADE from the mid-1970’s until the mid-1990’s.  There’s no need for me to explain up front; I think it speaks for itself:

Two brothers renew a family bond and make a discovery
A POCKETFUL OF DREAMS
PARADE – September 15, 1985

My brother Jim and I have seen ourselves through many good and bad times by going out to the alleys. When one of us feels high or low, the other might say, “Let’s go rolling.” Pretty soon we’re bowling as if our lives depended on getting strikes or spares.

To explain, first I should mention Grosso’s Alleys. This was a worn-out, ancient bowling establishment in my hometown of Larchmont. N.Y. I used to go there with my grade-school friends on weekends. Jim was still too young to bowl, but he knew that I went there often. He knew I went rolling even in the summertime, when other kids were outside at the beach or playing ball. He figured there must be something special and even magical about the place.

Grosso’s Alleys was up a flight of old wooden stairs, above a row of stores. To me, it was a second home. I thought of Mr. and Mrs. Grosso as another set of grandparents. It was still the ‘50s, and in those days the alleys had no computers or pin-setting machines, so we had to keep score and have the pins set by hand. When my friends and I bowled, we acted as  pin boys for each other.

Pin Boys - We used to get a quarter per game!

We became acquainted there with the men who made a living by setting pins. They earned a quarter a game. When all twelve alleys were filled with league bowlers, Mr. and Mrs. Grosso often allowed us kids to work as pin-setters too. That was my first real job. It felt good to be sweating down in the alley pits with the grown men and to be making my own money – which I usually spent on more bowling.

In the fifth grade, I rolled a 207, thanks to an older boy who taught me how to throw a pretty fair hook.  One Saturday morning, my Dad and I won a father-son tournament.  It gave us a new feeling of closeness. We brought home a trophy in the form of a bowling pin crudely painted red, blue and yellow to resemble a doll.

My brother took that weird-looking trophy into his hands. He stared at it with an expression of awe. I knew right then that before long he, too, would be rolling.

Now, there's a nice hook for you -- spinning its way off the edge of the gutter before heading for the pocket!

By the time I was in high school. Grosso’s Alleys was designated a fire hazard and closed down.  Meanwhile, a new, modern bowling establishment was built nearby. Lots of us would go there to roll and play the pinball machines and hang around with the girls. In fact, it was at the new alleys that I met my steady girlfriend, whom I eventually married.

I was on the varsity bowling team. The five of us wore glossy orange shirts with our school initials printed in black. Each week, we went to a new set of alleys to roll against a team from a different high school. There were no cheerleaders, no spectators. It definitely wasn’t a glamour sport.

One of the great feelings you can have -- rolling into the pocket for a perfect strike!

At the same time, off somewhere by himself, Jim was rolling and perfecting his game. He was catching up with me. When I went away to college, he wrote to say that he’d bowled a 253.  That, I had to admit, was a family record.

When I was back in town as a married man with a newspaper job, occasionally Jim would call and say, “Want to go rolling tonight?”  For us, bowling was a way of staying in touch. It gave us a lot of laughs. The time I flung a ball and ripped the seat of my pants up the middle, I thought he’d die.

It also gave us a chance to talk and express our visions of the future. He and his girlfriend were going to get married, Jim said, and then he and I both would have families. We would grow old together as brothers, fathers and uncles, watching our children and grandchildren share their lives and even bowl together. That was one of his dreams.

While rolling we competed, but not really against each other. What we were doing was “searching for the pocket.” We meant trying to find the exact spot to hit on the first throw, so all ten pins would go down for a strike.

We taught each other that finding the pocket is an elusive goal. If you try too hard you lose it. You have to throw the ball out toward the gutter, so it has room to curve back in.  You have to let go and not be afraid and trust your natural hook.  You can’t force the destiny of the ball by aiming directly into the pocket.

Sitting up in back there, you had to watch out for flying pins...

Even if you do find it once – getting a strike – the important thing is to do it again. And again.  And again.  Any triumph is only fleeting at best. It quickly recedes into the past, and you are faced with ten more pins all over. We decided that bowling, by itself, means very little. What counts is how you bring yourself to the game. What matters is not how good or bad your previous try was, but viewing each new roll as the first, last and only one.

We knew without saying it that the lonely concentration and persistence required by bowling has something to do with what’s required by life.

And, in fact, life took over.

My brother went off to the Navy and Subic Bay...

When the Vietnam War started building up, my brother joined the Navy. He went to the Philippine Islands and was stationed on the base at Subic Bay. We wrote back and forth all the time, and the tone of his letters grew increasingly bitter.

He was always under the threat of being shipped over to “Nam,” but what made him angry was the thought that he’d been abandoned by people at home. He imagined that all of his friends in the States were growing their hair long, using drugs and protesting against the war.  He was several thousand miles away, trapped in his uniform. He felt misunderstood and cut off.

My brother's not in this picture, but I'm sure he sat at one of those tables with a very similar bunch of guys ...

Jim wasn’t alone in that feeling.  Just about every week, one of the guys in his barracks would receive a painful “Dear John” letter from a girlfriend, telling of her decision to break off the romance. In the minds of the guys in the barracks, all the girls back home were wearing beads and becoming hippies; and. in their worst midnight fantasies, all were sporting T-shirts either denouncing the military or advertising free love.

My brother tried to cheer up his buddies by holding a ‘Dear John” contest. The winner would be the guy who received a letter using the most original excuse for dumping him: “Dear John. I’ll al ways love you, but I’ve become a different person, and you wouldn’t know me anymore, so…”

The standings in that contest kept fluctuating with the incoming tides of mail. No one, however, could top the experience of the guy who received a copy of his hometown newspaper and discovered a photograph of his fiancée in a bridal gown, taken after her wedding to someone else.

Eventually Jim, too, got a “Dear John” letter.  It was from that girl he had planned to marry. He’d felt it was coming.  Now he went into a rage and took action – for himself and for his Navy pals.

Subic Bay

What he did was form a bowling team. He took four volunteers from the barracks and told them, “I don’t care what it takes – we’re going to beat every team on the base!”

None of his recruits was a great roller. A few had never even bowled before. It didn’t matter. My brother channeled all his fury and pain into this bunch of fledglings. He took his nervous, skeptical players onto the alleys and drilled them in practice. He cajoled and inspired them. Once, to make them see that anything was possible, he lobbed the ball over to an adjacent alley and made a strike for another bowler. His amazed teammates roared with delight. For a while, they even forgot the girls back home.

Jim and his four colleagues entered formal competition on the base. With the concentration and persistence that bowling requires, he rolled up terrific scores. His fellow players continually surprised themselves, week after week, spurred on by a wild cheering section made up of the other guys from their barracks. In the Navy on the Philippines, bowling had been turned into a glamour sport.

Subic Bay Naval Station

Jim’s team got into the finals. In the championship match, they went up against five officers whose scoring average – not to mention rank – was much higher.  It started off as a lopsided contest, but in the end my brother and his motley band of bowlers prevailed. Their barracks mates erupted onto the alley as if the World Series had just been won.

In his letter to me, Jim described the triumph and added, “Wish you’d been here.”

After returning home, Jim looked back on his experience in the Navy with mixed emotions.  He had used bowling to help him and his friends survive the long period away from home, but he also found it hard to forget the feeling of having been abandoned by people in the States.

And he couldn’t really get over that “Dear John” letter he’d received from his girlfriend. He did get married, to someone else, but the marriage ended in divorce.

My brother Jim Whittemore (the handsome guy at left) became a great success in the real estate business in Westchester County -- here in an earlier stage of his career, with former partner Emmy Lou Sleeper at right

By now, we were leading very different lives. He was in real estate, I was an author. We still got together and talked a lot and shared our feelings, but we lived in separate worlds. And we didn’t bowl.

By the fall of 1982, my marriage of nearly 20 years was over.  I joined my brother in the ranks of divorced men and found myself in a daze and feeling low. I couldn’t start up my life again. When Jim invited me into his home, I accepted with a shrug. He gave me a room upstairs and left me alone. He asked no questions. He watched me mope around and heard me blame myself for being a failure.

Several weeks of this went by. On a Saturday, Jim announced that we were going to a sporting goods store. When I asked why, he said nothing and drove to town. Inside the store, I followed him to the counter.

“We want to buy a couple of bowling balls,” he told the sales clerk. “With ball bags.  And we need some bowling shoes.”

“This is crazy,” I told him as the balls were fitted to the size of our hands, “The last thing I want to do is bowl. I hate that stupid game.”

A few days later, we were on the alleys. This was the first time in our lives that we had our own equipment. We took our new bowling balls out of our new bowling bags and put on our new bowling shoes. We started to roll.

My younger brother, who used to look with awe at my trophy from Grosso’s Alleys, beat me soundly game after game, showing no mercy. I kicked the ball- return rack.  I sent my new ball flying so hard that it slammed into the pin-setting machine. I snarled at a kid, just because he was staring at me. Through it all, Jim pretended not to notice and just kept knocking down more pins.

After that, we bowled each week with the same results – until, at some point, all my frustration seemed so useless that I finally let go and relaxed.  I created a mental picture of the ball’s journey into the pocket, but otherwise I forgot my tension and simply rolled as if each new shot were the first, last and only one. Soon my game progressed, and I started catching up with him – the way, long ago, he’d caught up with me.

One day, up in his guest room, without realizing why, I began packing my bags. I walked down the stairs and announced to Jim that I would be going off on my own. He didn’t seem surprised.  I thanked him for the room and explained that I’d stopped living in the past and that it was time to get on with the rest of my life.

As we stood facing each other at the front door, I knew he was thinking about those old dreams of the future and about how the future, which was here, hadn’t become exactly what either of us had envisioned. He blinked tears from his eyes.

“I guess,” he said, “were still searching for the pocket.”

“We’ll never stop,” I said. “And we’ll find it, too.”

We stared at each other until, slowly, he forced a smile.

“Listen,” my brother said as I turned to go, “if you don’t mind, I’ll keep your ball right here in my closet, and whenever you stop by, if we feel in the mood, we’ll – ”

“Of course,” I said.

We hugged.

Of course, Jim – we’ll go rolling.

The Heroes Among Us – And the Meaning of Courage – On the Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

The upcoming anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 reminded me of an essay I wrote for PARADE in final month of 1979, as the decade of the Seventies was ending and we were still trying to recover from Vietnam. The essay was based on my attendance at a gathering of recipients of the Medal of Honor and it revolved around the meaning of courage.  I think its message holds just as true today, as we look back on a shocking, tragic event of American history that occurred sixty-eight years ago, when our country was suddenly catapulted into World War Two:

An Essay by Hank Whittemore – PARADE – January 1980

Have Americans lost their courage? That question is often heard these days, along with the cynical observation that we’ve grown too soft to produce heroes.

Last November, I decided to attend the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s biennial reunion in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Perhaps a good place to learn about courage would be among those who had demonstrated it in battle.

First I consulted the government’s list of the 3306 recipients of the Medal since it was first awarded during the Civil War. Under each name a citation tells what the man did to deserve his honor. You can open any page and find a story to match your worst nightmare. It is impossible to read these accounts of courage and not be overwhelmed.

Many of the Medals had been given posthumously. One soldier had “saved the lives of his men at the sacrifice of his life by throwing himself directly on the mine as it exploded.” That’s a typical description, not the exception. For those who remained alive, personal survival was an afterthought, an accident of fate.

“The Medal of Honor is the highest military award for bravery that can be given to any individual in the United States,” I read. “The deed of the person must be proved by incontestable evidence of at least two eyewitnesses; it must be so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes his gallantry from lesser forms of bravery; it must involve the risk of his life, and it must be the type of deed which, if he had not done it, would not subject him to any justified criticism.”

There are 275 Medal-holders still living among us: 10 from World War I, 144 from World War 11,38 from Korea and 83 from Vietnam. Of these, about 160 would be on hand at the Tulsa reunion.

At the meeting place in a downtown hotel, the “national media” were conspicuously absent.  There were no hordes of reporters, no TV crews shoving their way into the reception hall.  The local press was there, but most of the country would never learn that the event was taking place. Those who had exhibited the highest form of military courage while serving America were reaching out to each other in virtual anonymity.

Attack on Pearl Harbor - Dec 7, 1941

Many of the men had brought their wives. They were dressed informally, with sports jackets and ties, and each man wore his Medal draped from its ribbon around his neck. They had name tags on their lapels. At first glance, you might have mistaken the group for a collection of ordinary businessmen. They greeted each other with handshakes, smiles, occasional embraces.

And soon you could feel that there was much more in the room, a more powerful emotion beneath the surface. Wandering around as a stranger, I saw two men who had each lost an arm.  I saw a man who had lost one of his legs. Others were limping.  Several had scars from burns.  Nearly all, I learned, were carrying wounds of one kind or another.

At some point it struck me. The world may forget these men and what they have done, but as long as any are still alive, they will not forget each other – because they know what courage is; because each man knows that the others understand what he went through; because of a common bond, transcending generations and races and all other differences; because they share a secret that is almost impossible for them to express to anyone else.

If I could learn that secret, I thought, maybe then I would have answers for those who worry about our courage. And so I joined the Medal-holders as they took bus tours, attended banquets, listened to speeches. I spoke to dozens of them, in small groups and individually – trying to learn the secret.

Each man openly admitted that he had been afraid. His courage had required an awareness of danger, not blindness to what was at stake. His act was not rash, but deliberate.  What counted was how he had controlled or handled his fear. He had “respected the situation” and then risen to it.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall - Washington, D.C.

But along with fear, I noticed, there had been anger. A man had gotten mad as hell at the course of events and said, in effect, “I won’t submit to that! I won’t let it happen!  Maybe this is the way things are supposed to be, but I’m going to change it!” And so, rather than give in to torture, he had slit his wrists. Or jumped on top of a deadly grenade.  Or stood up and fired at the enemy in the face of almost certain death.  And by his action, he had made all the difference.

Underneath the fear and the anger, however, there had been a dedication to others.  This sort of courage – perhaps courage itself – is not selfish.  It regards comrades’ lives as more valuable than one’s own. It means being willing to crawl back into a flaming helicopter to save the pilot, diving down to a submarine to rescue those who are trapped; instead of fleeing for safety, racing out to treat the wounded and helpless and dragging them away from the bullets.

Courage, I found, is not the result of a contest. You don’t “win” the Medal of Honor.  You have a certain amount of training and experience, but then comes an event that calls for spontaneous action. You either respond in a certain way or you don’t.  You cannot predict, ever, what you will do.  Not a single Medal- holder was aware, beforehand, that he really had the “guts” to be a hero.

And that is part of the secret:  These men, holders of the highest award for courage we’ve got, are just like the rest of us. Among them at the reunion were a college professor, a furrier, a police chief, a real estate salesman. They had come from steel mills, farms, assembly lines and executive suites.

The important fact was not their differences from us, but their sameness. As a group, they represent the diversity, and the ordinariness, of the whole nation.  They reflect the actual and potential courage that exists throughout American life.  They are a national treasure, symbolizing our capacity for valor. By taking a good look at them, it is possible to see ourselves.

For each of the Medal-holders there had been no script to follow. Before they acted, they had been just as “normal” as you or I. If a situation calling for courage arises, will we respond as heroes or will we shrink away to save ourselves?

There is no certain answer.  Which, I believe, is also part of the secret.  Heroism is an individual matter that cannot be “seen” in the absence of a test.  You cannot find it by looking at your neighbors or in a mirror. It is something that happens at the moment. Until then, no one has the right to judge who among us does or does not have courage.

These lessons, I believe, apply to courage in all its forms, not just military. For everyone, crises arise throughout life that test courage – in our jobs, in the family, in relationships with friends and with strangers.

What saddened me at the Medal of Honor reunion was the feeling on the part of the recipients that their courage has so little meaning for the rest of us. “The Medal has a different significance these days,” a Vietnam veteran said. “If I had received it during World War II, I’d be treated differently. I came home as a soldier in scorn, so to speak.  Today, most kids don’t even know that the Medal exists, much less what it means.”

Isn’t it time we distinguished between the traumatic Vietnam experience and those who fought in that controversial conflict?  Isn’t it time we re-learned the Medal’s meaning, for ourselves and future generations?  Surely another war isn’t necessary in order to know that we haven’t lost our courage.

The men who gathered in Tulsa have put away their Medals until the next reunion. They go about their lives with that secret they share. They know what courage is – and so should we.