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Having a bowling ball

The Navy Yard guys are a league with longevity: They've been knocking 'em down for 84 years.

Kevin Vierling Jr., 29, takes aim. He bowls with his father and a brother; four sets of father-and-son bowlers roll in NAF.
Kevin Vierling Jr., 29, takes aim. He bowls with his father and a brother; four sets of father-and-son bowlers roll in NAF.Read more

For the love of his father, Jim Teti became a bowler.

It started in 2000, when his dad, Al - known as "AT" - was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Teti volunteered to drive nearly an hour after work every Wednesday, making sure his father showed up for bowling. Eventually, a spot serendipitously opened on the "Launchers," giving Teti the opportunity to bowl side by side with his dad.

After almost six decades with the league, AT died last year at 90. But his son stayed on.

"For me, it was about my father," said Teti, 54, of Lansdowne, a facilities manager at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. "Without my dad being there, it's not the same, but the regular Wednesday night drive we used to share keeps his memory alive. Call it corny, but it's something that I feel. I know my dad is with me."

Teti's father was one of the oldest and longest-standing members of one of the oldest bowling leagues in the country. Started in 1925 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the Naval Aircraft Factory (NAF) Bowling League continues under the same name today at a bowling alley in Stratford, Camden County.

It is a place where fathers and sons still bowl together and buddies cheer for one another with good-natured hand slaps and fist bumps. It's a place, many of its members say, that is more about friendship and fellowship than about making the Bowling Hall of Fame.

Of the group, which has 43 members, some have been on the team for more than 40 years - ages range from 23 to 93 - and there are four sets of father-and-son bowlers. Not everyone has a Navy Yard connection (eventually membership restrictions were eased), but everyone's a guy.

League president Charles "Chuck" Barry, 50, an operating engineer from Lindenwold and an 18-year veteran of the league, says the secret to the league's success is pure and simple.

"We have fun," he said. "We are all friends and we all look forward to our guys' night out." Barry's dad and brother bowl with him.

Mark Miller, spokesman for the United States Bowling Congress (USBC), the sport's governing organization, said there are about 50 bowling leagues in the United States and Canada that were founded before the NAF league. But considering there are approximately 80,000 leagues total, the guys from the Navy Yard are a "pretty elite group."

As sure as the sun sets, the bowlers gather around their assigned lanes at 6:30 p.m. every Wednesday at the sprawling 80-lane La Martinique Bowling Center on the White Horse Pike in Stratford. When you spot the bigger-than-life bowling pin at the entrance to the 50-year-old building, you know you have arrived.

The elder statesman of the league is Lou Spizziri, 93, who bowls on the four-member team called Engineering - a holdover from the days when teams were named after the members' jobs at the Navy Yard. Spizziri, a former mechanical-drawing teacher now living in Voorhees, was also one of the earliest members of the NAF when he worked at the Navy Yard.

"I love bowling," said Spizziri, who averages 150 but racked up a score of 171 in his first of three games on a recent outing. Slight of body, Spizziri, a widower, is strong in spirit and skill. He also bowls in a second league and visits the Atlantic City casinos twice a week, where he loves to "play the horses."

Jack Bullion, 62, of Berlin, came on board 30 years ago to join his father, John, who had been bowling with the league for 20 years. His father, who passed away last year, was an engineering technician at the Navy Yard when he joined the league in 1943. He bowled for 62 years - until 2005.

The legacy of father-and-son bonds is very much alive today. Take Kevin Vierling Jr., 29, an engineer from Medford, who bowls with his father, Kevin Sr. "It's a guy thing," he said. Younger brother Kyle, 23, a bartender from Voorhees, makes it a family trio.

The team's youngest bowler is Matt Watson, 21, who works at Shop-Rite and is a student at Rowan University. He says the age difference doesn't detract from his love of the game and the league. "Even though everyone is older, it is still competitive and there is always something to learn."

Bullion, a computer technician in the Pine Hill schools, smiles broadly talking about how his father looked forward to going to the old Palumbo's in South Philadelphia for the banquet, an annual celebration the bowlers cherished as much as a perfect-score game. For Bullion, the league is less about bowling prowess and more about connecting with people in a very basic way. "I am a glutton for friendship," he said.

For Spizziri, bowling is just another way to stay connected and to relish good times. "Life should be enjoyed, and if you can't enjoy it and have fun, you might as well get the hell out."