The similarities between the Giersbergs and the Sanders drove them together once they met.
For 50 years, Allen Sanders had bowled just about every day, only taking time off to serve his country in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. Although he sometimes is at a loss to pinpoint dates he spent in the military, his time spent in bowling alleys remains fresh in his mind.
“The first time I bowled was in 1947 when I was 8,” Sanders, 68, said, “I can even still remember where I was when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.”
The answer, not surprisingly, involves bowling. While he was not at a bowling alley, he was in a motel in a small town in Texas, waiting for a tournament to begin.
“I had to get to the lanes,” Sanders said while his wife, Monica Sanders, and his daughter, Tammy Harrison, laughed in the background. “But I decided to wait until Neil came out. As soon as he stepped foot on the moon, I was out the door.”
Although emphysema has forced Allen Sanders, a former pin setter in bowling alleys, to take a hiatus from bowling. It’s an understatement to say that the veteran was merely “good” in his prime, according to his wife.
“He could have gone pro,” Monica Sanders said, while their daughter proudly showed off her dad’s rings commemorating his 300 games. “He had a sponsor, Stan Gifford, who bowled the first televised 300 game.”
Allen Sanders quickly interrupted to say he didn’t turn pro because he had a family and was financially secure after he retired from the Air Force in 1979.
Like Allen Sanders, Gus Giersberg was a military man, serving in the Army and also serving a tour in Vietnam. Prior to joining the Army, Giersberg played minor league baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Though he didn’t start bowling until he joined the army, Giersberg learned to love the sport, much like he loved baseball, after he started working in an alley in Germany. When he retired from the military in 1978, he caught on as a manager of a bowling alley in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Giersberg, along with his wife, Sallye, and three children, moved to Columbia in 1983. He quickly found a job in his niche.
“I worked at the old Oakland Plaza until it closed a few years back,” Gus Giersberg said.
That was where the Giersbergs met and grew close with the Sanders. The venue has changed to Town & Country Lanes, where Gus Giersberg now works. Every Wednesday night, however, you can find him at the lanes, bowling with his wife in the scratch doubles league on lanes 7 and 8.
Both families have many reasons to brag about their talent on the lanes. Harrison is the only woman to win the men’s city tournament in Columbia. The year she won, her father finished second. Without question, however, the best bowler in either family could be found a few lanes to the right of Gus and Sallye Giersberg on Wednesday night. When you step back and watch their son, 32-year-old Albert Giersberg, you can see why he’s such a good bowler.
The lefty has a smooth, controlled approach and after the ball leaves his hand, it takes a long bend to the left before violently turning right as it nears the pins.
Pins meet ball. Pins lose.
The force of the collision makes it seem like a bomb has exploded, and the sound overwhelms the already noisy lanes. Bowlers in adjacent lanes pause and turn their heads to admire the devastation.
While Albert Giersberg didn’t bowl his best on Wednesday night, his recent stretch in April speaks volumes about his talent, and gives his parent’s a reason to dote.
“He bowled four 300 games in an eight-day span,” Gus Giersberg said loudly while his son sipped on a soft drink after his last game. “Most people are lucky to bowl four or five 300 games in their life.”
His son’s total is a bit higher. Bowling since he was old enough to hold a ball, according to his dad, Albert Giersberg has rolled 17 300 games in his lifetime, including bowling an 800 series an even more impressive three times. All those scores have been sanctioned as official by the US Bowling Congress.
His talent is obvious, but success is inconsequential to Albert Giersberg. The way bowling brings the Giersbergs and the Sanders together is the most meaningful to him.
“I’ve been bowling in the same leagues as my dad since I was 15,” Albert Giersberg said, adding that they’ve bowled with the Sanders since he was 12 or 13. His relationship with the Sanders is evident, as he slaps hands with Harrison after strikes and talks with her family inbetween frames.
“It’s an ageless game,” Gus Giersberg said. “You’ve got people that are 17 and 70 bowling together, and that makes it special.”
“There’s a camaraderie in bowling,” Tammy Harrison said. “You make friends, If you’re ever in trouble, if your house burns down, you know that the people you bowl with will help you out.”
It’s not clear the family bowling tradition will continue, though. Albert Giersberg’s first son is due in August, but he said he isn’t going to force him to bowl.
“If he’s a lefty like me,” Albert Giersberg said through a coy smile, “I hope he becomes a pitcher. There’s a bit more money in that.”