Suburbia, circa 1994. We’d moved out of the New York City right about the time our daughter was to start kindergarten, seeking the bucolic childhood that my husband and I had deluded ourselves that we both had: house in the country; 2+ acre lots; great public schools; supportive, tight-knit community.
While we moved back to an area very close to where I’d grown up, it had been a good 10 years since I’d left for college and I no longer had a circle of close friends. Barely 30 and working long hours at a New York City law firm, with my husband traveling all over for his sales job, we wanted a shortcut to meet people (just like us) with whom we could share stories of new parenthood and go for beers and burgers. So, at our 75-year-old realtor’s urging, we joined Newcomers.
The Newcomers’ Club was just that: a club (with a small yearly membership fee) for people new to the community. There were mom reading groups, mom social hours, mom’s night out and the occasional couple’s event, usually built around cocktails. We were excited, enthusiastic even.
And then we went to our first event. As I looked around the room, I got a sinking feeling that this wasn’t going to work. Chinos and popped polo shirts wafted alongside Lilly Pulitzer dresses with double-breasted gold-buttoned blazers worn by both women and men. They all looked like they’d stepped out of the Preppy Handbook and made me feel like I was back in the early ‘80s. Men were on one side of the room; women on the other, apparently in some homage to a high school dance. Or something. A few even called us “the kids” and asked how we ended up in town. And then gave pause when I said I had a child AND was working. We felt awkward, out of place — and it showed.
Telling ourselves that one event did not define an entire club, we decided there was safety in numbers. We enlisted an old high school friend, Bonnie, who had also moved to town with her husband, Mike, to come with us to the next event — a wine tasting, where each of us brought two bottles of wine to be shared and compared. They in turn, pulled in another couple, Cynthia and Dave, with whom they went to college and who had also recently moved to town. The now six of us under 35ers stuck together, circling the crowd but never fully joining. As we moved in tandem, from room to room, we found another similarly aged couple, Kirsten and Jim, awkwardly hugging the wall. They gratefully joined our expanding group. At the end of the night, we found one more couple, Nick and Stacy, to pull into our orbit. Now we were ten. Almost a soccer team. Critical mass, for sure.
We held our own potluck dinners and nights out but weren’t willing to give up on Newcomers. And, bless them, the powers that be there, including then-President Tammy, a woman at least ten years older but with the partying spirit of a 25-year-old, weren’t willing to give up on us either. Within a few short months, the women of our group found ourselves chairing the Wine Committee. Given that it was early fall, we immediately changed it to Beer and Wine, thinking an Octoberfest-theme with German lagers and the like would go over well. But we needed something more. A hook, something, well, more fun than simply standing around sipping a beer and talking about your kids and commute and the market.
So what could we do with an Octoberfest event, beer slugged out of red solo cups and mini-gourd-fill cornucopias?
Enter pumpkin bowling.
What could be more fall? More suburban? More likely to interject some fun into an otherwise staid group? So, in addition to having attendees at our beer tasting bring a six-pack (or two) of their favorite hops-infused beverage, we asked that each also bring a pumpkin — suitable for bowling. We left it at that, confident that we’d piqued the interest of the group.
Because the only thing more intense than pumpkin bowling was flaming pumpkin bowling.
Our only concern was that we were holding our beer-tasting-and-pumpkin-bowling gala at the town’s old town hall, built in the 1700s and opening up onto the road. The only way we’d get enough of an alley was to set the pins by the front door. Why we didn’t consider bowling from the door inward spoke to the amount of beer we’d already imbibed at the time of the decision.
It was packed, at and perhaps a bit over the 75-person maximum occupancy allowed by law. Pumpkins and six-packs in hand, our fellow Newcomers showed up in jeans and sweaters rather than in khakis and jackets. Small victories, but victories for sure. More thrilling, the room wasn’t dividing along gender lines as we required teams to have equal numbers of men and women. The air grew tense, the chatter louder — and the games began.
The first few bowls landed the cups and the pumpkins outside, some in the road, one of the larger country roads in our small town. We heard some honking and some brakes applied and quickly realized that our plan wasn’t as well thought out as it could be. Although the crowd groaned collectively in disappointment, we shut down the competition, lest we cause an accident. Or cause ourselves to be arrested.
Luckily, just a few weeks later, President Tammy was hosting a costume-required Halloween Party at her cavernous home, which featured not only an indoor basketball court but also a football field-sized backyard that lent itself to multiple bowling lanes. The word went out that we’d pick up the pumpkin bowling where we left off but without the danger of causing car accidents. The ten of my intimate crew showed up, pumpkins in hand, with plenty to share with those who’d left theirs at home. We also brought a hand drill to drill finger holes into each of the pumpkins. This was serious business.
Rounds one and two started off innocuously enough. We set up our red solo cups three lanes across, took our best bowling stances and rolled, baby, rolled. We wooted and hollered both for and against one another.
By rounds three and four, we became a little more raucous. The stakes felt higher — or maybe it was the beer. Either way, the hollering devolved into taunts. The air grew tense. We forgot whether we were individuals or teams or both. All we focused on was pumpkins hitting red solo cups. We were tied. All of us. All 100 of us.
We needed to up our respective games. Better yet, we had to change up the game entirely. I don’t know if anyone said it out loud, but we all knew it. I don’t remember really who first reached for the matches — maybe it was Nick, maybe it was Kirsten — but I do remember that it was Mike who actually lit the cups on fire. Because the only thing more intense than pumpkin bowling was flaming pumpkin bowling.
No longer was it simply a matter of accuracy, focus and form. Now, speed came into play, given that the flaming red solo cups had to be bowled over before they melted into the grass. Flaming cups were also jettisoned into the nearby shrubs. Pumpkins were breaking open against the rock walls. Tammy, who’d been an enthusiastic supporter, grew concerned, less about the singed grass and more about the very real possibility of her bushes and trees going down in flames.
The Youngsters — as we’d informally named ourselves — were undeterred. We set more cups on fire, bowled, howled and bowled some more. Glorious, for sure. And we were inches away from winning.
Cynthia was up, in what was our last chance to declare victory as we were close to running out of cups and pumpkins. She drew the pumpkin under her chin, feet together, her gaze intent on the flaming cups before her. Stepped once, twice and then gave it all she had. The pumpkin flew forcefully out of her hands — as did her wedding and diamond engagement ring, somehow caught up in the finger holes of her pumpkin.
While the crowd went wild at Cynthia’s strike, we stood dumbstruck for what felt like eternity before diving into the bushes, hoping against hope that we’d find her rings among the dirt, smashed pumpkins and melting cups. And find them we did, buried within the pieces of her once perfectly round pumpkin.
We quickly declared victory and piled into our cars to head home. While it wasn’t quite our last Newcomers’ event, it was the last where we actively promoted flaming pumpkin bowling as a club-wide event. Toxic fumes, singed grass and burning shrubs turned off even the most ardent of hosts to future events. And we were okay with that.
It has been a good 20 years since we joined Newcomers and almost 18 since we left. Our gang of 10 still hangs together but less frequently and often in connection with high school graduations and wedding showers rather than beer tastings and costume parties. We’ve pumpkin bowled probably 15 times since we left, with our original group of ten welcoming six to eight new members at any given time. We’ve moved from lighting the cups on fire to using tea lights within the cups and always have two buckets of water on hand for dousing any fires that get out of hand. We use paved driveways instead of lawns. We drink more apple cider than beer these days. And we check our rings at the door.
As we gear up for leaving this suburban town, we’ve pulled together the old gang together more regularly over the last year. And, as October is upon us, we’ve got a flaming pumpkin bowling reunion in the works. We’re going out in flames — for sure.
(Photo collage Erica Hornung/TueNight)