The perfect team.
A Christmas Eve late afternoon’s sky wasn’t having it. Someone somewhere had been naughty, as the sky was a woolen blanket of grey.
The yards surrounding Centerville’s 67-year-old bowling alley were brown, the streets were grimy, and the air was heavy with damp. Inside the closed business, only the house lights illuminating the venerable bowling alley.
Dawn Schwering’s black coffee spun tight in the white ceramic mug as she let loose of the metal spoon.
“The four kids and I talk about Dennis all the time,” she said. “We appreciate hearing stories from his bowling and post office friends. Dennis and I were married 31 years, and tomorrow will be our fifth Christmas without him.”
Reflecting on her business and personal growth at such a significant time of resumption, the 57-year-old Schwering explains, “My mom sat Dennis and I up on a blind date for my 18th surprise birthday party at the old Club 34. I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight, but it was more of an attraction at first sight.”
Blind, surprised, and attracted: Dawn and Dennis were off to the races.
Young Dawn and Dennis lived the quintessential Centerville life. Forever and a day driving a stake through the naysayers who indict their hometown charging there is no livelihood and there is no future. The Schwerings both had serious careers: Dawn as a Hy-Vee assistant manager for 15 years and Dennis caught on with Young Radiator for 14 years as a machinist.
When the Young Radiator plant closed in 1987, an innocuous advertisement in the Daily Iowegian would help to define Dennis to the community with a public career that would last nearly three decades.
“I remember the day when the post office job showed up in the newspaper, we both talked about it,” said Dawn, as her expression broke happy.
It was if the community was collaborating with a modern-day Jimmy Stewart: a seeker-of-truth, dedicated, humorous, and laid-back. Dennis was hitting his strides as the life of a mail carrier. Later because of the walking stress on his knees he would finish inside as a clerk.
In 2001, the Schwerings built their dream house for their family of six on East Jackson. The five-bedroom house soon became a home when the couple’s four children Shaun, Derek, Jessy, and Alicia wrestled over the bedrooms. The new house also was the new home to Dennis’s sister Gail Woollums.
Woollums, 62, was welcomed into the Schwering house when she moved to Centerville from Northern Iowa in early 2003.
“I was still an assistant manager at Hy Vee and Gail had been working at Fareway in another town,” Dawn recalled. “So, when Dennis and I bought the bowling alley it was easy for her to transfer into my job at Hy Vee.”
Abie Adams opened Adams Bowl on the city’s north side in 1952 with human pinsetters called “pin monkeys” who would manually clear and set the pins. The beloved Abie will live on in Centerville’s history as a man who helped to propel the city’s culture into the 20th century.
GREEN EGGS AND HAM
Aug. 8, 2014, the Friday before the Knoxville Nationals, is when Dawn and her four adult children’s second lives began.
“I remember Dennis and I had already bought our tickets to go to the Nationals because that was our mini-vacation we looked forward to every year.”
And with that Dawn once again turned her spoon off after waking her coffee.
“Dennis had got up around 6 a.m. that morning and was in the bathroom getting ready for work at the post office,” Dawn recalled. “I heard him fall, and he shouted for me to come help him. He said that he couldn’t move his leg and that he couldn’t stand up.”
Walking toward her mom with a basket of laundry from the bowling alley’s restaurant was the oldest daughter Jessy.
“She gets her height from her dad,” smiled Dawn. Jessy, now 31, takes an unexpected detour on the way to the front door, places the basket to the side and sits down.
“What are you doing here, kid, it’s Christmas Eve?” Dawn asked.
Answering her mother’s question with a nod to the laundry basket, Jessy seeks to mark her place in the kid hierarchy: “I’m the child most like my father, I’m the calm and collected kid.”
For a moment, mother and daughter hold their important looks to each other. Then no longer able to maintain the ruse, both grin.
“No, but seriously my dad is the best man I’ve ever known,” Jessy said. “He was a fierce dad. And by fierce, I mean, he loved us unconditionally. Dad never quit trying to raise us to be the best people we could be. He was stern when he needed to be, and soft when needed. Through all the differences in our family, he never stopped caring about any of us. He was a fabulous role model. On Dr. Seuss day, dad would always make us kids green eggs and ham.”
Dawn, picking up her story up where she left off, recalled, “Thankfully, we had a set of crutches that Dennis used to stand. We drove immediately to our family doctor, who then set us up with an MRI at Mercy Hospital here in Centerville. They found cancer cells on his brain and lung.”
“The cells on his brain affected his motor skills, which is why he couldn’t move his leg.”
Looking across the table at her daughter Dawn finished, “I called Jessy first, and she helped to get everyone to the hospital before the ambulance took Dennis to Des Moines. The entire family followed Dennis to Mercy not understanding what would happen next.”
SHAUN AND DEREK
A sound of a steel wrench hitting a concrete floor had momentarily interrupted the mother and daughter’s impromptu visit. Behind the far wall of the eight synthetic alleys were brothers Shaun and Derek tweaking one of the industrial-sized pin spotters before heading home for Christmas Eve.
The massive AMF pin spotter looks to be an agonizingly complicated machine with a state-of-the-art circuit board and many moving parts both large and small.
Peering up from behind one of the matte black machines Shaun comments, “Trying to service these machines has been one heck of a learning curve. Derek and I have never been around bowling equipment or machines, you know, who has? I mean we both have tinkered on our cars but have had no real background in maintenance.”
Just then a Jedi bowling ball slammed into the pins. The sound of cartoon men throwing cartoon bowling balls in heaven making the sounds of thunder came to mind.
In an unexpected confluence of the two brothers rallying around their mom to advance the family business, Shaun has independently generated an income venture outside of the family.
“I’m going to a bowling center in Chicago next week for the second time,” said Shaun. “The owner had an in-house mechanic for 40 years but he died awhile back and he’s been asking me to service his machines. But I travel Iowa, Kansas, just wherever I get called to service or fix bowling machines.
“There are three levels of bowling mechanics, A, B and C. They would consider me a C mechanic or the highest level without the certification. After our daughter is born, I’m going to school in Minnesota to earn my certificate.”
A SINGLE TEAR
Aug. 8, 2014, that infamous day in the Schwering family history wouldn’t let up.
“They admitted Dennis at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines and sent him off for tests,” recounted Dawn. “I arrived shortly after along with each of the kids, Gail, and other family members.
“They could only send Dennis for one test a day, but we were happy that radiation was getting to the part of his brain that needed it. His brain was being scanned and his lungs were being biopsied during that week at Mercy.”
During the worst week of the couple’s lives as Dennis absorbed a windmill’s punch to the gut, Dawn never left his side. She slept in his hospital room, with her husband, in a recliner, in a corner, for seven nights.
In sickness and in health? Dawn settled that question 31 years ago. Dawn was tired but hopeful.
“When they released Dennis from Mercy in Des Moines, we were told that his cancer was treatable,” she recalled. “We knew that he would need extended radiation and chemo, but that his body would beat it.”
Once the patient was back in Centerville, the Schwering home became the “war room” where Dennis’s sister Gail and his four kids would be scheduled to cover the shifts at the bowling alley and the widely popular Mama Dawn’s Restaurant.
Posts to Facebook informing the community of Dennis’s progress were planned, and Dawn could coordinate her husband’s daily radiation trips to Ottumwa and weekly chemo jaunts to Mercy in Centerville.
For five months, Dawn kept the vigil up, driving to Ottumwa during the day, then running back to the bowling alley in the afternoons to extend her business for another day.
Brushing her long auburn hair to the side Jessy picks up the story of her dad’s treatments: “Dad took the five months of chemo and radiation like a champ. But after he completed all of that, dad was told he was terminal.”
Dawn adds, “Dennis wasn’t showing the emotion you might think. He was remaining positive. Mr. Tough you know; I’m the support for you all, not the other way around. He had just went through six months of radiation and chemo only to be told he was terminal.”
Life was pushing the Schwerings until they broke just to see if they could put themselves back together again.
“Dennis still wanted to fight,” Dawn said. “He was looking into different things that had helped others, like juicing, vegetables, and alternative medicines. The family at this point was numb because we didn’t know where else to turn. So, we talked to doctors in Chicago and on January 15 we flew to Chicago Cancer Treatment Center of America.”
What we resent about the ending of life is not the ending. We are all mortal. We resent it because it is harder and more painful than it needs to be.
“Five months and twenty-six days after they diagnosed dad, I watched my hero take his last breath at 11:18 pm. With a single tear rolling down his cheek,” explained Jessy.
Back behind the eight bowling lanes with the pins still in formation, the brothers were winding down.
“Boy, we’ve seen some strange things happen here over the years haven’t we Shaun?” asked Derek.
Affirming his brother, Shaun answered laughing, “Yes, we have seen some weird stuff happen here.”
“We’ve seen some crazy stuff all right,” Shaun fired back. “Remember, I called you when lane six came on all by itself! I mean all by itself.”
Both brother’s laughter rises in pitch.
Shaun enjoying the moment with Derek, “Oh yeah, freaky, freaky stuff.”
Then almost in unison both boys gleefully express, “Dad! It’s dad. You know it’s dad.”
Derek, more subdued, says, “Well, that’s what we say, anyway.”
Derek and Shaun finally arrive back up front where the first half of the bowling center is dedicated to Mama Dawn’s Restaurant. Jessy and Dawn began to stand when the front door opened and the youngest sibling of the four, Alicia, and Dawn’s sister-in-law, Gail, walked in from the cold.
The five remaining members of the original six serendipitously together for a moment on Christmas Eve.
Abie would be proud of his students Dennis and Dawn. Dennis had installed automatic scoring in 2013, signaling a seismic shift to modern bowling technology. Then Dawn, Gail and the four siblings leveled the bowler’s area, installed a new desk space, laid new carpets, bought new appliances, and transformed the old seating section.
Then two years ago at a heavy investment all eight bowling lanes were resurfaced to state-of-the-art synthetics. The loud, outdated gutters are now noiseless pop-up gutters with synthetic approaches with new ball returns.
Most impressive of all is Dawn and company’s signature creation: Mama Dawn’s Restaurant. Within the bowling center is a full-service restaurant featuring home-style cooking with daily specials. The place is widely popular.
Derek rushes ahead to hold the front door open as his sister, his mom and Gail file outside into the chill. Throughout the neighborhood, islands of Christmas lights sparkle. Shaun hits the light switch turning off the last row of fluorescents.
Outside the new electric sign: MAMA DAWN’S KITCHEN AND D-RAY LANES. The words pop on, go black, then pop on again for good.
The gift of Dennis is his normalcy to the world’s insanity.
“The best thing dad said to me was that our family treated him normal [while he was sick],” remarked his oldest daughter Jessy. “I can hear in my head my dad saying keep it simple.”
Did Dennis pass? That sounds like strangers at rush hour who nip our shoulder as they rush by. Or did he die as each of us mortals will?
Where is he? Is he being held captive? Because if he has a choice, he’s with his family. He turned lane six on the other night. Shaun and Derek saw him.
To keep current on Mama Dawn’s Daily specials and all the happenings at D-Ray Lanes, like Adams Bowl at D-Ray Lanes: https://www.facebook.com/DRayLanes.