A perfect retirement
By FRANK PASTOR
Bullock has rolled 11 straight strikes and needs one more for a perfect game. Bowlers in neighboring lanes move out of his way.
After taking an extra second to set his feet and pick up his mark, Bullock tells himself, "Go ahead and bowl."
His ball follows a familiar path, starting right, then hooking into the pocket. It crashes into the head pin before powering through the others, toppling even the troublesome 10 pin.
Behind Bullock, bowlers erupt in a chorus of cheers. Some offer handshakes, others pats on the back.
Bullock has done it again.
The 56-year-old Spring Hill resident rolled his sixth 300 game in the Wednesday Night Mixed League on Feb. 5 at Spring Hill Lanes. All six took place at Spring Hill or Mariner Lanes, starting with the first in 1997.
"It's so exciting," said fellow bowler Krista Anderson, 21, who witnessed one of Bullock's perfect performances. "Especially when you're a good friend of the person."
Bullock, a former New York firefighter, thought he'd miss the camaraderie of the fire station when he retired 13 years ago. He never expected to rediscover it in a bowling alley.
"Here, it's like the fire department," Bullock said. "It's a big family."
Bullock was loading equipment on a firetruck 13 years ago when the ladder he was standing on twisted, sending him falling. He tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder and no longer was able to perform his duties, prompting his retirement after 181/2 years on the job.
"It was tough, because it was a great job," Bullock said. "To me, it was the greatest job in the world. If I had to do the same job at half the pay, I would do it."
Fighting fires was Bullock's childhood dream.
As a youngster, he lived next to a firehouse and loved seeing the hook and ladder go by. He especially liked watching the firefighter steer the truck from the back.
When Bullock was old enough, he joined the Mount Vernon (N.Y.) Fire Department, where he had the chance to steer the back end of the truck.
"It was like being a child all over again," Bullock said.
Bullock was living in Spring Hill when more than 400 firefighters died in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Since Mount Vernon is 12 miles north of the George Washington Bridge, which connects upper Manhattan with New Jersey, members of its department were sent to Ground Zero to help with the recovery effort.
Bullock didn't know any of the firefighters who lost their lives, but he was affected just the same.
"Firefighters are like family," Bullock said. "To have that many firefighters (die) at one time was rough. I got to the point where I couldn't watch it on television any more."
But that didn't dull his desire to be there.
"I'm sure the other firefighters felt the same way," Bullock said. "That's just who we are."
Bullock bowled one season on the fire department's team before he retired. Shortly after moving to Florida in 1991, he appeared at Spring Hill Lanes and asked to be placed on a squad.
"I didn't have a clue what I was doing," Bullock said. "The only thing I knew was to stand in the center, throw the ball down the middle and hit the head pin."
Bullock got by with a little help from his friends.
Jimmy King, who visited Bullock twice a year from New York, gave him a fingertip ball that Kevin Williams drilled in his pro shop at Spring Hill Lanes. Frank Squillace, a bowler on another team, offered pointers when their squads competed on neighboring lanes.
Over the next couple of years, Bullock learned to read lanes, develop a hook and manage the mental side of the game.
"Too many guys just take this too seriously," Bullock said. "Whenever I bowl, I never look at my score. Not until I'm finished."
Through constant practice, he improved his average from 150 to its present 211 in the Sunday Night Mixed and 217 in the SunTrust leagues at Spring Hill Lanes and 211 in the SunTrust Classic League at Mariner Lanes.
"Very seldom will you see him throw a bad ball," Anderson said. "Everything's just picture-perfect."
After reaching 279 several times, Bullock recorded his first 300 in 1997 at Spring Hill Lanes. He said he didn't fully realize what he had done until the drive home, when he pumped his fist and screamed, 'Yes, yes.'
"Thank God I was by myself," Bullock said, laughing.
He posted his second perfect score later that same year. It was part of an 833 series, which remains his all-time high.
Besides the camaraderie, Bullock likes the challenge of the sport, whether it is learning to read the lanes or keeping the game from getting to him.
"My goal is to be consistent, to try to hit the same mark time after time," he said.
Bullock shares what he has learned with others. He has coached children in the Young American Bowling Alliance program on Saturdays for about four years and routinely helps others when he is not working on his game.
"I've never charged anyone a penny," Bullock said. "The only thing I ask them is if they learn something from what I teach them, just pass it along to someone else."
Bullock has worked with Anderson and her mother, Helen, off and on the past five years. He taught Helen to read the lanes and make adjustments and helped Krista take the game less seriously.
"I'm a very competitive person; I hate to lose," Anderson said. "Now, he's got it so no foul language comes out of my mouth, except in a blue moon."
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