One of my earliest childhood memories — I was just 3 or 4 — is from a grocery store on Main Street.
My mother leaned down, pointed to a woman standing nearby and said, “Danny, remember this. That’s Helen Keller.”
It’s an urban (suburban) myth that Helen Keller lived in Westport. Her house — “Arcan Ridge” — was actually on Redding Road in Easton, near the corner of Route 136.
But 136 is called also called Westport Road in Easton. And when the remarkable deaf-blind author, political activist and lecturer died in 1968, at 87, the New York Times datelined the story “Westport, Conn.” — and said she died “in her home here.” (Click here to see.)
That error was picked up by publications around the world. It persists today.
Helen Keller moved to Easton in 1936. But she had a Westport post office box. And — as my long-ago memory attests, and those of other longtime residents affirm — she and her companions did much of their shopping here.
Staples High School Class of 1965 member Jack Backiel has a special connection. His aunt relative Agnes Pazdan took care of Helen Keller.
And in 1944, she signed her autobiography The World I Live In to her this way:
(Do you have a Helen Keller memory? Click “Comments” below.)
Jack Backiel left Westport a while ago. A member of Staples High School’s Class of 1965 who ended up graduating from private school — and the son of the owners of our local bowling alley and driving range — he’s now retired, living in Florida.
He still loves his hometown though, and comments frequently on “06880.”
He’s also a frequent visitor to Washington. If there’s a political hearing to attend, or a protest to join, Jack is there.
In March he flew north for the March for our Lives. Several students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland — the site of a mass shooting the month before, not far from Jack’s home — shared his flight.
The next month, he was there when Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress about Facebook’s privacy issues. Jack was interviewed by BBC, for a report that aired in Britain.
Jack Backiel, on camera.
During Paul Manafort’s trial, he met the defendant’s attorney and Fox News’ Peter Doocy as they awaited the verdict.
A couple of days ago, Jack was at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearing. He waited in line for 2 hours, to be seated for 20 minutes. Several protesters interrupted the event, with one man carried out by police “like a bag of potatoes.”
Though Jack’s “sense of history” drives his recent visits to Washington, it’s not a new undertaking.
In 1974, he was seated right behind Connie Chung as the House Judiciary Committee considered impeaching President Nixon.
In 1917 John S. Backiel bought 7 acres of land on the dirt-filled Post Road, near Maple Avenue. He paid $5,000.
The Backiels farmed the property until 1954. That year his sons John and Stanley, and the young men’s brother-in-law, opened up Westport Golf Range. There was a driving range, and miniature golf course. (Today it’s the site of Regent’s Park condominiums.)
According to Jack Backiel, his grandfather — John S. — said that selling a bucket of golf balls was just like selling a basket of tomatoes. Except you got both the basket and the tomatoes back, to sell them again the next day.
Jack was just 7 years old in September 1954, but he remembers opening day. Trick shot artist Paul Hahn wrapped a club (actually a hose) around his body, then swung it and hit a ball off the mouth of his wife, as she lay on the ground.
The golf range “was my whole life as a kid,” Jack recalls.
In October 1958, the Backiels opened a bowling alley — only the 2nd 10-pin alley in the state. Economics favored recreation over farming.
John, Adolph and Stanley Backiel, inside Westport Lanes.
There were 8 owners: John S. Backiel’s children. Daily management was the responsibility of 3: John, Stanley and Adolf. The site is what is now Pier 1.
Business boomed. With lines out the door, the original 16 lanes soon expanded to 32. Soon, the Backiels added a pool room downstairs, and the Club 300 bar.
In the early years John Hersey — author of Hiroshima, and a former member of Westport’s Board of Education — bowled there several times a week.
Next door, when Mickey Rooney — acting at the Westport Country Playhouse — would hit buckets of balls at the golf range. Then he’d hang around for a couple of hours, talking to women and giving impromptu “golf lessons” to whoever listened.
Those recollections — and many more — come from Jack Backiel, John’s son and John S.’s grandson.
Jack says, “Our family was definitely on the cutting edge of bowling, as the new wave of family recreation began in the United States.” Bowling leagues thrived, from 1960 through the mid-’80s. Local businesses sponsored teams, advertising their names on the back of shirts.
The bowling alley stationery showed the building’s 1950’s-style facade.
In the fall of 1961, Westport Lanes was on “Candid Camera.” The last 2 lanes were rigged so that thin piano wires ran under the pins. When a couple came to bowl, they were assigned those lanes.
“The guy would bowl his regular score, but every time the woman got up, a mechanic in back would pull a lever. The piano wires moved just enough so all the pins fell down, no matter where she threw the ball.
“The poor guy out on a date would bowl his 125 game,” Jack continues. “His date would roll a 288. The hidden camera focused on his expression as she got strike after strike after strike.”
Paul Gambaccini — the “Professor of Pop,” and one of the most famous radio and TV music personalities in the UK — grew up not far from Westport Lanes. Earlier this year, in a Financial Times profile, he related the pinpoint accuracy of bowling to his precision cuing record.
And he recalled his earliest bowling days.
It was that period of the suburbanisation of America when an indispensible part of every new town was the bowling alley. It’s broken my heart to see bowling go downhill. Now it’s a sort of retro, kitsch thing. Nixon, for all his faults, was a bowler. He had a bowling alley in the basement of the White House.
One night in 1972, while the lanes were being refinished with a flammable coat of lacquer, they went up in flames. The cause was spontaneous combustion, Jack says, and the intense heat twisted steel.
A year later, the rebuilt Westport Lanes opened again.
Frances Lee at the Westport Golf Range, next door to Westport Lanes.
The bowling alley remained a kingpin of local recreation until 1984. Jack’s father — the youngest owner — was already in his 60s. The property was their nest egg. They sold the lanes and adjacent golf range for $6.8 million.
Two of the original owners are still alive. One aunt is 95; the other just turned 101.
“There wasn’t much entertainment in Westport back then, especially for kids,” Jack recalls. “We were it.”
That entertainment resonated with countless people. To this day, Jack says — even in retirement in Florida — when someone hears he’s from Westport, and that his family owned the bowling alley and golf range, they remember it.
And then they tell him stories about their favorite times there.
(Jack Backiel would love to hear more memories of the golf range and bowling alley. Click “Comments,” or email him: email@example.com.)
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