It's league night at the Cadieux Cafe on Detroit's East Side, and the bowlers are trickling in. Nobody lugs a bowling bag, however, and all the bowlers' shirts bear the same inscription on the back: CADIEUX FEATHERBOWLING CLUB. The men call out greetings in Flemish as they make their way through the restaurant to the two sawdust-covered alleys in a room off to the side. If you like obscure sports, you've come to the right place, because the Cadieux (pronounced CADGE-you) Cafe is the only place in the U.S. where the Belgian game of featherbowling is played.
The game is a cousin of Italian boccie and French boule. The object in those games is to roll a ball close to another ball some distance away. Featherbowling is different in two ways: The target is a pigeon feather planted in the ground, and the five-pound wooden "ball" is shaped like a wheel of cheese, which causes unpredictable changes of direction as it wobbles toward its destination.
The rules of featherbowling are simple. In each "end," one team starts by rolling its six balls at the feather, 60 feet away. (Teams consist of any number of players, though in league play each team has three players.) The second team then decides whether to "shoot" any of these balls out of the way or to sidle around them in an effort to get closer to the feather.
The scoring is the same as in horseshoes: The team closest to the feather gets one point for each ball closer than the other team's closest ball. The scoring team rolls first in the next end. Ten points wins the game.
"A quick game takes a half hour or 45 minutes," says Ron Devos, who, with his nephew Paul Misuraca, owns the Cadieux Cafe. "A slow game can last up to an hour and a half. One team gets a point; the other team gets a point; the guys walk down the alley to check out every ball and discuss strategy. That can take a lot of time."
Indeed, the beauty of featherbowling is its languid pace. The game is as much about the camaraderie among the bowlers as about their bowling skills.
"Where's your Seeing Eye dog, Frans?" says one sideline wag as 79-year-old Frans Leroy steps in to bowl. Paying no attention, Leroy expertly lays down a ball that, taking advantage of the alley's high sides and low middle, weaves its way among the other team's balls and lands right next to the feather. "He never bowled that good in his life," says another joker. Without a word Leroy repeats the feat with his second ball.
After everyone has bowled in one game and the scores have been tallied, the two best bowlers, Leo Van Opdenbosch, 72, and Valere Spetebroot, 80, decide to go head-to-head for a beer. As word of the match spreads, bowlers come drifting in from the restaurant. "When these two guys bowl, everyone watches," says Misuraca. "They're really the best of friends, but when they're bowling, it's serious."
As in any good matchup, the two bowlers have contrasting styles. Van Opdenbosch is conservative, whereas "Valere has a style all his own," Misuraca says.
It's a tense game, and every ball rolled elicits a stream of comments in Flemish and English. As the scores creep up, Van Opdenbosch executes the ideal strategy, placing four balls close to the feather and then arranging the other two along the alley as blockers. He is in a position to win.
Unfazed, Spetebroot bow is around the blockers and picks off the four potential points one at a time. With his fourth ball, he is now closest. He trudges deliberately down the alley, checks his ball, then ambles back and, in a masterly display, closes out the game with his two remaining balls.
"Let's play another," says Van Opdenbosch as he pulls out the money for the beer. Spetebroot nods his assent. On the sidelines they're still talking about the last end of the game.
"If sports is a metaphor for life, then this is what life might be," says Jerry Lemenu, at 44 one of the younger members of the club. "Everybody is pretty competitive in the context of the game, but in the end it doesn't really matter who wins. The losers buy beer, and we all drink together and root for the next group of players."
Jay Feldman, who lives in Davis, Calif., has written a number of stories for Sports Illustrated.