When his bowling bag failed to show up at the Billings airport's baggage claim area Wednesday night, Wayne Belbeck parted the curtains above the conveyor belt and peered into the baggage handling area.
He saw a worker trying frantically to free his bag from beneath a baggage cart.
Minutes later, Belbeck was paged over the intercom, and apologetic airline employees reported a bowler's worst nightmare. His ball had been severely damaged in an accident.
At some point after the airplane was unloaded, Belbeck's bowling ball and bag fell and became lodged beneath the cart.
"The way it looked to me, it got caught under the rear axle," Belbeck said Friday. The 15-pound ball couldn't roll because of the way it was wedged under the cart. By the time it was discovered, a 5-inch flat spot had been ground into it.
Belbeck said he was a little upset when he first saw the damage, but his demeanor improved when officials from United Airlines agreed on the spot to replace the ball.
"They were quite upset about the whole deal, and they said, 'We'll replace it,' " Belbeck said.
The next day, Belbeck went to a bowling equipment dealer at MetraPark and bought a nearly identical ball for about $150.
Belbeck, 52, works in the automotive industry and lives in DeWitt, Mich., just north of Lansing.
His flattened ball was soon the talk of the tournament at the MetraPark Expo Center, where the ABC tournament is taking place. Soon other bowlers were sharing war stories about having their bowling balls smashed, dropped or broken while traveling, he said.
Although his bowling trip got off to a rocky start, Belbeck has been delighted with the Billings ABC tournament. Belbeck, who has a 193 average, said this wasn't his best tournament, but the highlight was rolling a 244 in his final game.
"I can't get enough of being here. Everybody has been great," he said Friday while relaxing in the lobby of the Rimrock Inn. "I'll be going away remembering this as the most positive spot where I've been."
Belbeck and his teammates plan to take in the sights today before heading back to Michigan on Sunday.
"I'm going to the Harley Davidson store and I'm going to try to visit the Custer Battlefield," said Belbeck, who is a Civil War buff and participates in re-enactments.
A bowling ball with a flat side wouldn't be much good for knocking down pins 20 yards away. But it didn't take Belbeck long to find a new use for it.
"We used it as a doorstop last night," he said.
Tom Howard can be reached at 657-1261 or at firstname.lastname@example.org