By Matt Goisman
The journey of Ralph Perona, an 88-year-old McAlester resident, begins and will likely end in Oklahoma. He was born in Savanna in 1924, moved to McAlester in 1928 and has lived here continuously since 1981.
In between his childhood and his final destination, however, he spent almost 30 years living in England.
“Everybody used to ask me, ‘When are you thinking about going home?’” Perona said Thursday. “I said, ‘Every day.’ I was always homesick.”
Perona joined the United States Air Force in 1942. The Air Force sent him to RAF Burtonwood, a Royal Air Force station in Warrington, England, where he became part of the ground crew.
“We were in a combat zone,” Perona said. “I was supposed to be an aerial gunner, but I never got it.”
Perona worked as a staff sergeant in Alexandria, Va., for three years following his term in the Air Force, then went to England with his first wife, Elsie, in 1951. Perona worked at a plastic manufacturer in a town called Weaverham until 1963, then at a General Motors plant in Ellesmere Port until 1981.
Elsie, whom Perona had married in 1948, died in 1957.
“They were treating her for dry-eye, and she died of kidney trouble,” Perona said.
When Perona returned home to McAlester, he said the city seemed nothing like the small town in which he’d grown up.
“It was just built up,” Perona said. “All the places that I knew had gone.
“I didn’t know anywhere but McAlester. We didn’t have a whole lot of money (during my childhood), and we didn’t go anywhere.”
Perona worked for T.H. Rogers Lumber Company for 10 years in McAlester, then retired. He met his second wife, Rosalee, at Grand Avenue United Methodist Church, and they married in 1983.
“I have been very lucky in both marriages,” he said. “I had two fantastic wives.”
Ralph has two grown children, which has in turn led to grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.
“They’re multiplying too fast,” Perona said. “I can’t count.”
Seeking a new community, Perona eventually got involved with the McAlester Scottish Rite Masonic Center.
“They wanted someone to help with the superintendent there to keep the place in shape, and they didn’t know who to get,” Perona said. “I said, I’ll do it,’ so I started working there and I worked there 16 years. I finished there when I was 70-something.
“Now I’m 88, so I’m not doing nothing anymore but bowling.”
Perona took up bowling first at Rocket Bowl, then at the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant and finally at Great Balls of Fire. He bowls in the Thursday-afternoon Senior Men’s League at Great Balls of Fire, which he described as a “real nice bowling alley.”
Bowling has quickly become his favorite activity.
“If I have a doctor’s appointment that comes on Thursday, I can’t do it,” Perona said. “I tell the doctor he has to make it a Wednesday or a Tuesday.”
Perona said he likes bowling because of “the challenge.”
“You’re trying to beat the next guy, and even beat yourself,” he said. “I don’t like to be last. I want to be first.”
When bowling, Perona has a very consistent approach. He finds the exact same spot behind and to the left of the middle arrow on the lane. He takes a few small steps forward, then bowls an almost perfectly straight shot at the head pin.
“I look at the No. 1 pin and look at the shadow,” Perona said. “I try to follow that shadow down to the No. 1 pin. I don’t always do it, but that’s what I try to do.”
The highlight of Perona’s bowling career came earlier this year at Great Balls of Fire. Normally never bowling better than a 130, on that one night he bowled a 217.
“They kept saying, ‘You have another shot,’ so I turned around and shot again,” Perona said of that game. “They said, ‘You have one more,’ so I turned and I shot again. Made four strikes right at the end.”
Perona said he’s definitely had to adjust his bowling style as he’s gotten older. He switched to a 12- or 13-pound ball because of weakening arm strength, and he started sliding his right foot back on his follow-through to correct balance issues.
But no matter what physical limitations Perona may face, his competitive spirit and love of the sport won’t allow him to give it up.
“As long as I can walk, I’ll bowl.”
Contact Matt Goisman at email@example.com.