You could’ve heard a pin drop in the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post on Dahlonega Highway, except for the noisy rattling of bingo balls in the machine.
Seven dozen people with neon-colored ink blotters stared straight down, scanning the letters and numbers as they listened to the call from David Hopkins, the only sound breaking up the rumbling of the machine.
“N-32,” Hopkins said. A few glanced up at the board as the number illuminated, then back down at the cards.
Ink pens stamped. Balls rolled, and Hopkins drew another.
“I-22,” he said.
Rattling and calling numbers — the only sounds for 12 minutes.
“Bingo!” someone called out, breaking the quiet with a different kind of noise.
The whirr of the machine kicked off, and the groans and laughter of those tearing off their losing bingo sheets filled the room, along with murmurs about that one last number needed to call the winning word.
Hopkins clicked the machine back on, and the group collectively turned attention back to the cards, filling their minds again with the sounds of numbers, the stamp of the pen and the chance to win the next round’s prize.
The Cumming VFW Post 9143 has been holding bingo nights for nearly three dozen years, about as long as Donald Hughes has been post commander.
Hughes recently retired from calling the numbers after about 34 years. But he’s still at the post on Tuesday and Saturday nights, collecting the bingo money and keeping the books for the VFW’s community event and fundraiser.
“I played once,” he said. “I looked up at the board and I was five numbers behind, so I quit playing.”
Walking among the tables on Tuesday, Hughes greeted the familiar faces he passed — and there were a lot.
In the back left corner, he knew he’d find Carol “George” Chadwick.
That’s her table.
“You don’t mess with my table,” Chadwick said with a laugh. “Everybody knows that.”
Chadwick, who’s called “George” because she can’t remember anyone’s name, said the back table against the wall is the best in the house because no one can peak over her shoulder.
Like many of the regulars, Chadwick is serious about her game.
“Honey, I don’t enjoy it,” she said. “I love it.”
She’s been coming to bingo nights (mostly Saturdays) for about 35 years, at first bringing her children to play while she marked the squares.
Now, her children are bringing her grandkids.
The biggest change over the years, she said, is that smoking is no longer allowed in the post.
Old habits die hard, though. Many players keep a cigarette pack as part of their table setup, even though they had to wait for the break to light up outside.
Post does it “right”
Bingo at the VFW isn’t the game you played as a kid. One line isn’t going to win a prize.
The eight rounds include shapes, like an X or a 7, and one game requires every number on the card to be stamped.
Each number is called at the same time interval, when the machine makes a little beep, though the time of each round ranges depending on the number of squares involved in a winning card.
Hughes said for the lucky 7 game, players need only to watch the top row and the diagonal slanted backwards, so the interval of time is less than a game where any square could help produce a winning ticket.
There’s some strategy involved too.
“The best thing to do there is to take your ink pen and trace a 7,” he said.
Of course, the more tickets someone buys, the more chances there are to win, and the sheet with the most cards per round is the favorite.
But the game is always anyone’s to win.
First-time player Stacy Biehl shouted “bingo” on Tuesday night and laughed at how her hands shook with the thrill.
Her friend Beverly Harvey teased Biehl about her “beginner’s luck.”
“I come every week, and I never win,” Harvey said.
The next round, she called out bingo too.
She must’ve used Wayne Clark’s plan for the best strategy, which he said is simply “to win.”
Clark and companion Louise Gazaway have been playing for 20-something years at the post.
It’s close to home and something to do to pass the time, Gazaway said, plus she said the people who run the games at the Cumming VFW “do it right.”
Like all the players, Gazaway always hopes to hit the jackpot, which on Tuesday totaled $600.
Benefits local programs
Bingo and the VFW have been linked for decades, but no one seemed to know what started the tradition.
What Hughes does know is that the fundraiser has helped support many veterans’ programs, including his “pet project” to get an American flag in every classroom of the Forsyth County school system.
“We’re having 58 new flags this year,” he said, adding that they will be put in new portable classrooms this year.
The VFW has a number of programs supporting veterans, troops and the community.
Money raised from bingo, however, can be spent only within the state, according to the license rules, Hughes said.
“We have a general fund, and then we have — well, I call it the bingo account,” he said.
The collection of funds is heavily regulated, from reporting requirements to fair conduct of games to accounting rules.
Hughes keeps a list of all the winners from the night, which he keeps on a bulletin board at the post for the proper time period per state regulations.
Even though he’s stopped calling, and never really started playing, Hughes knows there’s nowhere he would rather be on a Tuesday or Saturday night than selling the tickets and doling out cash to the winners.