Bingo nights are a regular draw in Ketchikan

April 7, 2018
In this March 21, 2018 photo, is a control board used during blackout bingo at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Ketchikan, Alaska. When the sun strides past Gravina Island, the Veterans of Foreign Wars transforms its second floor hall into a community staple that has entertained Ketchikan residents for decades. (Dustin Safranek/Ketchikan Daily News via AP)

KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) — When the sun strides past Gravina Island, the Veterans of Foreign Wars transforms its second floor hall into a community staple that has entertained Ketchikan residents for decades. Bright white florescent lights, daubber-slamming action, and complimentary coffee drafts: We have a BINGO.

Just before 7 p.m. Wednesday, a steady line of players trickled around the concessions and past the motorized stair lift. Players waited patiently to purchase packets of game cards at the start of the evening. With $100 bills in hand, players purchased as many packets as possible. Each packet contains 12 different bingo games printed on separate pages, and there are six chances to win on each page. Some players will purchase as many as six packets to play simultaneously. At $20 a packet for “regular” bingo and $25 per packet for “super” bingo, the game can become expensive, but with a $1,000 purse on “blackout” during super bingo, a win can definitely be rewarding.

With just minutes to spare, the 30-plus players dispersed themselves sparsely throughout the wide-open room. Densely packed with spacious tables, this place could hold hundreds if presented the opportunity.

The game type was announced and the crinkling of packets grew in volume.

The bingo organizer walked down the rows of table talk — she knows everyone present. Florence McGilton is the current organizer of VFW Bingo on Wednesdays and Fridays.

“This is a good place to visit with friends and a place to get lucky and win,” said McGilton as she tidied up the concession area.

In addition to VFW Bingo, McGilton is also the organizer for Filipino Club Bingo on Saturday nights at the VFW. Both organizations work in unison and depend on her to wear many hats to give players a fair and fun game.

“I’m helping out the VFW, I think it is a good cause,” added McGilton.

On busy nights, which tend to be super bingo and Filipino bingo nights, McGilton is accompanied by one helper, but can manage to run the game solo on regular bingo nights. She offers extra game cards for special side games like early bird, mini bird and star burst. All are games with different ways to win and varying prize amounts.

McGilton also offers pull tabs on all three nights. Theoretically, on Saturday’s players are purchasing pull tabs from the Filipino Club and on the other two days they are purchasing through the VFW Bar. Pull tab payouts range from $1 to $500.

Not too long after the start of the first game, a lucky player yells out “Bingo!” and McGilton goes running over with a pen and a basket of special game cards to sling in between games. She reads back the numbers out loud, and, one-by-one, the caller verbally verifies the numbers over the high-pitch, but soft intercom.

The professional bingo scoreboard which towers behind the caller lights up and acts like a visual scorecard to account for every number called during each game. The vintage mechanics between the random generator and the scoreboard are comparable to that of a pinball machine.

At the start of a game, 75 bingo balls are dropped into the random generator via a trap door release triggered by the caller. The generator creates a funnel-like environment and spins the balls around to offset probability. The caller collects a ball from a vacuum transport tube and places it on a mini pedestal, that displays the number throughout the hall on closed-circuit tv. The caller then calls the number through the intercom and places it in a designated cage-like slot on the relay board, which is the long mechanical board that sits waist high in front of them. When placed in its slot, the ball triggers an on/off switch that controls a light with the corresponding number on the scoreboard.

This process enables the caller to see the next draw early and use a “bingo lingo” to communicate with players. Bingo lingo is a combination of hand gestures and player-specific word associations. The caller puts their hands together and says “Amen.” Players then know that B-10 is the next number and they can start daubbing ahead of time, considering they normally get 17 seconds in between each call. The caller sticks to a timer and the game always goes on.

A gust of wind blew through an open window, and a new special game card fell out of the Florence McGilton hands, just within reach of player Maxine Paasche. Superstitions lurk.

“Now I have to buy it,” said Paasche, as she promptly handed over $2.

A neighbor’s lucky frog was of suspicion — the caller echoed “ribbit ribbit” through the intercom.

Paasche has been playing bingo in Ketchikan for more than 50 years.

“Friends brought me to my first game, and I’ve never stopped going,” said Paasche.

The clock passed 9 p.m., and a mandarin orange lay atop an expired game card, but Paasche’s concentration remained fixed on the caller up front and a packet of game sheets upon her grip. When a number is called Paasche spends no more than 2 seconds on each sheet, with six games per sheet.

The VFW Bingo regular crowd consists of a tight-knit family, and a welcoming community group in the sake of carrying on a fading event. In the past, a person could find a bingo game on a nightly basis in Ketchikan. In addition to the VFW, the Moose Lodge on Water Street and the American Legion both housed bingo nights, as well. A declining pattern of interest can possibly be noted with a spike in the ’80s when more than three locations offered a game, and now today with only one location, but still three, five-hour game nights.

Retired organizer Carol McMurchie said “it’s a good pastime — warm, fun — but it’s dwindling.”

She pointed around the room: “Everybody plays bingo here.”

McMurchie also stated that bingo night started at the VFW in 1979 with VFW quartermaster Ross Dickinson. Dickinson used wood playing cards, which had sliders on them to block out called numbers.

“Then in the ’80s, bingo was everywhere,” McMurchie said, referring to an open bingo game being an every-night option.

If bingo maintains its current demand and a committed crew to run the events, the Ketchikan bingo saga will continue. New players can learn as they go or study how to play beforehand, but some aspects of the game, like bingo lingo, are acquired skills and very beneficial to learn. In addition, longtime players display stamina, and, with a few cups of free coffee, can power through a five-hour session with few breaks. Smaller crowds offer better odds. And, a superstition in bingo halls is that it’s common for a new face to win during their first session.


Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, http://www.ketchikandailynews.com