MADISON — Renee Carter sat at the end of a long table Sunday afternoon at the Tardiff-Belanger American Legion Post 39 and arranged the bingo paraphernalia in front of her.
There were bingo cards bearing lots of numbers, a round fabric bag holding “dobbers,” or big magic markers Carter uses for marking the numbers, an extra pair of eyeglasses and little plastic cubes she places on numbers she must for watch for.
Carter, 59, of Anson had a good luck charm around her neck — a silver dragonfly to keep the daughter and grandson who were killed three years ago in a car accident close to her heart.
“The dragonfly was her favorite,” she said. “It goes everywhere with me.”
Carter is one of about 30 bingo players who come to the American Legion post on South Maple Street every Sunday afternoon to play the game she has been hooked on for more than 35 years.
No pandemic will stop the die-hard players, who drive from as far away as Mexico, Augusta, Newport and Skowhegan. When they enter the building, they must be wearing masks or face shields and approach Commander Bob Demchak, who asks them a series of questions about their health, recent travels and contacts.
Then they pick up and pay for bingo cards from organizer Gina Clark and helper Tenley Campbell. Clark, who has been heading up the games for years, said players are dedicated.
“Bingo players are bingo players, I’ll tell you,” she said.
They also come in all ages and while mostly are women, there are also a handful of men.
“We had a woman playing all last year and she’s 101 now,” Clark said. “She came in with her daughter who was 70-something. I think the oldest one we had was Mary Foss and she was 105. She’s passed now.”
Carter spent $45 Sunday for her bingo cards and hoped to take home some winnings. Last week, she won a total of $145, she said. The most she has won was $500, at a game in Augusta, she said.
Most bingo games in other towns have been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Carter.
“I’m so happy to be able to continue here,” she said. “We worry, week to week, if it will stop.”
The players were spread out around the large room, sitting apart from each other and waiting for Bob Washburn, the post adjutant, call the bingo numbers from his perch in a corner by the exit door. He got the numbers from little colored balls that bounced around in a tank before one is ultimately catapulted by air into a tube and he picks it up.
The building, whose parking lot abuts the Reny’s store lot behind Main Street, was built in the late 1890s. It was a theater and used for other activities before the American Legion moved in in 1919, according to Demchak. He pointed to a wall featuring photographs of veterans, including those from World War I and World War II. Out of 247 legion members at the post, there are five living World War II veterans, he said.
‘THRILL OF THE GAME’
Carter has been playing bingo for more than 35 years, many of them with her mother, Etta Parlin, who died last month at 91. They loved playing the game together, Carter said.
“You got to do something for yourself — you got to do something for fun,” she said. “You got to treat yourself. My mother used to love it. We’d travel, her and I, to Augusta, to Waterville, Winslow.
“We’ve always lived in Anson. I lost her last month and it’s a big void. She was living with us at the time. She lived with me five years. After we lost Dad, she didn’t want to be alone.”
It helps Carter can sit next to her good friend Barb Wyman. They share a love of bingo.
“There’s very few that I have missed,” Carter said. “It’s the thrill of the game. Winning is wonderful, but when we don’t win, it’s OK. It’s very relaxed. It’s my time to just not have a care in the world. I love the social ties. I love seeing my friends.”
Carter began playing bingo many years ago, when she worked at New Balance and a couple of co-workers talked her into going to a game. She plays bingo at local fairs, including at Skowhegan State Fair, where she has worked at the gate for many years.
When the players got word Sunday the games were about to begin, they sat at attention.
Washburn called numbers through a microphone.
“G-55,” he began.
Carter quickly dabbled bright orange dots on all the G-55s displayed on her cards.
Washburn continued: “B-13, I-17, G-50,” and so on, until a man at the next table yelled “Bingo!”
As the games continued, Carter took out a different marker and dabbled bright green dots on numbers as she and Wyman chatted.
Sitting across the room, watching the games, Demchak pointed to many large bags of children’s winter coats, boots and mittens legion members have bought for children in need in Regional School Unit 74 and School Administrative District 59.
“We do this every year,” he said. “The schools provide us with sizes needed, and we had a couple do the shopping for us.”
He said that before the pandemic, about 40 people came to play bingo, but now it has decreased to about 30.
“For a lot of them,” he said, “this is their whole social world, coming to bingo.”