Good Night, Bingo Night

Jenny Scarborough
Good Night, Bingo Night

Raise your hand if you've ever gone to Bingo at the fire hall.

Use that hand to wave goodbye to this island institution. Wipe away a tear if you must. Now smile about the significant improvement the new fire department makes on your homeowners insurance.

One might even consider donating the difference to the OVFD, which has evolved from a collection of people concerned with the danger posed by fire on Ocracoke to an efficient and purposeful non-profit.

No fire tax is levied on Ocracoke property owners. The department is all volunteers, as are the many people who helped out at Bingo.

Teresa O'Neal attracts the attention of the crowd with an impressive wolf whistle and a wry smile. She outlines the rules, and the balls start bouncing around the cage.

While waiting for bingo to start, you eat popcorn. When the Bingo action begins, it is fast paced. Calm and focus prevails, then cedes to rising tension as each moment means someone, perhaps even you, will be the first to Bingo. No, not you, not this time. But the person next to you and across from you and behind you surely will, which means your chance to say "Bingo!" can't be far behind.

Novice Bingo player Gavin Elicker won $6.60. He plans to spend it on ice cream.
Novice Bingo player Gavin Elicker won $6.60. He plans to spend it on ice cream.

Bingo is a deeply egalitarian game, which is to say that there are no professional bingo players.

"Make no mistake about it. It's gambling," laughed the woman next to me as she watched her three daughters and her husband get caught up in the excitement.

Nonetheless, everyone wins at OVFD Bingo. We may not ever meet again--even on this small island--but by the end of the night, I felt as if my folding chair neighbors and I could be friends.

Will any other Bingo hall on Ocracoke echo the easy intimacy created by those rows of tightly packed seats? Even after the collective groan of disappointment following a "Bingo!" people cheered for the winners. With almost 100 people playing, many hands had multiple winners. Many prize checks are written, most for under $25.

Bingo is not about winning, but playing. It is an energizing social activity blessedly free from the need for small talk. It is mostly about supporting the fire department.

Teresa O'Neal and Janey Jacoby, longtime volunteers at Bingo night who also put in many behind the scenes hours with OVFD and OFPA.
Teresa O'Neal and Janey Jacoby, longtime volunteers at Bingo night who also put in many behind the scenes hours with OVFD and OFPA.

Since Bingo began in 1986, "I think I've won twenty dollars," said Jean Robinson, who has a seat with the regulars in the far corner. These island ladies don't want a lot of publicity for themselves, but they did say that former players Gaynelle Tillett, Agnes Garrish, Sharon Justice and Shirley Schoelkopf are all missed when they don't come out.

I named all the past bingo callers I could think of: Bill Brelig, Steve Wilson, Doreen Robinson, Woody Billings, Dave Frum, William Howard, BJ Swain. Who was their favorite? Alda Van Gaskill and Nancy Gaskins said it was best to not answer that.

Bingo may yet exist on Ocracoke. The fire department will not be hosting it in the new building, but they may keep the license for occasional events, said Chief Albert O'Neal. It has also been floated by a member of the Ocracoke Child Care Center's board that they are in need of a profitable, family friendly fundraiser, and would be interested in continuing the games.

The weekly summertime event raises about $10,000 each year.

Bingo is a "cool way to raise money," said Bill Bemis of Oriental, NC. He and his wife were celebrating their anniversary on the island, and "this is what she wanted to do," he smiled. The Bemis's were having no luck, but a lot of fun, he said.

Bingo at OVFD offers door prizes galore – some of them quite enticing, like a snowglobe, and gift certificates to Books to Be Red and Zillie's – and the drawings continue throughout the night. The weekly summertime event has required two decades of hefty volunteer support, but most of the crew turns up week after week wearing smiles that seem sincere.

Caller William Howard keeps the pace lively.
Caller William Howard keeps the pace lively.

Kay and Bill Brelig were instrumental in getting Bingo off the ground. The first purchase made with funds raised at Bingo was a Ford pump truck.

Firefighters used to have to draft water out of the ditches and the creek, explained Butch and Debbie Bryan. Debbie's father, Mack, was an early Fire Chief, and she was the first female firefighter in Hyde County. The Bryans still do support and traffic control when the a call goes out on the scanner. The current OFVD is a "good department with a bunch of folks" who put in hours of training and drop everything to respond to calls, said Butch.

Butch remembers the "time the hippies set South Point on fire," in the late 1970s or early 1980s. People camping illegally caught the marsh on fire, and a trailer with a pump tank donated by the Park Service was backed into the sound to provide water for fighting the blaze. At the time, "eight or ten" roads led from behind the gas station to South Point, said Debbie. The equipment used in the long fight against that fire has long since rusted out, but the Ford truck is still around.

Debbie recalls another marsh fire from about a decade ago, not long after a tornado lifted a house on Northern Pond off its foundation and blasted it to pieces over the sound. Firefighters "were stepping on pieces of Lou Gillette's house," while keeping the fire from reaching the village. A scoop plane working to douse a mainland forest fire arrived to help, and dipped water from the sound.

After that blaze, plans to mow and maintain a fire break on NPS land adjacent to the village were hastened.

In addition to protecting property, the department also provides assistance with EMS calls and medivacs, and have been called on for help with more esoteric problems. It is amazing to "think back on some of the things people here have had to do," said Butch, who remembers firefighters borrowing NPS tractors to help return caskets that popped up after storm surges. "We got the casket out of the cedars, and I dug as deep as I could. We put it back," he said.

Ocracoke's volunteer firefighters are a dedicated crew. The high density of wood-framed houses and the narrow tree-lined streets and dirt roads present unique challenges to fire fighters, and updated equipment is a necessity. The current Fire Hall, home of the beloved Bingo games, was built in the 1960s. It no longer meets regulations and it isn’t big enough to house the equipment Ocracoke already has.

OVFD and its administrative wing, the Ocracoke Fire Protection Association, depend on fundraisers to support their mission. The state of North Carolina doesn’t require local governments to provide fire protection; the OFPA is a private non-profit entity that contracts with Hyde County for an annual payment of about $15,000. Most of the OFPA’s budget is funded by the Ocracoke Occupancy Tax Board, and supplemented by big fundraisers like the annual Fireman’s Ball in May. 

The last game was played and William turned off the Bingo board. The hoards filed out, with the winners stopping to cash their checks with Teresa on the way. The firefighters placed the chairs on the tables and swept up the crushed bits of popcorn while the volunteers cleaned up the Bingo game papers, organized pens and crayons and daubers, separated the recyclables, then took off their aprons – all for the last time.

OFPA would like to thank the many volunteers and players who made Bingo a success over the years. Donations that directly support their work can be made in the donation jars on the counter at island businesses, or to OFPA at P.O. Box 332, Ocracoke, 27960.

Click here to read a letter of thanks from OFPA and here to read about the new Fire Hall.


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