The annual New Freedom Lions Club Carnival starts June 29, in New Freedom, Pennsylvania of course. While we no longer go every year, the vivid memories linger.
The carnival was after school was out, usually it was held during the first week of July, the week that included the 4th of July. It was something to look forward to in our small town of perhaps 1,200 people. My three brothers and I, and perhaps everyone else in town, counted down the days until carnival each year.
As it got closer, it was harder to wait. Anticipation mounted. Just a couple days to go. Everyone in town, well especially the children, and I suspect many adults, consciously or subconsciously turned their gaze towards the New Freedom Playground.
We knew magic was about to happen. The broad expanse of green grass of the playground was going to transform. We were looking for the first truck. The truck transporting the first of the carnival rides. My brothers and I competed for bragging rights. Who would be the first to spot the trucks pulling into the grass to set up a dozen or two dozen rides?
The trucks arrived either late Saturday or on Sunday to set up the carnival rides and various carnival games in time for the opening at 7 PM on Monday. Sometimes we would spot them if we were out late Saturday night, but more likely we would spot them while we were driving to or from Trinity United Methodist Church in the morning. The trucks meant our town was soon going to explode with activity. Hundreds and thousands of visitors were about to descend on New Freedom for the seven nights of carnival.
Carnival meant flashing bright lights, rides, music, games, lots of good food and bingo. My dad was the head of bingo at the carnival for decades. Weeks ahead of the carnival he would get out his spreadsheet and pad from the prior year and start making his calls from our black rotary phone in the breakfast room. He was calling the regulars to get them scheduled into shifts to collect coins at the bingo tables. A handful of the regulars were lined to alternate about every 15 minutes as the bingo callers.
Dad also had to check the catalogues and call in the order for bingo prizes. Every game had either a single winner or two or more 1/2 game winners. You could accumulate your wins all week long. Sometimes you might borrow a win or two from another family member so you could get that special prize you had your eye on all week.
The players gathered on the white wooden benches placed on pebbles and attached to long white wooden tables about hip high. They sorted through the stacks of well-loved 1/8 inch thick bingo cards looking for 2 or 3 cards with their lucky numbers. One or two women in town were suspected of buying and memorizing books on how to win at bingo. Everyone always cast an eye their way when they shouted out bingo. Did they really know secrets? Did they really win more than the rest of us?
Every night hundreds of cards were spread out on the table and gallons of dried field corn kernels were spread out in strategic piles the length of each table. Corn kernels were used to mark the called numbers on your card. We all had our own bingo strategy. My birthday was on the 11th so I was pretty sure my lucky card(s) had to include B-11. The card(s) would be especially lucky if B-11 was in one of the corners. Some of us came earlier in the evening, when there were less players. Logically this meant our odds of winning were better than when the tables were crowded. Some of us stayed for those last 5 or 10 games when everyone started to leave.
The best of times was when my Dad was calling bingo, which happened 3 or 4 times each night. No, no, he did not send me a secret signal so that I had an advantage. It was the best of times because that was my dad’s voice, announcing the numbers at a practiced cadence… “Under the B-7, N-42, I-19, N-40. Under the G-60, O-67, B-4, I-30.” I moved my corn kernels onto the card to cover each number I had, looking for patterns to emerge. Two in a row, three in a row counting the free space in the middle, and drating the numbers that were close but not quite one of mine.
As time went on I knew we were getting close to someone calling it out, calling BINGO. Dad calls my lucky number… “Under the B-11,” now I had 4 in a row going at a diagonal, just one more. This could be a really lucky card, especially since I included my dad’s special number in the other diagonal corner. “Under the O-69, G-55, O-62.” Now the anxiety level was really high. Most times someone else would get their special number and shout BINGO or perhaps there would be multiple Bingos. But sometimes, magic happened and my dad called “O-Skixty-skix” and I would holler BINGO so the whole tent could hear me. O-Skixty-skix was Dad’s signature call.
Dad would call out, “Hold your cards”, perhaps my cousin Carol or my friend Scott would be working my row, collecting coins. One of them would hurry down the row and shout out my four winning numbers. Dad would respond via the microphone, “That’s a winner, anyone else?” We’d all look around, this time I was really lucky, I was the only winner. Dad would close out the game, “Single winner.” Then we would hear the bingo number ping-pong balls drop back into the machine, the coin collector would drop off my “1 Win” card and head back down the row collecting coins for the next game.
I would play a few more games to see if I was on a hot streak. Then I would gather up my win card(s) and my coins and head out to explore the rest of the carnival knowing that I’d be back either to play, or to work my shift at collecting coins, or sometimes, knowing that I was going to be a bingo caller for the late shift when I could call out “O-Skixty-skix.”
Bruce Summers is a Personal Historian for Summoose Tales, he is a Board Member for the Association of Personal Historians and serves as their Regions/Chapters Director. To learn more about preserving your life stories contact Bruce at email@example.com