When his friend Ed Colligan died in 2014, Buddy Oliver promised him he’d do his best to keep American Legion Post 257 in Vineyard Haven going. Colligan was a past commander of the post, a veteran of the Korean War, and responsible for initiating the “Avenue of Flags” at Oak Grove Cemetery. Oliver, a Vietnam vet himself, is still working hard to keep things moving along at the Legion.
On Monday nights, Oliver shares caller duties at Bingo with Nancy Nevin. Bingo represents about 40 percent of the Legion’s budget, he said, so it’s critical that they keep it going.
“In the wintertime we have 17 or 18 people who come on Monday nights, and we manage to give the Legion $100 a week or so for rent,” Oliver said. “I adjust it up in the summer. Typically, we have around 24 people, and that number goes up in the summer. It amounts to about $4,000 to $5,000 a year.”
The American Legion also sells lobster rolls at the annual Tisbury Street Fair and on Tuesday nights in the summer, but the majority of the money they raise comes from the steady Bingo players that show up starting at around 7 pm on Monday nights.
The origin of Bingo goes back hundreds of years in one form or another, to games played with tokens in France in the 18th century, and in Italy long before that. In the U.S., though, it caught on in the 1920s and ’30s.
Bingo is a game of chance where players match numbers printed in varied arrangements on a 5-inch by 5-inch card or sheet of paper. The caller draws numbers at random, and when a player gets their numbers arranged in a row or pattern, they yell out “Bingo!” so that everyone knows they’ve won. Cash prizes are typically awarded, but in some areas of the country, Bingo players win handmade quilts or other prizes.
At American Legion Post 257 last Monday night, friends Roberta Morgan, Judy Sylvia, and Sylvia Olejarz got together for Bingo like they usually do. Morgan comes all the way from Menemsha to play, and said she’s been coming for 20 years or more.
“This is the only one left on the Island,” Morgan said. “It’s fun, I look forward to it.”
“Remember when this table was full of your crew?” Judy Sylvia asked Morgan. “Everybody had their seat — trust me, if you’re sitting in someone’s seat, they’ll let you know.”
Judy started playing Bingo when she was a little girl, she said. “My mom used to take me to the Red Men’s Club, and you wouldn’t win money,” she remembered. “You’d take gifts and put them on a table, and if you won, you’d take a prize off the table.”
The women said that “back in the day,” there used to be Bingo games in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs as well as Vineyard Haven. Nowadays, there’s often not enough people to play in January or February, so the Bingo players take a break during the slower winter months until spring, when it starts up again.
“We don’t get the people coming in the winter, and we miss it,” Sylvia Olejarz said. “You have to have a certain number of people. We like to see new people come, it’s fun.”
“We come early so we can draw on their cards and block out the numbers that they don’t need to cover,” Judy said. “Who doesn’t like to play Bingo? It’s something you do as little kids.”
Some of the “special” games require the players to get the numbers in specific patterns; that’s when the more experienced players help the newbies out by drawing the patterns on their cards for them.
At another table at the Legion last Monday, Chris Katilus brought her son George along to play, and he was lucky enough to win a game on his first night out — a $20 prize for getting a cluster of nine numbers together on his card. His mom started coming to Bingo regularly over a year ago, after she first came with some friends and had a great time.
“One of my friends told me about it, and we came and had so much fun,” Chris Katilus said. “I especially like it in the wintertime, when there’s not a lot going on. It’s warm and toasty in here, and the people who run it are great.”
Chris’s friend Carol Vega sat across the table from her with a brightly colored tote bag carrying her colorful Bingo daubers. “It was a Christmas gift to myself. I’m into it. It’s what we do on Monday night. She’s a big winner,” Vega said, gesturing toward Chris. “One night she won six or seven times.”
“But then I didn’t win for months,” Chris said.
“She’s lying,” Vega laughed.
Buddy Oliver said that the Legion is important to the community, providing small scholarships to high school graduates and keeping the Veterans Memorial Park in good shape. And members provide military honors for veterans who have died.
“We present the flag to the family and play ‘Taps,’ and a round of fire for deceased veterans,” he said. “Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and a church group meet here. Basically, we’re an aging bunch of veterans trying to keep the place going.”
Oliver said the Martha’s Vineyard post is among the earliest in the country, having been chartered in 1920, only one year after the organization first began in the U.S. The post is filled with war memorabilia left to them by Island families. Veterans agent Jo Ann Murphy keeps a satellite office at the post, so that local veterans don’t have to travel to the county offices for her services.
The Legion is struggling now, Oliver said; there are fewer veterans joining these days.
“Membership bloomed after World War II,” Oliver said. “We’ve got veterans from Korea and Vietnam, but a lot of our Vietnam veterans weren’t welcomed when they came home, and that left a sour taste in their mouths, so it’s understandable. The World War II and Korean War vets are dying off. Our veterans who come back from the Middle East, they’ve got young families, and there are some who just don’t have the time. The VFW has the same problem. It’s a shame really; the organization is worth keeping. It really is.”
At the Legion, they play two dozen games of Bingo, with a break halfway through. The players bring cakes, sweet breads, and other treats to share during intermission. Many of them have their own water bottle in tow, and maybe a bag or two of snacks. Most likely it’s the camaraderie and laughter that keeps them coming back — and maybe the chance to win a few bucks. Bingo gives them an opportunity to catch up and check in with one another.
Sometimes the players put little figurines or other good-luck charms on the table in front of their Bingo cards. When Sylvia Olejarz’s friend and Bingo buddy passed away, her family gave her little Jiminy Cricket lucky Bingo trinket to Olejarz.
“I didn’t bring it tonight, but it’s the best trinket,” she said.
American Legion Post 257, 34 William St., P.O. Box 257, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568. Bingo at 7:30 pm Monday nights. Come early to buy your cards and meet your neighbors.