Bingo Night at the Fire Station
Last August, our family drove over to the next town, which was having its annual fireman's parade and carnival. Although it was past five, the sun was still hard at work, and we walked slowly onto the main stretch of road that passes for a town center, the firehouse being the center of attraction at one end, the Congregational church at the other. In front of the firehouse, hundreds of folding lawn chairs had been set up, brought by eager townspeople and visitors, the frayed bands of yellow and green tightly stretched across aluminum frames, having to support the weight of farmers grown fat on a diet of potatoes, meat, and bread. Across the street sat another hundred spectators, a collage of long white dresses, tank tops, gray beards, green work pants held up by suspenders, kids with freckles the size of blueberries, and solemn-faced women who looked like dowagers in the orchestra section of an opera house, double-chinned and demanding a fine performance.
Behind the firehouse, the food stands were open for business in whitewashed cabins with stained counters, offering homemade fries, hot dogs, hamburgers, and fried dough. The fries were good, dumped onto dark-stained paper bags, glistening with hot oil, and then shoveled into small cardboard containers almost too hot to carry. The fried dough was slathered with melted butter, sprinkled with a thick layer of sugar and cinnamon, and eaten hot, the sugar sticking like sand to the lips and fingers. Inside a tent were games of chance, and in the hall itself, bingo cards had been laid out with dried corn kernels for markers. The board in back, where the on-duty volunteers were listed, was filled with good local names such as Morey and Truehart, Mackey and Tifft, Putnam and Zinn. I had known Morey's father, Merritt, a man who'd rather tell a story than eat supper. He used to live just down the road on the corner, right where the game wardens set up "Bambi," a remote control buck used to lure unsuspecting hunters who then get arrested for shooting from a car.
Soon enough, the parade started with the fire trucks from the adjoining towns. Kids with big ears that stuck out like custom side-view mirrors waved from the high cabs, locals cheered at the sight of a next-door neighbor, and small candies were thrown from the backs of trucks for the children, a spray of tightly wrapped sweets skidding across the pavement, skittering underneath the chairs. A few local bands marched their way through town, the musicians wearing heavy red woolen uniforms that hung limply in the sun, sweat beading up on their foreheads and then running down, pooling up over bushy eyebrows and then diverted off to the side of the face as if by a waterbar. Homemade floats displayed hunting scenes, complete with pine trees, the mounted heads of bucks, two or three boys dressed in full camouflage with Black Bear bows, and, always, the banner, advertising "The Vermont Predator" or perhaps something less bloodthirsty, such as "Hunt and Fish the Green Mountains of Vermont."
In these small towns, everyone has a place, the volunteer firemen, the sheriff, the carpenters, the selectmen, the farmers, and the kids marching next to their fathers in the band. These little towns are not home to a World Series baseball team or a football stadium, nor do they have summer theater or fancy weddings. They are dusty towns, too small and too poor even for the Junior League. Bingo night occurs only once per year, on the day of their big parade, when firemen and trombone players and young couples with brightly waxed muscle cars slowly make their way down Main Street to the fire hall, where they are cheered and counted, where each of them is somebody in a town that nobody has much heard of.
As our children grow older and shake the dust from their shoes, they will be anxious to be rid of the sight of french fries left in the dirt next to the ball toss and large doughy women in bright green shorts surrounded by small dirty faces. But many years from now, on a hot night in August, it will be bingo night once again, and they will hear the blast of the horn on top of the fire truck. Each of their names will be posted on the firehouse wall that evening, with the Moreys and Tiffts, the town knowing that they are willing and able to do their duty if called to action. It is a gift to know that a seat is reserved for each of us, that a homecoming is ours for the asking. We just need to stop and listen for the sound of the band on a hot night in August, calling us to sit elbow to elbow with our neighbors, asking if we are ready to accept the luck of the draw with good faith and fellowship.