BETH N. GRAY
Regulars, toting charmed trinkets and ready for hours of number calling, flock to sites throughout the county to try their luck.
They come by the hundreds, clutching lucky charms, toting bags of snacks and armed with a devotion that sometimes borders on the religious.
They arrive weekly - some several times a week - at sites across the length and breadth of Hernando County to play bingo.
Some roll through the doors in wheelchairs. Others shuffle in with their walkers. Some cart oxygen tanks. A little infirmity will not keep them from their games.
Marion Mayo of Brooksville meets her daughter, Marion Carroll of Floral City, at 9 a.m. on Tuesdays as the doors open at Heffernan Hall at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Brooksville. Even the "early bird" games don't begin until 11 a.m.
"You have to establish your territory," explains Mayo, 80. "You have your favorite pew."
As mother and daughter claim their table, Mayo sets out her lucky charms. On a recent Tuesday, she positioned her two alligator miniatures, a ladybug replica, a toy dog and a plastic egg in a tiny woven basket. She changes their positions if they fail to perform.
Carroll, 60, doesn't flirt with charms, but unloads the day's snacks: doughnuts for breakfast; sandwiches, chips and soft drinks for later. A stack of napkins ensures that greasy hands don't cause a slip of her marker at a critical call.
Bingo chairman Tony Petrowsky stops by and gives Mayo and Carroll hugs for good luck.
Petrowsky said among the earliest arrivals each week are some who want to memorize numbers on their cards before play begins - to give them a heads up even if their luck's not up.
Learn numbers on cards for 54 games? Maybe 36 cards to 60 cards per game?
Carroll scoffs at the idea.
"I have better things to do than memorize my cards," she proclaimed as she and her mother chatted over a time-filling game of gin rummy.
Joann Marasco of Spring Hill doesn't believe in pregame study, either. It would be futile since she plays 60 boards per game, twice a week, at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10209 in Spring Hill.
But Marasco puts some faith in charms. Poised beside her playing surface are three small stuffed elephants - two gray, one orange - and an additional ceramic model.
"Elephants are supposed to bring luck, so I've always got them with me," explained Marasco, 60.
Also, each elephant was given to her, which is supposed to carry additional luck.
If the elephants turn out lacking, Marasco has an ace in her tote bag: a variety of colored markers. She changes colors for each game. Purple and red are her favorites.
At a table nearby, Barbara Pettigrew sets out a collection of markers - dabbers, in bingo parlance - like a child's toy parade. She is not choosy about the color as long as it's bright; her superstition involves the marker cap.
"The cap has to be up when you play bingo so the money will fall in," the 54-year-old Spring Hill resident maintains.
Viola Becker, playing at Aripeka Elks Lodge 2520, calls up good fortune with her good luck charm - a toy dog.
"My little poochie," says Becker, 83, a resident of Beacon Woods in Pasco County. "I tell him if I don't win, he's going to stay home."
In an overwhelming majority of women players, Bob Kinder stands out, and not just for his gender. He wears a hat - backward - patterned like a turtle shell and with plastic head, tail and flipper feet.
While the 72-year-old Spring Hill resident, playing bingo at Brooksville Elks Lodge 2582, claims the hat is to keep the overhead air conditioning off his bald spot, he has worn the same hat to bingo games for years and no longer plays at the place where the air conditioning originally troubled him.
Kinder also says he holds a special license to play bingo: a marriage license to his wife of 50 years - Maryann.
Kinder might be considered an amateur in bingo land. He plays only once a week.
At a nearby table, Peggy Taylor, 75, of Brooksville admitted she indulges four times weekly.
Brookridge resident Maria Nodes, 65, plays twice a week, and sometimes three times.
Becker plays at as many as five local venues a week, and plays on the bus en route to gambling trips to Biloxi.
Mayo hits three regular game sites every week and roams occasionally to three others.
Marasco approaches her leisure pursuit with a modicum of restraint.
If she loses twice in a row, she won't play a third venue that week.
Said Jerry Hite, bingo chairman at the Brooksville Elks: "Bingo players are funny, wonderful people. I think you could run bingo for 10 hours, and they'd all be here."