LADY LUCK has stroked Norma McCaleb before. That's why she's here as usual this Saturday night, settling into her favorite seat in the St. Mary's School cafeteria.
She's not alone. Some 120 other bingo regulars have also braved the sleet of a rude winter evening for their weekly chance at the big one -- a thousand-dollar jackpot.
And you thought bingo was penny ante stuff.
"People started arriving at 4:30," says volunteer Bill Hulvershorn as he bustles about the Alexandria school's kitchen before the early bird rounds at 6:30. "They can't wait to play."
That's true all over the Washington area, which is cram- packed with places to play one of the country's most popular gambling games. Bingo has a Vegas appeal -- the exhilaration of taking a chance with your money and the thrill of the big score. An average evening for a novice, depending on how many cards you play, will run you $10 to $15. Aficionados will sometimes spend up to $50 or more a night. But that's still cheaper than an evening in Atlantic City.
"It's fun to play, especially if you hit," says McCaleb, and she should know. She's been playing bingo for forty years and can handle 12 bingo cards at once without missing a beat. "Last week I won $60," she says casually, scooping up a handful of chips for the next round. "But that's nothing. One night last year I won $500."
It's all in the cards, by the way. While there are practically as many ways of playing as there are players, bingo is basically a simple game built around that famous card with its horizontal row of letters spelling out B-I-N-G-O, and vertical columns of numbers below them.
The friendly din turns to a hush as the master number-caller sitting behind a microphone flicks a switch that turns on the "keno goose," a box connected to an air vent that mixes numbered ping-pong balls. That "goose" will lay some lucky player's golden egg.
"N-45," begins the caller. Then, "B-8," "G-60" . . .
Of the dozen cards arrayed in front of McCaleb, the one in the upper left hand corner begins to fill fastest and assume the pattern of possible victory. The jackpot shrinks with each number called after the fiftieth, until eventually the only thing standing between her and $100 is the number 13.
It's one of her lucky numbers.
The tension builds. You can almost hear the 120 hearts pounding. Make it mine, Lord.
And sure enough, the next number brings a booming "Bing- Gooooo!" from the back of the hall.
The rest exhale with frustration. It's all or nothing. "You could lose your religion playing bingo," jokes one player. Sometimes those plastic and porcelain lucky charms blessing the tables just aren't enough.
At intermission, the tension gives way to the camaraderie of long acquaintance. Hot dogs are sold, donated cakes are raffled off and everyone is asked to pray for the speedy recovery of a regular now in the hospital.
This type of neighborhood feeling found at many bingo halls reflects the organizations sponsoring the games. In the Washington area, bingo can be run only by non-profit organizations, such as churches, fraternal lodges, volunteer fire departments and boys clubs. For St. Mary's School, bingo income helps keep tuition down. Parents of students volunteer their time to help run the show.
"I was surprised that we have people in their 20s who're regulars," says volunteer Sharon Stites.
One of the youngest players of the evening appears to be 13- year-old Jonathan Wooden of Arlington. He plays for the same reason the old hands do: "For the money." He walked off with $200 once.
Even some of the school teachers have the spirit. Sister Mary Cain comes for the sheer love of it. "I like the companionship and to give support to our school," she says just before resumption of t round. "And I never win!"
If you want to play bingo, there's bound to be a game near you. But since bingo is regulated by local governments, ceilings on prize money will vary. Prices for admission and cards may also differ, so it's best to call first.
Here are just a few of the many regular weekend bingo games in the area:
THE DISTRICT OUR LADY QUEEN OF PEACE -- 3740 Ely Place SE. Saturdays at 7:45. 399- 5643. ST. LUKES CHURCH -- 4925 E. Capitol Street NE. Saturdays at 8. 584-8322. ST. BENEDICT THE MOOR -- 320 21st Street NE. Fridays at 8. 397-3895. ST. MARTIN'S CHURCH -- 1908 N. Capitol Street NW. Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 9. 232-1144.
MARYLAND MONTGOMERY COUNTY AMERICAN LEGION WHEATON POST 268 -- 11225 Fern Street, Wheaton. Sundays at 6:45. 946-3268. BENEVOLENT & PROTECTIVE ORDER OF ELKS -- 5 Taft Court, Rockville. Sundays at 6:45. 424-2202 rv2>LADIES OF THE BETHESDA CHEVY CHASE RESCUE SQUAD -- 5020 Battery Lane, Bethesda. Fridays at 7:30. 652-0077. ST. ANDREW THE APOSTLE CHURCH -- 11600 Kemp Mill Road, Silver Spring. Fridays at 7:30. 649-3700. ST. CAMILLUS CHURCH -- 1600 St. Camillus Church, Silver Spring. Sundays at 6:30. 434-8400. ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI CHURCH -- 6701 Muncaster Mill Road, Derwood. Fridays at 7:30. 840-1407. PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY SILVER HILL VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT -- 3900 Old Silver Hill, Silver Hill. Sundays at 7:15. 899-3624. KENTLAND VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT -- 7701 Landover Road, Fridays and Sundays at 7:15. 773-6032. PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY EDUCATORS ASSOCIATION -- 8008 Marlboro Pike, Forestville. 336-3707. RIVERDALE HEIGHTS RESCUE SQUAD -- 6101 Roanoke Avenue, Riverdale. Saturdays at 6:30. 779-9060. GLENN DALE FIRE ASSOCIATION -- 6910 Glenn Dale Road, Glenn Dale. Saturdays at 7:30. 464-2215. HOLY REDEEMER CHURCH -- 4902 Berwyn Road, College Park. Fridays at 7:30. 474-3920. ST. PIUS X HOME & SCHOOL ASSOCIATION -- 3300 Moreland Place, Bowie. Fridays at 7. 262-2141. BLADENSBURG VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT -- 4213 Edmonston Road, Bladensburg. Sundays at 5:30. 864-4415. GREENBELT VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT -- 125 Crescent Road, Greenbelt. Fridays at 7:30. 345-7000. AMERICAN LEGION POST NO. 108 -- 3608 Legion Drive, Cheverly. Fridays at 7:30. 773-0108.
VIRGINIA ALEXANDRIA ST. MARY'S SCHOOL -- 400 Green Street. Saturdays at 6:30. 549-1646. ARLINGTON AMERICAN LEGION POST NO. 139 -- 3445 North Washington Boulevard. Sundays at 5:15. 524-1396. ST. ANN CHURCH & SCHOOL -- 980 North Frederick Street. Fridays at 6:30. 528-6276. ARLINGTON-FAIRFAX JEWISH CONGREGATION -- 2920 Arlington Boulevard. Sundays at 7. 979-4467. HERNDON HERNDON MOOSE LODGE -- 114 Willow Street. Fridays at 7. 437-769. FAIRFAX CITY FAIRFAX CITY VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT -- 4081 University Drive. Fridays at 7:30. 385-7877. FAIRFAX COUNTY MT. VERNON KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS -- 8592 Richmond Highway. Fridays at 7:30. 360-1964. ST. PHILIP'S CATHOLIC CHURCH -- 7506 St. Philip's Court, Falls Church. Fridays at 8. 573-3808. LORTON VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT -- 7701 Armstead Road, Lorton. Fridays at 6:30. 339-5141. GREENBRIER COMMUNITY CENTER -- 4615 Stringfellow Road, Fairfax. Fridays at 7. 378-6629. DUNN LORING VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT -- 2148 Gallows Road, Dunn Loring. Saturdays at 7. 560-1539. CENTREVILLE VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT -- 5856 Old Centreville Road. Saturdays at 7. 830-1479. GREATER SPRINGFIELD VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT -- 7011 Backlick Road, Springfield. Sundays at 7:15. 451-9759. CONGREGATION OLAM TIKVAH -- 3800 Glenbrook Road, Fairfax. Sundays at 7. 425-1880. ANNANDALE BOYS CLUB -- 6200 Little River Turnpike, Annandale. Fridays and Saturdays at 6. 941-9785. VIENNA VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT -- Center and Cherry streets. Sundays at 7. 938-9553.
The list was compiled by Washington writer Georgianna Havill.