Here in Maryland's self-styled "Land of Pleasant Living," people still angrily recall the high-noon raid last September when 90 state troopers swooped in and seized 160 slot machines from 24 veterans' posts and fraternal lodges and two yacht clubs.
Today, the bitter memory was sweetened by the news that the Maryland General Assembly Thursday approved a bill legalizing the devices for charitable fund-raising up and down the Eastern Shore. Only Worcester County, which includes Ocean City, was exempted.
"It's very good news," said Jack Keys, a retired Baltimore sheriff's deputy who is a past commander of the 274-member Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7464 off U.S. 50 here in Grasonville. "It's a pleasure to hear it."
County prosecutors, declaring the law ambiguous at best, had refused to prosecute the clubs or their officers after the seizure of the slot machines, which have a long and controversial history in this part of the state. And the Maryland special prosecutor, whose office oversaw the raids, also declined to press criminal charges.
Club officials defended the use of the one-armed bandits as a way to raise money for worthy causes.
Civil litigation over the disposition of the machines is pending.
Some club members were hedging their bets on whether slots will reappear, since the legislation must still be signed by Gov. Harry Hughes, who has said he is "not comfortable" with the bill but stopped short of saying he would veto it.
"We ain't celebrating yet," said the manager of Bay Country Moose 831 at the eastern edge of Grasonville. "You don't know Hughes."
At the other end of the bar sat Leon Allen, a 29-year-old waterman from Wye Mills who had never met the governor but figured he knew him well.
"You tell that chicken necker, soon as he signs that bill for slot machines, to take that ban off the rockfish [fishing] because he ain't nothing but a back-stabber," said Allen, a big man with blond hair and a head band.
Allen said he "thought it was a blast" when police took away the lodge's seven slots in September "because he wanted me to help load 'em up. I was laughing at the cop" and declined to help, he said.
"We'll help 'em bring 'em back," said Mary Jane Horney, the bartender at the 725-member lodge. "Tell them to back the truck up and I'll help load 'em off," said Allen.
Moose members said their fundraising for local charities, such as a facility for retarded children, has suffered severely from the absence of the slots. Many people who came here from the Western Shore to play the machines no longer venture this way, one man said.
The state police action was likened by one local prosecutor to the "smash and grab" raids conducted during Prohibition. The state prosecutor's office acknowledged its purpose of the September raid was to confiscate the machines. Slot machines were legal in southern Maryland from 1949 to 1968. Then legislation was passed allowing unspecified gaming devices in several Eastern Shore counties. But another section of the Maryland code outlaws slot machines.
The new legislation passed the House of Delegates 76 to 39 and the Senate 28 to 19, all in 15 hours this week. The unusually expeditous action was described as part of a deal in which Eastern Shore lawmakers voted to support a watered down version of a House Judiciary Committee bill imposing statewide reporting and licensing requirements on charitable gambling.
Eastern Shore fraternal lodges and veterans posts "had slot machines since the 1960s," said Donald Braden, the Queen Anne's County state's attorney and a critic of the September raids. "They weren't used that much. I hear the figures for Las Vegas nights in the Washington suburbs and tips jars in Western Maryland are way above" Eastern Shore slot revenues.
Braden, a member of the Centreville American Legion and the Grasonville Moose, said he was glad the legislation had passed, although "I didn't think slots were illegal on the Eastern Shore then and they're not illegal now."