I remember most of my time at St. Ambrose grade school with pleasure, but Bingo Day in the 8th grade is an exception. I never talk about it, yet it pops into my head at the most inopportune times.
School Sisters of Notre Dame taught at St. Ambrose back then. They wore thick black cloth from head to foot, except for a splash of white in the recess of their cowls, outlining their faces like lowered halos.
The boys uniform included dark brown slacks and white shirts with the school tie. Hair was to be cut short, never combed back like greasers. Girls wore starched, sky blue frocks with white collars and navy blue knee-highs.
I remember the first day of this school year vividly. Patricia came in, her auburn hair teased high above her head. Sister took her back into the cloak room. We heard yelling and screaming. I swear when Patricia came out, her chin still held high, but tears in her hazel eyes, I saw strands of auburn hair floating in the air. Sr. Boniface emphatically insisted they comb their hair; no teased hair for her girls.
Patricia always tested the rules. Recently she came to school with her frock not starched. It clung to her body. Sister declared it obscene, sent her home immediately, not allowing her to return until properly attired.
Anyhow, two weeks ago it was announced that, after the standardized tests, the whole school would have a Bingo Day in the big auditorium. As eighth graders, we were at the top, first in all regards. We walked through the doubled door into the large empty auditorium. Nothing was setup up yet. The boys were to setup the long tables and chairs. You probably know the type of tables. Eight feet long, laminated dark brown playing surface, steel gray ribbons around the top edge to protect them, and steel foldout legs.
Tony and I teamed up. I slid my book bag to the wall with the tall windows. Other boys started on parallel rows behind us.
Sister called the girls up to the stage, where she would distribute the bingo cards, setup the bingo drum, and the candy store.
Tony was catty-corner from me on the last table in our line when it happened. We righted up the table after extending the legs. The metal piping snagged my right front pocket. As the table came upright, it tore a six-inch rip across to my zipper.
The white of my underwear and the paleness of my skin was exposed to the world. I grabbed the ripped material and hid as much white as I could. I grabbed a chair and sat down immediately.
Fortunately, Tony was unaware of my plight. He’d turned to see what was going on the stage before the table was fully up. “I’m going to see what else I can do up front.” He hurried up to the stage, next to Patricia.
I sat, facing the tall windows. No one else was around me. Cautiously I moved my hand from the rip. My skin showed as well as my underwear! I couldn’t let anyone see. I’d never get up again.
I felt heat rush to my neck and cheeks. The only thing in my mind was that I was trapped in a disaster with no escape.
Tony called from the stage, “Hey Bobby, we need some help with the chairs for the little kids.”
I turned to see him and shook my head. “In a bit, let me catch my breath.”
He looked hard at me. “Your face is red.” Then he continued, “Don’t worry, buddy. I’ll do it.”
The joy of Bingo Day was lost to me. I couldn’t get up to buy a Big Daddy sucker, although for 5 cents it was the best deal going.
Then the obvious struck me. I’d have to get up when bingo is over. My mind started whirling again with excuses I could make.
Patricia sat down across from me with Tony next to her. The rest of my classmates were all around us.
Finally, the game began. Sister spun the glass drum that held the white, labeled balls and picked the first one. “B13.” Each number came at such a slow deliberate pace, we had time to talk and look at each other’s cards.
In the third game, when Sister called “O75”, Patricia turned to me. “That’s your winner, isn’t it?”
I shook my head no and pointed to my card. She looked puzzled when she saw I was missing one in the row. I’d removed G60, before I placed down O75. No way was I walking up to the stage to get my choice of a Sr. Beatrice sashay, a fancy candy, or a paperback atlas.
At last, the 2:30 bell rung. Sister Boniface was busy with the running of some of my classmates. She didn’t pay attention to me when she left. I stuck in my seat until everyone headed back to their classrooms.
Then I grabbed my book bag and snuck out the Safety’s back door to the alley behind St. Ambrose.
I was ahead of everybody else who waited in class for their teacher’s dismissal. I ran down the long alley, holding my book bag in front on my pants, to make sure no one caught up to me. I had until tomorrow morning to dream up an excuse why I didn’t come back to the classroom.
That night, drying dishes, I told Mom about the snag and the tear. “Did you cut your leg?” she asked, and then added, “Were you roughhousing with Tony?”
“No, no. It just happened,” I answered.
“An accident then.” she said. When she asked about Sister’s reaction, I said Sister didn’t notice. Mom gave me a faint smile with a furrow in her brow while vaguely nodding her head.
It took time and my own children, before I understood the meaning of her enigmatic smile. Embarrassment is in the head, not in the act.
Original version of “Bingo Day”