"But my daughter loves the sport. What choice do I have?"
So they persevere. In Santa Clara, where there are 19 bingo halls within the city limits, the Aquamaids operators strike a competitive pose. They are there for a purpose. Across San Francisco Bay in Walnut Creek, the bingo hall has become a sort of adult fraternity house. One of the regular workers is David White, the husband of swimmer Laurie McClelland. Some other workers are parents of swimmers who no longer belong to the club. The parents show up, share war stories, bond over the wounds they have suffered in the hall. Rettberg tells of the night she called the wrong number. "I thought they were all going to kill me," she says. "People yelling and screaming over a very innocent mistake." She laughs. "If they win, you're the best. If they keep losing, nobody wants you around."
Kathy Liccardo, one of the Aquamaids' workers and the mother of 13-year-old swimmer Teresa Liccardo, has nightmares. "I always dream about bingo," she says. "My worst nightmare was when I woke up and thought I'd missed bingo. It was awful. Another dream was that we were paying out dog biscuits instead of money. The customers weren't all too happy."
For Rule, who by day is the director of operations for a software recycling company, bingo presents a different kind of dilemma. "It's tough on the reputation," he says. "I don't want people to think I'm playing bingo, so I'm careful not to say I'm going to bingo. I just say I'm going to work for a charity. It sounds better."
Another bingo caller, one who asks to remain nameless, says he came back from a family vacation in Ireland four days early to work the hall. "You can't escape," he says with a shrug. "There's no way out."
If there is anything to criticize here, it is, as Taylor suggests, that bingo is addictive gambling. Many of the people who attend these events spend thousands of dollars a year, presumably money that should be used for other things. "Sometimes I wonder why people get into it so hard," says Rule. "Awhile back a couple of our families went out and played bingo. It was fun for a while, but to this degree? I don't see it."
"My kids went to Catholic school, and they had bingo there," adds Debbie Drexler, the mother of a swimmer. "If it's used for religious purposes, I guess this is O.K. with me." (While neither of the two bingo halls serves alcohol, the smoking in each is intense. And there's a fair amount of cursing.)
"But the people are sooooo nice," says Tuesday Middaugh, 24, a Santa Clara swimmer who used to work the hall. "I know they're there to play bingo, but a lot of them are really into supporting the team. They always want to know how we're doing, what's going on with the program. They can play bingo anywhere, but they come to us. I think it's a special relationship."
Middaugh, unlike most synchronized swimmers, had no qualms about showing up during the summer for a four-hour shift after a hard day of training. It's the least one can do, she figures, to be able to compete. And besides, what's a little smoke inhalation in the name of a fund-raiser?
"It's usually lots of fun," she says. "And even when it's not, what's the big deal? What's the worst that can happen?"