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Cosmic bingo helps keep Minnesota post a hot spot for all ages

Photo by Clay Lomneth/The American Legion

It’s zero out. Aside from the buzz of an occasional snowmobile on the glazed streets or among the ice houses out on Leech Lake, the 941-population town of Walker, Minn., is quietly curled up for another cold winter weekend.

Spencer-Ross American Legion Post 134, however, has something different in mind. It’s cosmic bingo night, and the theme – of all things in the dark heart of a northern Minnesota cold snap – is a beach party. They’ve promoted the event on Facebook with a flyer featuring a Chihuahua in red-framed sunglasses; the little dog is holding a smartphone announcing that prizes will be awarded for best beach attire.

Defying the elements, players show up in floral shirts, swim trunks, sun hats, flip-flops and dark glasses. They pass through the main club down to the lower level bingo room. Water skis, inflatable float tubes and beach balls are everywhere. A disco ball is flashing, black lights are on, and party music from the ‘60s and ‘70s fills the air.

“They have regular bar bingo on Tuesday nights,” says 30-year-old Chris Cox, a twice-deployed Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran of the U.S. Army and the Minnesota Army National Guard. “But cosmic bingo is a little different style. It’s a twist on the classic. It’s fun and light-hearted. Loud music, flashing lights, disco balls, dance breaks … it’s quite the deal.”

Post 134 has re-energized itself in recent years by reviving some traditional fun, including the fielding of a post curling team and a resurrection of holiday events for children, like a haunted house and a visit from Santa that draw upward of 500 each. Members also put fresh spins on such American Legion staples as bingo. The result has been a solid and growing membership that’s on target to eclipse its 2017 goal of 415 – a little less than half the town’s entire population – and raising awareness in the community and around the state that the Legion here is poised to turn the corner with momentum heading into its second century.

“We do try to reach out to the younger folks with the activities that we’ve got here,” Post 134 Commander Jarrod Mankie says. “One of the sayings we’ve got on our sweaters – ‘It’s not your grandpa’s Legion anymore’ – we try to focus on that here. I think it’s working pretty well.”

By 6 p.m. on this particular evening, a diverse crowd of all ages flows out of the cold and into the post home. They fill tables around the bar and dance floor, order meals, take a chance on the pull-tabs, laugh and enjoy each other’s company. Some filter into an adjacent room where a Texas Hold ‘Em game is about to start. Young and old, male and female, they are doing what Post 134 leaders hoped their clientele would do when members made a bold $890,000 investment to rebuild the structure eight years ago. They are coming to the post home, having fun and paying off the remodeling loan ahead of schedule.

“We’re making things happen,” says Navy veteran and Post 134 Historian Tony Sauer, former club manager and current bingo caller. “We’re paying off this remodel way faster than anyone ever anticipated. We have people coming in here, and there’s always something going on. That generates revenue and gives us a chance to pay off the debt, and when we get done doing that, we can turn that money into something else.”

Gloria Thomsen, gambling manager for the American Legion Auxiliary unit in Walker, which runs the monthly cosmic bingo program, says the remodeling debt “motivated a lot of us to use our heads. What could we do to bring people in to join our Legion and help pay for our Legion?”

Some years ago, Sauer had heard that cosmic bingo was successful for a post in Harwood, N.D. He and some Post 134 members took a road trip there, saw what was going on and thought the idea would work in Walker. “We brought the idea home, and my friend Tony just took off and ran with it,” Thomsen says.

“I always run around to other Legions to see what ideas I can steal from them,” Sauer says with an appreciative laugh. “You’ve got to do something to get out of the house, especially with the weather we’ve been having here.”

“The cosmic bingo has been a really good thing here,” Mankie says. “We’ve got a lot of good members who have a lot of good ideas, and it is bringing people through the doors.”

Fun, games, food and drink allow the post to do much more than simply keep the place operating. The recreational activities allow it to fulfill the purposes and programs of the Legion in the community. The post sponsors an American Legion Baseball team, a Junior Shooting Sports program, Boys State, Girls State and Oratorical competition. Members have a big flag retirement ceremony involving elementary school children every Memorial Day weekend, and contributes funds for dozens of local causes. It also sells and installs flag poles throughout the community, participates in Wreaths Across America at two cemeteries every winter, has a Legion Riders chapter that does a ride for troops event that raises money for the Minnesotans’ Military Appreciation Fund and much more, including an active honor guard and big dinners for The American Legion birthday and Veterans Day.

“This Legion gives a lot to the community, and that brings a lot back to us,” Mankie says.

“I'd heard of the Legion,” says Cox, who has been a flag bearer for Post 134 in the local 4th of July Parade. “I knew it was around, but it wasn’t until I got home from Iraq until I realized how important it is and what kind of role it plays in the community. It’s fantastic, an honor to just be a part of that.”

Eric Bright, a Post 134 bartender who deployed to Iraq with the active-duty Army and to Egypt as a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard, says the entire Legion Family in Walker has adopted a culture that invites visitors and new members. “This is very unique to any other Legion I’ve ever been to,” he says. “I can’t say I have been to a lot of them, but this one is something special. It’s so open to everyone. Everyone feels welcome to come.”

“The members of this post are very dedicated,” says Department of Minnesota Vice Commander Jim Lucas, a longtime Legion member who transferred to Post 134 five years ago. “You have a hard time walking into this post without somebody asking you who you are, if they don’t know who you are. And they go introduce themselves and ask if they are members of the Legion. If they’re not, they are when they leave, usually. This has always been a welcoming post.”

In 2015, Minneapolis CBS affiliate WCCO asked its audience to vote for the best veterans service club in the state. The winner was Walker Post 134, in a state that has more than 500 American Legion posts alone.

The common bond of military service – regardless of war era, branch or duty station – is alive and well at Spencer-Ross Post 134.

The post was originally chartered in 1919 and re-chartered in 1946 to add a second namesake, Pfc. Robert William Ross, who died fighting on Saipan during World War II. His image joins that of World War I Pvt. William Corse Spencer, also of Walker, who was killed fighting in France on Oct. 2, 1918. Ross was 22 when he made the ultimate sacrifice. Spencer was 29.

Their images and biographies share wall space with over two dozen post members who are currently deployed in the U.S. Armed Forces. Inside the post home – in the dining area, at the karaoke microphone or in the cosmic bingo room – veterans and their families of all ages mix as if they all had served in the same platoon. “Just to see other guys my age here, who have gone through the same thing, and you see the gray-hairs, too, and we know they have a story,” Cox says. “We like to share ours with them.”

A 12-foot replica World War II B-29 bomber is attached to the top of the post home – the gift of a local resident who designed and built it to honor his father’s service. When the replica was moved from its previous home to Post 134 in 2013, the Legion Riders provided an escort, and the local newspaper covered the event, reporting prophetically that “The B-29 Bomber will fly for many more years to inspire all those who have served their country proudly.”

“It just feels like family,” says Jenelle Mankie, a member who served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force before retiring in 2009. “Everyone is kind and welcoming. It’s just nice to be here. They’re very, very involved in lots of different things with the community, which is important to me. I love that. You get involved in kids’ lives. You get involved in the nursing homes. You get a sense of companionship and compassion. It’s family.”

Her husband, the post commander, said he did not know what to expect when he joined The American Legion in 2009, at the height of the fundraising effort to remodel the building and make it more appealing to his generations of veterans and their families.

What he found was a family-friendly post with a purpose and vision to make itself a hot spot in the northern Minnesota town for generations to come. He also found a willingness among the older members to listen to new ideas, let younger veterans lead and take some chances. “With what we’re doing here, the way we’re feeling about keeping it going, it’s going to bring younger members in,” Mankie says. “And it is, constantly. When somebody walks through that door who is not a member, this post is very good about grabbing them. We’ll grab them, sign them up and get them going. It’s a great group. We have a lot of fun here.”