Just Swingin’

Published 6:00 pm Sunday, July 11, 2010

Everyone knew the day would come, the day when the wise oldmaster of the annual Brookhaven Exchange Club Fair’s bingo gameswould be gone.

Everyone knew Charles “Ploochie” Ratliff’s life was windingdown, his time on earth certainly shortened by the dolefuldisappearance of his wife, Virginia, more than two years ago.

Everyone knew, but no one was ready.

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Not even Ploochie.

“Even in the condition Ploochie was in, as recently as two weeksago he was still talking about running the bingo game,” said clubmember Harold Gary. “Even if he had to sit out there in awheelchair, he had the initiative to have done it.”

Ratliff, the last of the Exchange Club’s charter members, passedaway last week at Jackson’s G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA MedicalCenter at age 87, just a few weeks shy of taking command of thebingo for his 40th consecutive year. When the 59th annual fairstarts up later this month, a new master will sit at the head bingotable for the first time since 1970.

Into the breach comes Steve Melancon, a long-time Exchange Clubmember facing the task of keeping the fair’s most popularfundraiser on track in place of the top hat-wearing Ratliff.

“I just hope I can be as successful with the bingo game asPloochie was all those years,” Melancon said. “Those are some bigshoes to fill.”

Big shoes or not, the bingo games will continue. The changing ofthe bingo guard is just one of a handful of changes that will bemade when the fair starts at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, July 23, moved upinto the month of July to eliminate would-be competition withchurch events scheduled during August.

“We didn’t want people to have to make that choice,” said fairchairman Stan Foster. “Typically, we have it the week schoolstarts. This year, we’ll have a full week without worrying aboutschool. We normally don’t see a drop with certain age groups, butparents want to take some of the younger children home earlier andget them rested for school, so this will give them more chances toenjoy the fair.”

The nine-day fair will conclude on Saturday, July 31. Admissionis free, food will be sold and tickets to the rides are $1 each,with different rides requiring varying amounts of tickets. Clubmembers estimate the yearly fair draws around 5,000 visitors eachnight.

Aside from the earlier start date, this year’s fair will alsopick up an extra day by beginning Friday evening instead ofSaturday, a move made to generate more revenue that will be lostdue to the cancellation of selling chances on a four-wheelergive-away.

“The weekends are always good nights for us, so by picking uptwo Fridays we hope to make it up,” Foster said.

The club counts on the annual fair – basically its onlyfundraiser – to raise big bucks for the charitable programs itparticipates in.

The Exchange Club gives freely of its hard-earned money to helptreat and prevent child abuse, the national mission of all ExchangeClubs. The club also gives out scholarships yearly, hands outAmerican flags and donates to other local and regional charities.All told, the club gives out around $50,000 each year to better itscommunity.

Just as importantly, the fair is part of what makes Brookhaventhe city it is. Generations have grown up attending the fair eachfall – then they brought their own kids and now theirgrandkids.

“It’s just part of being from Lincoln County,” said ExchangeClub President Ted Ratliff. “It’s an opportunity to get out thereand fellowship, even if you’re not a ride-rider or going up anddown the midway, we’ve got a lot of people who just come out tovisit and have a good time.”