I love learning where various unusual words or expressions originated. When I was growing up we often heard people use the phrase ‘What a jackpot!’ to describe a place or situation that was a total mess. More often, though, when you heard the word jackpot you thought of an unexpected windfall of either money or other good fortune. The term actually comes from the early 1900s and the game of poker in which you need at least a pair of jacks or higher in order to open a hand. The pot is the total amount of money wagered and the winner gets the jackpot. Because a number of hands are often dealt before anyone can open and players must put in money for each round, the jackpot tends to be quite large.
My mother never played poker but she did play Bingo whenever she got an opportunity. The largest prize of the night was called the jackpot and it was played for in the last game of the evening which was a blackout game. That meant that every one of the numbers on your card had to be covered in order for you to win. The game would continue until someone finally called ‘Bingo’ to indicate they had a winning card. If there was more than one winner, the prize was shared.
My brother, Richard, remembers a night before I was born back in the mid fifties when Dad was working the late shift at the mine and Mom was having her night out at the Bingo. She arrived home at the end of the evening and the boys knew immediately that something momentous must have occurred. She burst through the door of our mobile home clutching her purse to her chest, her eyes wide and her whole face lit with excitement.
“Come and see!” she chortled as she danced her way down the narrow hallway to the back bedroom. She opened her purse and began pulling out handfuls of cash to toss onto the bed while Richard and Dave stood gaping at the spectacle. It certainly looked like an enormous pile of money.
“I won the jackpot! $350 and I was the only winner!”
Mom began meticulously laying out the bills side by side on the bed just so she could see all of them at once. The prize had been paid out in small denominations so by the time she was through arranging it all, her winnings covered the entire mattress in a bizarre parody of a paper bedspread.
“I think I’ll just leave it all right where it is,” she announced. She couldn’t stop smiling. She was practically rubbing her hands together in gleeful anticipation of the look on Dad’s face when he came home.
The boys got hustled off to their bunks but sleep was impossible. When my mother was excited about something the whole household was electrified. The hands on the clock moved with glacial slowness as they awaited Dad’s arrival at the end of his shift. When he finally did walk through the door he was a little surprised to find Mom waiting up for him. She took his lunch box and thermos from him and set them on the counter quickly to disguise the fact that her hands were shaking. She hardly dared look at him for fear of giving herself away. Dad was busy hanging his coat in the closet and didn’t notice anything amiss. He headed for the bedroom and Richard and Dave held their collective breath, pretending to be asleep as he passed by the door they’d left ajar in their eagerness not to miss anything. Mom trailed closely behind him.
He reached for the light switch as he entered the room they shared and then froze at the strange sight that confronted him when the darkness fled. “What the….!?” He turned quickly to see Mom, her face wreathed in smiles, doing her own unique version of the Happy Dance behind him while muffled giggles sounded from the darkened room he’d just passed. As surprises went, it was a huge success. Mom had hit the jackpot in more ways than one.