Napoleon had his Waterloo. For Nixon it was Watergate. Mine would be "Jeopardy."
Not going for big dollars on a bright colorful Hollywood game show set, mind you. No, my coup de grace would come unceremoniously at the Airport Quality Inn's Saltair Room No. 2. When it finally ended, I wasn't looking for T-men or tax shelters, I was simply looking for the exit.There I stood, my gray matter churned into a gooey glob. I'd fooled myself all these years, but there wasn't any fooling "Jeopardy" contestant searchers Ingrid Hirstin-Woodson and Susanne Thurber - any more than, say, Josef Mengele could fool Simon Wiesenthal.
Here, I'd been doing it with mirrors. And they came along like a steamy shower.
Momma might not have raised no dummies, but how do you explain me.
Whoa! Cut. Roll back the tape. Who's writing this stuff anyway - Kitty Kelly? That ain't how the author
ized version of my life story reads.
During my Wonder Bread years, I'd been too small to play football; too short for hoops; and the way I wobbled on skates, the surgeon general would have taken one look and determined ice hockey hazardous to my health.
Ok, I wasn't a jock. So sue me.
But while I might never haul in the go-ahead touchdown or drill the winning bucket at the buzzer, I could tell you the year they inked the Magna Charta or that Jimmy Durante's theme song was "Inka Dinka Do." Trivial Pursuit was still a fad in embryo, but I was someone to be reckoned with whenever it came time for the family to pull out the "Jeopardy" play-at-home version.
And so it seemed fate was dictating my moment in the sun would actually be under the glare and heat of artificial lighting with millions watching from the comfort of their living rooms:
The Final "Jeopardy" category: Opera characters. (Hey, if you're making it up, why not make it tough?)
The answer is: "American husband of Madame Butterfly, or name of famous detective agency."
"Who is Pinkerton," I write on my electronic Etch-a-sketch, making sure to phrase it in the form of a question. The camera slowly fades out while the show's familiar theme plays on, dum-de-dum-dum, dum-de-dum. . . .
After the show Merv (Griffin) makes out a five-figure check to C-H-U-C-K G-A-T-E-S. I invest the money in "Coppertone." Freon destroys the Earth's ozone layer and tanning stock skyrockets. (So it's a little far-fetched.) I spend my retirement watching reruns of Monty Hall and "Let's Make a Deal."
Instead, I flamed out like the Comet Kohoutek - only worse. Only half the world was clued in to the comet. It seems the whole world knows about "Jeopardy."
Lambs (as in: to the slaughter).
They start trickling into the waiting area 45 minutes before our tryout is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m.
Every constituency is represented - the wrinkled and fuzzy-cheeked, plump and thin, professional and blue collar - befitting a show that can only be described as an American phenomenon.
Station KTVX has four regular sessions scheduled, plus a special one for teens. In all, about 300 people will participate.
Bob Craven is a typical lamb. He got hooked on "Jeopardy" as a kid in the '60s with original host Art Flemming. Now he's part of the show's remarkable renaissance in pre-primetime syndication with new host and producer Alex Trebek.
"Winning would be absolutely fantastic," says Bob, momentarily looking up from a pocket version of the Signet Hammonds World Atlas.
Greg Van Dyke, an inventory controller for Sherwood Digital Electronics, takes the Mount Everest approach - because it's there. Or in today's case, here.
"I can say I did it once," explains Van Dyke. "I wouldn't want to spend the time or money to (go to Hollywood to) find out I'm stupid when I can do the same thing here," he rationalizes, confessing his chances of actually making the show are probably about 100-1.
Too bad his prediction is closer to the mark than he realizes. Still, hope springs eternal.
Most share this attitude.
"I'd never go to L.A. just to do it," says schoolteacher Susan Kies, who had to arrange and pay for a substitute to instruct her class. "But because it's here, I thought, what the heck, I've got a trivial mind."
Everyone approaches last-minute preparations differently. The consensus is that if the answers aren't upstairs by now, it's too late to cram them in. Most pass the time in casual chitchat with their neighbors.
But a few, like Bob, seem determined to load every last detail into their brains. "I might be able to answer one or two extra questions if I'm lucky," he says, barely looking up from his atlas. Another man alternates studying a legal pad filled with crib notes and a stack of dog-eared "Trivial Pursuit" cards.
All of us have been told we must pass a written exam to even merit consideration as a contestant. So naturally talk shifts to horror stories about the upcoming test.
"I hear the general-knowledge test is a bear. I guess it depends on what kind of questions they ask," says Susan with a trace of apprehension in her voice.
Bob, an engineer, thinks it'll probably resemble the show. "Some shows I know I would win if I were a contestant. On others I'd be smeared," he says, burying his nose again in a map of Central and South America.
Someone tells an apocryphal story of a Utah college professor traveling to Southern California for a tryout only to flunk the test. Wanna bet when they tell the story in Massachusetts it's probably a Harvard professor?
Another says he's heard only about seven of every 50 would-be contestants pass the test. By now, about 70 of us have jammed the waiting area. I'd get better odds in Wendover. I could almost get better odds on Bob Dole for president.
While I'm busy making head counts, Robert Wells and his wife, Patty, have plopped down on a couch and are trading "Final Jeopardy" questions. Patty's brother, Doug Matheson, is also with them. Two more family members apparently signed up but chickened out at the last minute.
Well, there's always "Family Feud."
While I'm thinking about it, some tax-exempt foundation ought to blow a couple hundred thousand bucks on another useless study that examines the strange metamorphosis that happens to the friends and families of people who try out for "Jeopardy."
Susan, who teaches special education at the junior high school level, says one student came up to her and offered congratulations. "When I told her I hadn't been yet, she said, `Oh, I mean good luck.' "
Another woman's mother-in-law sent her off with these instruction: "Always buy an E and say hi to Vanna."
Oh well, it's the thought that counts.
Pencils nervously tap. So do feet, fingers and anything else capable of thumping out a nervous rhythm.
Ingrid and Susanne are as cool as cucumbers. I'm like wilted lettuce.
When asked if we're ready to get started, everyone responds in apprehensive unison, "Uh huh."
Susanne tries allaying our fears. "You're all bright people. This is your chance to prove it to us," she says.
What she says and what she's thinking are two different things. What she's thinking is that we're like all the other dreamers and that only a handful will pass the challenging 50-question fill-in-the-blank general-knowledge test sitting in front of us. The 13-minute time limit is the clincher.
The good news is that neatness and spelling don't count. And - I know this borders on being sacrilegious - they don't want us to phrase our answers in the form of a question.
The bad news is that now I know how Pandora felt when she opened the box. A blank stare is the best I can muster when I open the test booklet and read the first question:
Renaissance men: Boccaccio's ribald classic, set against a background of the Black Death?
That's when I decide it would just be easier to brand an "I" on my forehead - for idiot - and be sent packing.
It doesn't get any better.
I manage answers on only six of the first 10 questions. But when I sneak a peek at my tablemate, Dr. John Gentry, his pencil is moving so fast you'd think he
was writing prescriptions for his patients back in Evanston, Wyo.
When Ingrid mercifully calls time 13 minutes later, I've left 14 questions blank and guessed on eight others. My only consolation is that I'm not alone as a collective groan goes up when Ingrid asks how we did. I think she already knows.
While the tests are being collected and taken for grading, I commiserate with my neighbors - trading tough questions and answers. Others play along with a video tape of a "Jeopardy" game playing on the television monitor in the front of the room.
I'm surprised at some questions they don't know and equally dumbfounded over some they do. Like how in the world does an Evanston doctor know that Decameron was the mystery Renaissance classic, especially after I pulled a Rosemary Woods - a 13-minute blank - on it. I still think Boccaccio sounds like it ought to be a vegetable.
I guess it's like Susan said. It all hinges on whether the trivial knowledge stored in your brain matches the trivial questions they ask. I'm not certain, but I think that's profound.
Bob, who's sitting a row behind me, says his last-minute cramming helped him get one right. My guess is that Dr. John didn't need an atlas.
Five names are read. Surprise. Surprise. Dr. John is one of them. Then they read my name.
I'm a ringer. After embarrassing myself on the written exam, Ingrid and Susanne were gracious enough to let me embarrass myself again in a mock "Jeopardy" game - all in the name of journalism. But that doesn't stop me from acknowledging the smattering of applause that goes up as I make my way up to the front of the room with the real McCoys.
So what if one of finalists is a card-carrying member of MENSA? I'm a card-carrying member of VISA. Try using a MENSA at Nordstrom.
Soon three of us are standing in a row, bellhop-type bells clutched in our hands. It's a chance to redeem myself. If I do well here, it would show my performance earlier was a fluke - even if it wasn't.
But today, the bell only tolls for another schoolteacher - Larry Peterson. He dings the darn thing so often it sounds like a ticker tape machine on Black Monday. The worst part is that Larry is one of those guys you can't hate - even though you should. Both his parents are deaf, and he learned to speak sign language before he ever spoke English. Now he's Utah's 1988 Utah Teacher of the Year.
A couple of times Susanne has to ask Larry to speak up and project his voice better. I find that's not really a problem for me as I have very little to say.
Ingrid and Susanne say Salt Lake City is the final stop on a four-city swing.
Earlier, they conducted tryouts in Buffalo, N.Y., Toronto and Billings, Mont. After returning to Southern California they'll hit the road again in a couple of weeks on other contestant pilgrimages to New Orleans, Orlando, Fla., Baltimore, Cleveland, New York City, Detroit and Phoenix.
Ingrid, who's in charge of contestant selection for the show in Hollywood, says she's been doing this for four years. Susanne is a rookie.
Of 300 (including teens) local participants, as many as 15 will actually be called to participate on the show sometime between now and next March. If selected, they'll have to pay their own expenses to Hollywood, where "Jeopardy" is taped.
I don't think I'll be waiting by the phone.
"We hope that as many people as possible pass. We'll take as many as meet the criteria. But there's no quota," Ingrid said. "It varies, although it's usually 2 or 3 percent. In major metropolitan areas, where there is a higher concentration of professional people, that number might go up a little."
Only once, Ingrid recalls, did she hold a tryout where nobody passed the written test. "It was kind of embarrassing, but we just thanked them all and told them that no one met our criteria."
Both Ingrid and Susanne say they're still surprised sometimes by the response their contestant pilgrimages generate and how interest in the show is so universal.
One thing Ingrid and Susanne tell us over and over again is that the results of the test are a closely guarded secret. I blow it off, thinking that they'll tell me because of my special status.
But all I get is name, rank and serial number.
"As Alex (Trebek) would say," Ingrid smiles smugly, "you can say you missed it by one."
And Jack Benny never turned 40 either.