I've loved quiz shows most of my life, beginning in 1942 at Larken Valley one-room school where we frequently competed in spelling bees when it was too cold or snowy for recess. In eighth grade, I competed at the courthouse in the Star Tribune tri-state spelling bee, falling to some kid from the other side of the county who could spell "mulligatawny." How in hell, I still want to know, could a farm boy know how to spell mulligatawny, a highly spiced soup eaten mainly in India.
Later, when I tended bar in Eau Claire, I converged with several regulars to watch TV's "$100,000 question." One night, I wowed the guys when I answered a battery of questions about author Charles Dickens (somehow I failed to tell them I had just finished a seminar about Dickens at Eau Claire State, the Oxford of the Upper Chippewa Water District.)
Meanwhile, my sister wrote and told me that her high school pal, Sara, by then a student at UW-Madison, had been chosen to compete on a show called "Jeopardy," hosted by a big guy named Art Fleming, who once in a Parade Magazine interview said that he seldom knew the answers to any of the questions asked (which also turned out to be true of one of my TV heroes, Charles Van Doren, the intellectual contestant on "Twenty-One," who was given the answers by the show's producers, see the film "Quiz Show").
Art Fleming was replaced by another of my heroes, Alex Trebek, a charming Canadian who is still asking the questions-though he seems to be one host who knows as many answers as his brilliant contestants. Recently, Trebek announced that he'd been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, stage four.
"But I won't be retiring from my commercials for Colonial Penn Insurance, because I have a three-year contract and I intend to fulfill my promise (who says Canadians can't be nice and have chutzpah at the same time?)
I discovered the nice-guy side years ago when I ate lunch with Trebek and interviewed him with two other book critics. I told him that my father, who had lost a leg and was condemned to stay home most of the time, had become a big fan of Jeopardy.
Trebek turned to his go-fer and said "Bring me a copy of my promo photo." When the young man returned, Trebek asked my father's name-which was Harold.
Then he handed me the glossy, which said, "To Harold, a fan from Wisconsin. Alex."
I wrapped it up and saved it for Christmas. Dad opened the package and said, "Who the Hell is this?"
"Pa, it's Alex Trebek, the host of your favorite TV show, Jeopardy."
"Jeopardy!? Way too hard! The one I like is 'Wheel of Fortune.'"
I guess I'd confused it with MY favorite quiz show.
One advantage, then, of moving to River Falls, is the discovery of Johnnie's and the late-afternoon game at the corner of the bar, called "The Korner of Knowledge," where a bunch of folks gather each day to play Jeopardy with the smartypantses up on the screen.
Most of the time I feel like I'm up against that eighth grade farm kid from the other side of the country, but every once in a while I get a break, like Van Doren did. One day the final question was "Name the South African dramatist who wrote 'Master Harold and the Boys.'"
I sprang to the "buzzer." "Oh, that's easy! Athol Fugard."
"What?" chorused my colleagues.
The smartypantses on the screen stood silent.
Alex shrugged. "Sorry. The answer is Athol Fugard."
My colleagues gasped in amazement.
I forgot to tell them that I'd recently seen the play at the Guthrie Theater-unforgettably starred in by James Earl Jones.
Yes, Pa, it never hurts to have a leg up.