QUIZ SHOW

24 Aug

Some years ago I let a co-worker talk me into trying my luck on a TV game show. Everybody in the office was doing it; every week, two or three people went over to the studio from our division of a medical publishing house to submit to the qualifying interviews. I didn’t know anyone who applied who wasn’t selected; it seemed easy. People came back with a check, some of them winning big. And the ones who didn’t claimed they’d had “fun.”
This was the last year of the war, which was winding down but not before taking the life of my young brother. I was an activist, demonstrating in the streets, tithing to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, arguing, writing letters. But I couldn’t talk to my brother, who was on his way to Vietnam. He didn’t talk to me either, especially after OTS. He went before he heard the statement “We had to destroy the village to save it,” but the OTS prepared him to understand its sentiment. I wanted him to ask me questions. I had an argument against that war, but I hesitated to argue with him. He might, I thought, have to fight for his life, and what could my argument do for him then?
At that time, I knew the country’s geography; I knew names like Phu Bai and Danang, names I’ve nearly forgotten, although they say that Vietnam is now a big tourist destination. There’s a travel magazine devoted just to Vietnam. That summer, I wanted to get out of my own country, just get out. If I won some money, I reasoned, I could take my two kids and leave as soon as school was out.
So I went, with another editor, to sit in a waiting room and listen to a cheerful, conservatively dressed man with a buzz haircut tell us about the show and how much fun it was going to be. We filled out forms with our names and occupations, and we stood in front of a camera and said a few words as a test.
We were passed on to the next stage, where we sat in a small studio where the assistant producer explained the rules to us. Two contestants and a celebrity made up a team. The team would be asked a question. We must each write (in large print) an answer and, when asked, hold up our chalkboards to display our answers. When all three gave the same answer, we won money. It didn’t matter what we wrote on the chalkboard. To win, we must, without consulting, be in agreement. The opposing team, two contestants and another celebrity, would try to outscore us.
“You see, the point — the point of this whole wacky game — is that there’s no ‘right’ answer!” the assistant director said, making a funny face.
I punched my co-worker in the shoulder. “You didn’t tell me about this. What does he mean, there’s no right answer?”
“Shhhhh!” she poked me back.
“But how can that be? If I’m asked a question, I try to — to come up with the right answer. It’s my nature.”
“Here’s the classic example of the way to play the game,” the assistant director was saying. “Suppose I ask you to name a kind of pie. A . . . kind . . . of . . . pie. What would you say?”
The word rhubarb came to mind. Rhubarb pie, tart and sweet, with powdered sugar dusting the top. When I was a child, rhubarb grew wild on the other side of the barn. I’ve never made a rhubarb pie, although I’ve got a great recipe and have thought about it. If someone were to offer me a piece of pie at this
moment, and I had my choice of any pie on earth —
“The answer is apple pie. See? There is no right answer, but if you all give the same answer, you win. Remember that. Name a pie? Apple pie!”
Not only was I not a performer, but I didn’t think fast on my feet, I went into paralysis when a camera pointed at me, I tended to lose my voice — but I also just didn’t get it. I couldn’t get my head around it. To win, I had to
think of what everyone else was going to say. No individuality, no quirkiness, no imagination. Just pronounce the cliché. Come up with the word everyone else is thinking of. But it was harder for me to think of the obvious thing than to think of a dozen other answers to the question. The obvious was the last thing I thought of.
But I was picked as a contestant, and I needed the money, so I signed the release form.
***
The master of ceremonies, pink and polished, his face full of color as if some assistant had slapped him on both cheeks just before he took the stage, turned to my team and sang “Hello!” We gave it back to him, and the audience laughed. He leaned over his lectern and said to me and my partner, a young sailor on leave in the city, “We have a surprise for you today. You’ll never guess who your celebrity partner is going to be! Oh, you’re in for a treat,” he promised and held his hand toward the wings.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Gloria Swanson!”
A thrill of fear ran through me. I was so sure Gloria Swanson was dead, must be dead, that I thought something had gone wrong with the people who ran the show; they had made a terrible mistake. But the audience was cheering wildly, led by the assistant director who stood out of range of the camera and urged them on.
A thin, bony, turbanned, heavily made-up and bejeweled woman took tiny steps onto the stage.
She came over and sat between me and my partner. I tried to look at her without turning my head. It was like looking at a mummy. Her face was almost without wrinkles, except for the deep lines that showed how the skull was formed.
She was not only alive — she was to live another seven or eight years, in fact — but she proved to be remarkably quick-witted. A leading question from the master of ceremonies gave her an opening to lecture us briefly and succinctly on fresh fruits and vegetables and apple-cider vinegar baths. When the master of ceremonies explained the game, she gave a quick nod and picked up her chalk. No right answer? She seemed to know exactly what he meant.
I can’t remember who the celebrity was on the other team — perhaps someone whose fame had passed me by. The questions came; we moved right along.
“Whose profession would you recognize anytime you saw one on the street?”
Policeman, I wondered? But sometimes they are plainclothesmen. A military man? But soldier, sailor, which branch? And they don’t have to dress in uniform all the time, do they? A nurse? A doctor? Only if he wore his scrubs on the street. The master of ceremonies pressed me — my partners were ready and waiting.
I scribbled something on my chalkboard and we turned our answers over in unison: Police, Police, Model, the boards said. You can always recognize a model, because they never wear makeup on the street, and they all carry a huge makeup case.
In the end, because of Gloria, Miss Swanson, we scraped through, and I came away with enough money to pay Icelandic’s airfare to Prestwick, and to live for two months in an apple orchard on a farm in the Firth of Clyde where Nubian goats were raised, gentle, sloe-eyed creatures. Every morning, a bird walked across our roof. The time passed slower than the tides below our cottage.
One day as the kids dug canals on the beach for streams to run through, we watched a submarine surface out on the Firth. It was, we learned, on its way to the American nuclear submarine base at the north end of the waterway. It seemed there was no place to get away from the war.
We came home to the soap opera of Watergate. “Why did I come back?” I asked my friends, but Watergate, although I didn’t recognize it at the time, was fun; I missed it later, when it was over. Or was it my marriage I missed — my marriage and Watergate ended about the same time.
There’s no right answer to that question, I guess. It might depend on whether anyone else agrees with me. Miss Swanson, would you come out, please?

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One Response to “QUIZ SHOW”

  1. Barbara Dinerman August 24, 2014 at 9:33 pm #

    Clever piece, Martha! An evocative memoir that illuminates several time periods and settings. Gloria Swanson provides a bit of glamor. Your humor comes through in missing Watergate!

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