Trying to Put Myself in 'Jeopardy!'

I grew up on "Jeopardy!" In the 1960s, it came to us from New York, hosted by Art Fleming. I thought my mother was the smartest woman alive as she casually fed the questions to Art Fleming's answers while folding our laundry. We were convinced she would be an undefeated champion, if only she would try out.

"Maybe when I lose 10 pounds," she'd say with a laugh.

Her mother, my grandmother, also loved the show. My uncle had rigged up an earphone to her television, so she could turn up the volume without disturbing the rest of us. Sometimes, from the silence of her bedroom, eerily disjointed questions would waft. "Who was Babe Ruth?" The question would startle us. Only she could hear Art Fleming. "Who is Khrushchev?" A momentary silence. "What is rhubarb?"

"Mom's watching 'Jeopardy!' " my mother would reassure us.

THE game show now comes in a flashy Hollywood version, hosted by Alex Trebek. I watch it semi-religiously. I am now the mother folding laundry, nonchalantly throwing the questions at the TV, while my children listen in awe. "You should go on that show!" they urge me.

"Maybe when the baby is weaned," I reply.

Recently, in a fit of self-confidence, I sent in a postcard to the show. I received a prompt letter, telling me when, where, and how to take the "Jeopardy!" contestant test. The letter warned of the extreme difficulty of the test and advised against my making a special trip to Los Angeles to take it.

Since I live 120 miles north of L.A., I was able to make the special trip I wasn't supposed to make. I set off early on the appointed morning for the studio. I live in the country, so the Hollywood Freeway was the first leg of my "Jeopardy!" challenge.

Exiting in relief, I found I was 30 minutes early. I parked in front of the studio and waited. I watched a steady line of limos, Jaguars, and other marvelous cars I cannot identify go through the studio gate. I wondered if Alex Trebek was in one of them.

I felt like I knew Alex - his erudite sense of humor and his fondness for matching ties and handkerchiefs. As I strode up to the gate, ready for my moment, I imagined I was there to see him, not some contestant coordinator.

But I had no special privileges here. The guard directed me to the back gate. There I joined perhaps 200 people, eager test-takers all, waiting on the sidewalk, mostly men, mostly white. They looked at me with brief recognition. I had seen them before, too. We had been the children who preferred to stay inside with a good book or even the encyclopedia, rather than play tag in the summer sprinkler; the children who freckled, anyway. I knew them from Advanced-Placement English and AP physics classes.

It was a nerd reunion.

We were now respectable adults with briefcases and blazers, but somehow en masse we still had that slide-rule look. That "periodic table of the elements" look. That T.S. Eliot look.

"Is this the line for 'Jeopardy!'?" I asked ridiculously.

People struck up conversations around me, comparing how far they had come and how many times they had taken the test before. "The last time I was here," confided one fellow, "only four people passed."

Another had read an entire book about trying out for the show, and entertained his companion with "Jeopardy!" lore. I thought of the letter warning of the test's difficulty. Maybe I should have crammed for this?

The line began to move as we were shepherded into a huge darkened building. As we entered, we were each handed a pen, an answer sheet, and a flat piece of sturdy cardboard for a writing surface. We sat down. As our eyes adjusted, we realized we were sitting in the actual chairs for the actual audience of the actual "Jeopardy!" Below us, muted and promising, lay the set.

There it was: the three contestants' stands, Trebek's pulpit, the screens for the categories and answers, all much smaller and more crowded together than they appear on television.

Then the rules were explained and the test began, and a pleasant woman was asking us to jot down things like the blacksmith to the Roman gods and the bachelor President. (Vulcan and Buchanan, now added to my permanent store of trivia.) It was a 50-question whirlwind tour of the universe, with 10 seconds to answer each one. Then we passed down our papers to be graded. We passed down our pens and cardboards, too. The pens were hot with sweat and guesses.

"Well, I'm sufficiently humbled," said one man.

While they graded us, we watched an old "Jeopardy!" show, one with a contestant who gave amusing wrong answers. I cannot adequately describe the experience of watching the show in a room full of "Jeopardy!" freaks. A murmur ran through the room like a wave:

"Joan of Arc ... Joan of Arc ... Joan of Arc...."

"Panama hat ... Panama hat ... Panama hat....

"Geothermal ... Geothermal ... Geothermal....

We were good. We excelled in our living rooms and impressed our families. We did not deign to answer the ones that were too obvious. Our confidence was restored. We discussed the test, and I began to think that I had known a lot of those tough questions.

Maybe I hadn't done too badly. Maybe I would make the cut and be asked to stay to play a mock version of the game. I was not the only one with such thoughts. There was palpable excitement, an air of enormous expectation among us survivors of the test.

ALAS, it was not to be. Of the nine or 10 names called, mine was not one of them. Suddenly, no one could leave the room, walk out the gate, and go back to the car fast enough. The easy camaraderie dissolved. With our heads hung, we anonymously headed back to our lives. I had some explaining to do.

"Take it again in six months, like they said," urged my ever-supportive husband.

"We still love you," said my dad.

"I'm proud of you just for trying," said my mom.

Still, the larger part of my "Jeopardy!" dream died that day. Stars of the living room do not automatically star on TV. I hear my grandmother's voice: "What is 'Try, try again'?" she exhorts. "What is perseverance?" Silence. "What is class salutatorian?"

I may have missed my date with destiny. I may never return as undefeated champion, chatting easily with Alex Trebek. But my six-year-old wonders each night why I'm not on "Jeopardy!" so maybe it isn't too late. I can memorize what is on the backs of all US paper currency, the capitals of Africa, and the bones of the human skeleton. I can take the "Jeopardy!" challenge with my fellow eggheads again.

I've sort of missed them.

Be Sure Your Answer Is in the Form of a Question

1. America's 15th president, he is the only one (so far) to be a bachelor.

2. Neil Armstrong meant to say this when he first stepped onto the moon, 7/20/69.

3. The name of this active volcano in the Caribbean means 'Mt. Sulphur Mine.'

4. In 1984, this man equaled Jesse Owens's record of four Olympic golds.

Answers: (1) Who was James Buchanan? (2) What is 'That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind'? (3) What is Mt. Soufrire on Montserrat? (4) Who is Carl Lewis?

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