The uncomfortable truth of the old adage first dawned on me years ago during a cruise to the Canary Islands. One evening, aboard our Spanish liner, the cheerful English purser dreamed up a ''jolly general knowledge quiz - nothing too hard, you know'' as an icebreaker.
We victims were herded into groups of six and sat around at many tables. Each team selected a leader to represent it at the ''fount of knowledge.'' The fount consisted of a table and chair at the far end of the room. There sat the omniscient questionmaster (the aforementioned purser), complete with megaphone and a pile of slips on which were inscribed the questions. There were twenty-one questions in all. The leaders of the teams were each handed a copy of the first question with which they rushed back to their respective tables. The idea then was to spring back to the fount with the right answer. The first correct answer to arrive won that round, and the team that collected the most points won the contest.
Most of the people at my table spoke English, of a kind, although I'm not sure it helped in the long run. Came the tricky business of electing a leader. We had not been introduced, so we glanced at each other furtively.
My wife came to the rescue. ''That's alright,'' she chirped, ''my husband's an encyclopedia editor.''
The relief around the table was euphoric. The contest was obviously now a mere formality. Armed with this Secret Weapon, how could we lose? I started feebly to explain that the best of my running days were behind me, but one look at the beaming, upturned faces told me I was wasting my time.
I flexed my mental muscles in a rapid review from aardvark to zyzomys. The purchase price of Alaska . . . Nellie Melba's real name . . . What was an Anglo-Saxon Attitude? Panic. With some trepidation I trotted to the fount and collected the first question.
After a mad dash back to the table I scanned the slip. What does the QE II weigh?
I gazed round for inspiration only to be met by five pairs of eyes turned trustingly in my direction. This was a bit of a snorter. I had a vague idea of how much the old Queen Mary displaced so I hazarded ''83,000 tons.'' Reinforced by a complacent collective nod I raced up to the fount clutching my precious scrap of paper. I was first there, too. The questionmaster took one look and shook a pitying head.
Somebody eventually came up with the goods. The answer was bellowed through the megaphone: ANCHOR!
I could see it was going to be one of those nights. Although naturally disappointed, I must say the team took it very bravely. They realized that even a genius has his off moments.
I ferried the next question back to the table. On the face of it, it looked innocuous enough, but I was already beginning to eye it darkly.
What do you get from sour grapes?
A formidable lady opposite me, who announced that she came from Bratislava, suggested some unpronounceable potion. On that score alone we had to turn it down. A pity, because she had an air of authority about her and looked as if she had been treading sour grapes for a long time. After a hasty discussion the consensus eventally favored my proffered ''vinegar.''
Not a hope. I was still waiting in line when Table 3 triumphed. The answer was, of course, A WHINE. . . .
My misgivings had been justified, but it was small consolation. It was useless trying to explain to my restive team that an encyclopedia editor was paid to worry about things that mattered, such as the number of legs sported by a centipede, and the name of Queen Salote's grandfather.
By this time I thought I detected signs of incipient mutiny among my gallant crew. Perhaps, though, the twitching, muttering, and shuffling of feet was merely coincidental.
And so the ordeal continued. Under my firm hand we were extremely consistent: we managed to score an undeviating zero for every round. Most of the time I sat in disgruntled silence. I remember being particularly fed up with Question 17. I don't know why - they were all much of a muchness.
When does a lion relax?
Answer: WHEN IT IS LION DOWN.
By now, I regret to say, the atmosphere had deteriorated. After the initial setbacks, there had been a hurt look in the eyes of my team. Now this had degenerated into icy stares and my wife treated me like a distant acquaintance.
Came the final teaser: What is a twak?
I gazed at it in despair but maintained my dignified silence. Suddenly the hostile gentleman on my left leaned forward and snatched the paper out of my hand.
''I'll take it, encyclopedia editor,'' he snarled as he scribbled.
I peeked over his shoulder. ''A thing a twain runs on'' I read.
Disbelieving, I handed it in. It was our first and only success of the night. But it was not enough to save us from being awarded the wooden spoon for coming last.
I slunk back to my cabin without bothering to thank the organizer for his jolly quiz. Early next morning, partly to avoid meeting any of my ex-teammates, I tagged on to a thinly attended ship's tour, laid on by the captain. We ascended to the bridge, where we were confronted with rows of gleaming knobs, sophisticated radar equipment, and evidence of computer wizardry. Unfortunately the skipper seemed to be addressing his opening remarks directly at my wife.
''Oh, that's alright, captain,'' she interrupted cheerfully. ''My husband was in the navy in World War II and knows all about this stuff.''
With that old world courtesy which never seems quite to desert high-ranking Spanish officers, Captain Alonso doffed his gleaming scrambled-egg cap and bowed low in my direction.
''Perhaps the senor would care to favor us. . . .''
But I was already halfway down the steps to C deck wondering if I could make the fifteen miles to Tenerife without a life jacket.