Life can be a quiz show, so be prepared

Life can be a quiz show, so be prepared
                        

When I was a senior in high school, I was involved in a TV show that featured the smartest kids in Northeast Ohio.

It was a pretty big deal.

The studio where it was taped had all kinds of cameras, lights and microphones with cables and wires running everywhere, and the place was filled with people supporting the three schools taking part.

Oh, wait.

What?

You think I was one of those academic brainiacs?

Oh, heck no.

Sorry if I gave you that impression.

I was on hand strictly as an observer, having been invited by one of the team members to be his guest. Trust me. The three guys representing our school had forgotten more about math and science than I'd ever learned, though I might have been able to help out if the question had something to do with Hunter S. Thompson, the New York Yankees or the Rolling Stones.

“How much mescaline was in the trunk of the Chevy convertible in ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?'” the host might ask. “Mike?”

“That’d be 75 pellets,” I’d reply.

Or, “What was Mickey Mantle’s stat line in his 1956 MVP season? Mike?”

“He hit .353 with 52 homers and 130 RBIs,” I’d fire back.

Or, “Who played the sitar in the 1966 hit, 'Paint It, Black?' Mike again.”

“Brian Jones,” I’d answer. “By the way, we share a birthday.”

“Fascinating,” the host would say. “Now, a word from our sponsor.”

Not much chance of that happening, I'm afraid.

But that didn't diminish the thrill of actually being in the audience.

The emcee was famous in a Cleveland sort of way. His name was Don Webster, and in addition to being the Channel 5 weatherman, he also was the host of a Saturday afternoon dance-party show called “Upbeat.”

It was Northeast Ohio’s version of Dick Clark’s nationwide hit, “American Bandstand,” and it was quite popular during its mid-'60s heyday. I remember hearing “Invitation to Cry” by the Magicians for the very first time on “Upbeat,” as well as “Mister, You’re a Better Man Than I,” a regional hit for Terry Knight and the Pack. Still have those 45s, I think.

A lot of the bands and artists performed live in the very same studio where we sat watching the students compete on that slushy February afternoon in downtown Cleveland, and I remember wondering if Don Webster might not share an anecdote or two during taping breaks.

“For those of you who might be wondering,” I imagined him saying, walking away from the podium and down to where we were seated, “if you look behind you, up by that rotating fan, you can still see Keith Moon’s drumstick embedded in the ceiling. What a gas that was.”

But he was all business.

The same thing held true 30 years later when I found myself being fitted with a clip-on microphone minutes before the taping of a cable access TV show to which I’d been invited to appear.

My first column, after relocating to Coastal Carolina in 2000, had appeared in the local paper on Christmas Eve, and I was eager to find what sort of audience — if any — there might be for my brand of first-person, narrative-driven, tangent-laced, seriocomic ramblings.

It didn’t take too long to find out.

“Would you be interested,” the host asked as I returned his call from my newsroom desk, “in coming in and appearing on my show? I think your writing is, um, quite unusual.”

“Why’s that?” I asked, sincerely curious.

“Well, in a local paper, you don’t expect to read someone so … good.”

Over the course of the next few years, I was asked back to appear a half-dozen or so times, and as I grew more comfortable with my surroundings and the host — a Vermonter with diametrically opposed political views — I grew to enjoy the ritual.

On TV, the set looked bright and cheery, often accented by floral arrangements created by the show host's wife, an accomplished lady in her own right, with whom I shared truncated jury duty one summer.

Hey, small towns are all the same, wherever they may be located. You see people you know everywhere you go.

But the studio itself, at least on the occasions I was invited to be a guest, was surprisingly small and dark and, well, claustrophobic. I remember feeling pinned down, as if under a microscope, as the producer/cameraman counted down the seconds to airtime.

“In three … two … one,” he’d say before pointing his finger at the host with a practiced flourish.

“We’re back with Mike Dewey, Sunday columnist and senior night editor,” the host would say with a generous smile. “I think you’re going to enjoy meeting him as well as you do reading him.”

Those were some fine times, for sure. Not only did my work land me on TV from time to time, but also I was invited to make public appearances, speaking in front of audiences as varied as the New Carolinians — a club for recent transplanted folks — to the Knights of Columbus, a bastion of Roman Catholic tradition.

That one got kind of awkward.

After I’d made my remarks — and you should know I never prepare anything in advance — I was making the rounds, shaking hands, showing off my Notre Dame class ring, when an earnest-looking older gentleman approached and leaned in close.

“You write a lot about how, well, you don’t go to church much anymore,” he said. “I understand that since I went through the same thing years and years ago. I just wanted you to know that it’s never too late.”

I’m usually pretty glib in social situations, able to concoct a witty comeback when someone blindsides me with something unexpected, but this felt different. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but by the same token, I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, either.

Because when I write something for others to read, I want them to know there’s no artifice involved, that what I’m giving is who I am, period.

This, of course, is the proverbial sword that cuts both ways.

“I can’t believe you write about your old girlfriends,” women have informed me, not unkindly, over the years. “What does your wife think?”

“Man,” guys’ll say, “that took a lot of guts, that two-part thing about what happened when you cheated on that one lady. She seemed real nice.”

When you make your living with your words, it’s a zero-sum game. I’ve always tried to be aware there’s always the chance someone from my past might actually read something I’ve written that involves them, and it’s a big part of my job to be as accurate and honest as I can.

Which is not to say I’m beyond embellishing for the sake of a better tale. Without that freedom, I’d just be a human tape recorder replaying my life in a stream of dull, context-lacking dispatches from my past.

I take frequent liberties, for example, with my mother’s influence, both pro and con, but I know she’d understand my motivation. I can just hear her, “Well, I’ve been called much worse by much better than you.”

Which brings us back to winter 1973 and my senior year in high school. After my friend — the academic competitor — dropped me off, I walked up the stairs to the kitchen where Mom was making tuna boats.

“Well,” she said, not looking up from her Saturday night special, “how was it? You still think you didn’t belong up there with the rest of them?”

“Not a single question on the Rolling Stones,” I said, giving her a hug.

“You’d have been ready, though,” she said, reaching for the roll of tin foil. “And that’s always going to be what matters most. You’ll see someday.”


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