And the Answer Is . . .
Answer: Since I was nine years old.
Question: How long have you watched “Jeopardy?”
In Birmingham, Alabama, it aired every morning at 10:30, its original host, Art Fleming, encouraging the audience to think hard, think fast, but also to think outside the norm. Though oftentimes players had to be reminded to respond to the answer in the form of a question, most people got it. Even at age nine, I got it quickly, too, though I seldom knew the answers, much less the questions offered.
Categories like “Shakespeare” and “Physics” didn’t trouble me because I knew that I didn’t know anything about their content yet. Instead, it was “Potpourri,” “Odds and Ends,” and “Hodgepodge” that left me wondering about the geniuses behind the show. If you’d “answered” me the following, “Hodgepodge, Potpourri, and Odds and Ends,” I would have questioned, “What three Jeopardy categories amount to the same thing?”
No on-air contestant ever complained about the indistinction. I suppose they were too busy trying to question the answers to “Aviation and Space” or “Proverbs.” So I assumed it was just me who bothered himself about these quirks of Jeopardy; I assumed that this was yet another example of my asking the wrong questions or, in this case, answering them.
Even in my childhood, I felt like a question waiting for some answer to choose me. Or maybe I was the Daily Double: a half-Jewish kid living on a sunny avenue in Waspish Bessemer, Alabama, with his two parents, one grandmother, one brother, and a variety of dogs. Me, with my Confederate banner proudly displayed on my bedroom wall, my New York Yankees t-shirt featuring the M&M boys stuck like adhesive to my torso. Me, who loved his bologna plain, fried, and kosher; who demanded that his mother buy offbeat books from a wired basket displayed on the coffee aisle at Bruno’s Grocery, and who would much rather be sitting at home reading those books, playing card games, or watching Jeopardy than participating in competitive games of childhood outside with my neighborhood peers.
I don’t know how I would have labeled myself had I been a category on Jeopardy. But when it came to answers and questions in formal settings, I had a knack for getting things just skewed enough to disturb and provoke my elder hosts. I wasn’t trying to defy the authorities governing my show. I simply knew what I knew, thought what I thought. However, I always answered in the right form, and only when called upon.
It seemed that all I ever won for my answers was that moment of silence when those asking the questions wondered what game show either they or I had wandered into by mistake.
Category: The Church of My Youth
The Church of My Youth for $200, please.
Answer: My primal feelings about going.
Reader: What is “Hatred?”
Aannt aannt. Wrong.
Terry: What are “Fear” and “Anxiety?”
The stage was Mrs. Hallman’s junior class of Sunday School (9-10 year olds), where one bright Sunday morning she gave this answer in the category “Seemingly Easy New Testament Genealogy” (SENTG).
Laurie, one of my neighborhood pals, buzzed in:
“Who is Jesus’s mother?”
“Correct,” Mrs. Hallman beamed. “Select again, please.”
“SENTG for $400, please”:
Seeing a trend in this category, I buzzed in ahead of my other twelve classmates:
“Who is Jesus’s father?”
Mrs. Hallman was a woman of sixty-five, pushing seventy. Tall, but favoring portliness. Her voice, normally soft around the edges, drawled in that simpering Southern way. Most considered her a sweet woman, difficult to rile. But I found her sweet spot, her soft spot, the cushy middle of her that she tried to keep from exposure to the bad air.
Perhaps she likened this moment to the final Jeopardy round when pretenders had to be decisively eliminated from the potential crown. All I know is that Art Fleming’s “No’s” were always gentle, even empathetic. Years later, when I took the Jeopardy quiz online, I did well until the last answer, under the category of “Nephrology”:
I froze, and the nasty online buzzer gloated in my failure to give the timely question:
“What is the kidney disease you’ll mysteriously contract in another twenty years?”
But the harshness and frigid air of that computerized admonishment was nothing compared to Mrs. Hallman’s verbal display of horror at my “Joseph”:
“Oh no. OH NO! NO! NO! NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.”
I think you know the question she was looking for, and in a funny way, I knew it too. Maybe if my “answer” had come before Laurie’s, I might have questioned “correctly,” according to Mrs. Hallman’s light. Or maybe I would have simply kept my peace since no major category trend had developed by then.
Still, my failure motivated my own answer for Mrs. Hallman:
“The man who accompanied Mary everywhere she traveled. The man who loved her, and, though the term wasn’t used then, was her husband, and, biologically speaking, was the one who, you know, put his ______ in her ______ and spilled his seed, as the Bible tells me so, and nine months later watched and maybe paced and maybe drank some mead to calm himself as their son was born in a small barn.”
“OK,” she might have said. “But then who is our Savior’s father?”
Of course, I was only ten and didn’t know anything really about spilt seeds or sexually aggressive spirits, so I didn’t really think, much less “answer” this. But even at ten, I knew my question was right. I also knew that I’d never be buzzing in again in Mrs. Hallman’s class even if the category were “Genesis.” Even if the answer were “He made the universe and everything in it in six days.”
I’m betting that Mrs. Hallman slept badly that night, my answer plaguing her dreams. Or maybe she felt gratified that she had set another innocent, naïve Jeopardy contestant straight—made sure he knew that he was much better suited to the non-jeopardizing confines of “Wheel of Fortune.” Because on the Wheel, if the category were “Father of Jesus,” and it was just three blanks long—______ _____ _____—he wouldn’t have asked for a vowel or the consonants “J,” “S,” “P,” or “H.”
For the rest of that apocryphal Sunday, even later over bagels and bologna at the answer of “my other grandmother” to the question “Who is that Jewish woman doting on your father and treating him like her spoiled son,” I kept invisibly shaking my head to the category, “Houses of Worship”:
“What is the one place where you’ll never belong?”
Category: School Days
I’m sitting in the balcony of my elementary school with the other fifth graders. We’re in this honored section because we’re the mature ones, the “older” kids. The kids you can count on.
I’m sitting next to Randy and Mary Jane, my closest friends, feeling as invulnerable as a school pillar can feel. Top of the school; King of the hill. Arithmetic lesson suspended for the day. Lunch to follow.
Before today we’ve had blind gymnasts, piano virtuosos, spelling bees, and oratorical contests. But none of us knows today’s speaker, a man in a business suit, close-cropped white hair and shiny red face. He’s too far away on stage to be personal, and now he’s rambling on about some enterprise he’s invested in.
Answer: “The most irrelevant speaker Arlington School has ever had.”
Question: “Who is this guy?”
Somehow, though, he wanders into familiar territory: England, specifically, Liverpool. But he’s no Jeopardy fan because he phrases his question in the form of a question and expects the form of an answer in return.
“Who out there knows what Liverpool is famous for?”
The year is 1966.
My long arm rises.
“Yes, you up in the balcony!”
Without hesitation, confusion, or any doubt whatsoever that there could be an answer other than the one in my head, I lower my arm and speak distinctly and very loudly so that the first graders sitting down front, the teachers in the back, and even Mrs. Porch, especially Mrs. Porch, our music teacher, sitting in her accustomed place by the piano, can hear. Over the years, Mrs. Porch has inundated us with visions of Haydn, Beethoven, the Peer Gynt Suite, the Surprise Symphony, Peter and the Wolf, especially emphasizing the work of her personal favorite, Tchaikovsky. She’ll brook no discussion of any composer born after the 1900. Although once, she did play us Burl Ives singing “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
In any case, to show Mrs. Porch and everyone else, I provide my can’t-possibly-be-wrong Final Jeopardy answer, wagering everything.
What do I expect? Cheers? Adulation? A Gold Star? To be invited back tomorrow?
Or just a simple “That’s right, my boy?”
I realize now that when I was a boy, I had a remarkable knack for not gauging my inquisitor: the tenor of his or her question; the demeanor of his or her body and stance; the overall ambiance of his or her context.
Question: Whose perceptions could use just a little adjustment?
On stage, as “The Beatles” are about to take their bows, the speaker turns to our principal, Horace Peterson—who himself looks as if he can’t remember why he hasn’t brought his three-foot, two-inch thick wooden paddle onstage—and then turns back center-stage to deliver his opinion, speaking quite clearly into his amplified lectern:
“Well. Yes. I suppose so.” He chuckles to himself, to all of us, and I think it is that chuckle that really does me in. “Oh, one day you young people will learn that there are more important things in this world than The Beatles. Things that have been around for a few years and have stood the tests of History. Things that are valuable and worth knowing.”
To their credit, none of my friends laughs or snickers or punches me in the arm. No one really says anything then, later at lunch, or after school as we trudge our way home. I don’t know if they are as dumbfounded as I am by the speaker’s remarks, or if, like me, they’re also still wondering just what Liverpool IS famous for, if not The Beatles. For our speaker never did inform us, but instead rattled on for another forty-five minutes about something none of us understood. To describe his applause at the end as “tepid” would be generous.
Today, I assume that the correct Jeopardy question was “Where is England’s major shipping port,” though God (or Art Fleming) only knows why that red-faced man thought we’d know this, why we’d care, or why he was bringing it up at all.
I’ve clearly never forgotten that day, that moment when I shouted “The Beatles” for the known world to hear. I know my answer was right, too. And of course, the greatest lesson I learned that day had nothing to do with whatever subject our speaker was offering, or even The Beatles themselves.
What I learned was that there are always meanings behind questions. Today, I’d use the word “agenda.” I was neither willing nor able to give my interrogators the answers they wanted, and even when they corrected me and, intentionally or not, tried to humiliate me, I knew I wasn’t wrong. Not really. It was just that I heard and found answers coming from other stages—truths in categories that weren’t so clearly defined.
If you tell me the subject’s a grab bag, a hodgepodge; if you ask me questions that are open-ended, ambiguous, allowing for interpretation, imagination, creativity, and subjective thinking, or just plain old common sense, then the last thing you should expect from me is God, or a shipping port.
Decades after this elementary experience, my wife, two daughters, and I visited Liverpool. We saw the Irish Sea and a few ships too. Everywhere else, though, we saw what the Liverpudlians most enthusiastically wanted us to see: the refurbished Cavern Club; McCartney’s house and the upper bedroom window behind which he and Lennon composed songs that I’ve sung by heart for forty-plus years; Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane. And the hotel where John’s mother, Julia, was a maid. We stayed there two nights. It was Fab.
I’ve even taught college seminars on The Beatles.
Answer: No. Never. Because I wasn’t wrong.
Question: Do you regret giving the “wrong” answer to a silly man’s pretentious question?
Category: The Faith of Our Fathers
I keep remembering Mrs. Hallman’s face and our school assembly speaker’s chuckling. I think also of John Lennon’s very public pronouncement way back in 1966 that The Beatles were more popular at that time than Jesus. I think of all the shit he encountered afterward including the public record burnings in my hometown. I think he was right, too, and though he tried to clarify that he didn’t see himself as greater than Christ, his explanations like his original words failed to earn any points with his faithless audience.
Mrs. Hallman, the assembly speaker, John Lennon. What a trinity.
The question of Joseph’s biological legacy reminds me of how much I focus on fathers in my writing. How much I’ve wondered about the man who engendered me. What he thought, what his childhood and adolescence were like. Who he really was. I’ve never doubted my parentage—which two people “made” me—and as I grow into my late middle-age years, the proof, if I’ve ever needed it, stares back at me daily from my bathroom mirror.
But what about that other father, the one who art or art not in Heaven?
Answer: A place I just can’t trust.
Question: What is Heaven?
I know that like my mother’s Christian family, my father and his family believed in Heaven, or some Jewish semblance of it.
But I still don’t know whether I do, despite admonishments from my atheist friends that agnostics like me are either foolish or illogical. If God does exist and is a father, though, I hope he has my father’s best qualities: loyalty, honesty, dependability. My father didn’t neglect those he loved, though like the story, the central myth, of God and Joseph and the question of paternity, Dad often put his loved ones in peculiar situations.
Answer: His mother or his wife.
Question: Whom did your father love and honor more?
I felt the peculiarity of my Dad’s divided loyalty somewhere in adolescence when my mother began confiding in me her reluctance to make our regular Sunday trips to my grandmother’s house for dinner. Her complaints grew over the years, and by the time I reached college-age, I, too, became convinced that my Dad loved his own mother more than he did us.
This is ancient history now, my Dad and his mother having died in 2000 and 1995, respectively. I don’t know whether he loved his mother more than us. Some categories of questioning, I am learning, are best left unrevealed. Sometimes, time limits work to our advantage.
Yet I keep remembering the way my father called me “Sonny,” the way he said I was a “better father” than he had been when he saw me changing my daughter’s diaper. The way he told me once when I was standing by his hospital bed that I was “a good guy.”
My father who is always with me.
Who had faith in me.
I don’t pretend to have the answers or the right questions regarding my own doubts and crises of faith. I do remember this apocryphal moment from my senior year in college, a moment featuring an acquaintance who decided to make one last-ditch effort to “save” me. We were in the dining hall, he standing, me sitting. And forgive me, Jeopardy, but I must violate protocol here so please don’t hesitate to dock the money from my earnings:
Him: “Well, you know that it’s a question of whether you’ll be going to Heaven or Hell.”
Me: “You know Mike, I just don’t believe that a loving God would consign anyone, especially not well-intentioned doubters, to a fiery hell. Or any place like that.”
Him: “But Terry, where’s your faith?”
Me: “My faith in hell?”
Him: “In God’s plan!”
Me: “I guess when it comes to believing in hell, I just don’t have that kind of faith.”
Him: Well. GOODBYE!”
I’m sure it would disturb him even more to know that in my plan, though I’m sure about the correct answer to “Who is your father,” I can’t find a good fit for either Joseph or Jesus. Though for some strange reason, I usually get all the questions right when Jeopardy reveals its regular “The Bible” category.
I still watch Jeopardy almost every night. By now, maybe I’m even batting 500 on Final Jeopardy questions. I remember my first victory in that round and my pride on getting it right.
Answer: The nation with the second largest land-mass in the world.
Question: What is Canada?
I didn’t share this victory with anyone, though, because I understood even then—I was only seventeen—that one correct answer after so many years of trying didn’t mark me as anything much.
Other than a faithful viewer—one who keeps coming back for the answers; one who seeks to know as many questions as possible in order to keep my place in a world that tries so hard to limit me to one meaning, one interpretation, one acceptable way to live and believe. To just one word or another within the limits of time imposed by those who, in the end, aren’t truly seeing what I’m answering at all.