Life is just a series of gambles. Sometimes you win big; sometimes you lose big; and sometimes it’s not clear. But in the end, if you’re happy, that’s all that counts, isn’t it?
This story was originally published in the on-line magazine Wandering Army (http://www.wanderingarmy.com/archives/70.html) on January 19, 2006.
Jimmy Duber and the Wheel of Fortune
Jimmy Duber and I were best friends in the fifth grade. During that next summer we spent a lot of time visiting at each other’s houses. My family lived with my grandparents on their farm, and there were lots of things for fifth grade boys to do there. We sailed toy boats in the pond, caught frogs and garter snakes, shot our slingshots, and hunted for ducks’ nests. Sometimes my Dad or Grandpa would let us ride with him on the tractor.
Jimmy had straight red hair and freckles. He had a rollicking sense of humor and jabbered with running commentary on anything that came to mind. He always had a joke, and we laughed a lot. Jimmy was never much interested in schoolwork, but he was an avid baseball player. He always got a hit, and was always the first chosen when we chose up sides at school. He was shortstop lightning.
On one of Jimmy’s visits, we had just finished a cookies-and-milk snack when the radio stopped working, and my mom asked me to fetch the one from the barn. Jimmy waited for me at the house while I went on this short errand.
Thunderheads had been rolling across the sky all day, and I could see lightning strikes off in the distance. The wind was picking up, but it hadn’t started to rain yet. The air felt invigorating. The radio wasn’t where Mom said it was, and it took me a few minutes to find it.
When I finally had it tucked under my arm and was walking toward the open barn door, I saw Jimmy coming out to meet me. The wind was blowing his hair and tugging on his shirt. When he was about halfway to the barn, he stopped and slowly raised his arms so they stuck out from his sides. I saw his hair stand straight out from his head, and his eyes got very wide.
I stopped in the barn door and looked at his strange posture. Then, BLAM! There was a huge sound that knocked me flat on my back at the same time as a flash so bright that everything turned white. I was dazed for a moment. I lifted my head off the floor and looked out at Jimmy to see him lying on his back on the ground. I got up and ran out to him. I slapped him on the cheeks like they do in the movies, “Jimmy, Jimmy. Are you all right?”
He opened his eyes wide and stared straight ahead for a moment, like he didn’t see me. Then, slowly he looked at me. “What happened?”
His shoes were smoking, and on the ground were the shapes of his shoes outlined in black ashes and little wisps of smoke. “I think you were hit by lightning.”
“Really? Wow! That’s cool!” He grinned at me.
Then my mother was there asking him how he felt and doing her best to check him for injuries. He seemed okay, and we went back in the house for another snack just as the rain started. We spent the rest of the day inside, out of the rain, doing quiet things. He insisted on playing checkers and the other games on the desk that had the fluorescent lamp. He said the lamp made him feel good. He had never said anything like that before.
As the summer wore on, Jimmy and I spent less and less time together. We were still friends. It’s just that he seemed to get quieter and got more interested in reading. I didn’t see him at all for the three weeks before school started up again.
In the fall, much to everyone’s surprise, Jimmy won the school spelling bee. The teachers said it was because of all his reading. His parents were very proud, and Jimmy had a big grin on his face for days. He then went on to compete in the state spelling bee at the state capitol. There were lots of reporters and photographers there.
The moderator of the spelling bee stood off to the left side of the stage and intoned, “If you spell this next word correctly you will be the winner of the state spelling bee. Please spell the word mussitation, meaning muttering, mumbling, and murmuring. Mussitation.”
Jimmy stepped forward. He stuck out his chest and spat the letters out one by one, almost yelling them, “m-u-s-s-i-t-a-t-i-o-n!”
The announcer lost his moderation and enthusiastically shouted, “You are correct. Congratulations!” There were cheers and applause and Jimmy acted very proud.
Jimmy’s family threw a big party for him and his friends who had come all the way to the state capitol to watch. The party was pretty rowdy for sixth graders. Later, I watched Jimmy get his picture taken while he shook hands with the governor.
Winners from each of the fifty states then went on to compete in the national spelling bee contest. Jimmy was among rarefied company now but he seemed unfazed.
The moderator stood on the left side of the stage and intoned, “If you spell this word correctly you will be the winner of the national spelling bee contest. Please spell the word euonym, a good name or an appropriate name for a person, place or thing. Euonym.”
Jimmy got a big grin on his face and stepped forward. Calmly but loudly he spat out “e-u-o-n-y-m!”
Jimmy got awards and his picture in the paper. He shook hands with the President. I wasn’t able to go to this contest, but I saw his picture and interview in the newspaper. He was asked which part of the contest experience he liked best. After a moment’s thought, he responded, “I get to read a lot.”
The next year Jimmy didn’t enter any spelling bees. He just wanted to keep on reading. He especially liked to read close to fluorescent lamps. Jimmy said it made him feel kind of tingly. His parents got him his own fluorescent reading light.
He quit playing baseball despite all the pleas of his former teammates. He just read every book he could get his hands on. He wasn’t the old Jimmy Duber I knew. All through middle school and high school, Jimmy spent as much of his day as he could with his nose in a book and sitting close to a fluorescent lamp. After graduation he went to the local campus of the state university and kept on reading. But at the university, his professors wanted him to analyze, synthesize, and interpret what he read. Jimmy wasn’t interested in that and wasn’t very good at it. He dropped out in the middle of his second year.
By now, his hair had gotten darker and he had put on weight due to his lack of exercise. He wore thick glasses. The excitement he felt as a kid when he was shooting slingshots and hunting birds’ nests with me or slamming long balls for his baseball team, he now felt only when he was reading. He laughed only when he was reading.
He went looking for a job, but his social skills hadn’t developed much and perhaps even diminished since that summer after fifth grade. He had a retiring manner in the interviews, and he wasn’t getting any job offers. Finally, he landed a job proofreading telephone directories. Most people in this job can do the proofreading only an hour or so at a time because they lose their concentration and then start making too many errors. They need to do something else for a while before going back to it. However, so long as he had his fluorescent lamp, Jimmy loved it. He got paid for reading and didn’t have to analyze, synthesize, and interpret anything. He did proofreading all day and put in overtime. His employer thought he was great. Even with the raises, Jimmy was cheaper for his employer than any other proofreader because he could do so much proofing. For the big city directories he would spend days just proofing the entries for “Jones.”
Then the great wheels of the international economy began to turn. Proofreading tasks had been shipped to offshore companies, and Jimmy found himself unemployed. He soon spent his meager savings and couldn’t pay his rent. He became homeless. He slept in the parks at night and hung around shopping centers during the day. He carried a sign that said, “Will read for food.” Life was pretty grim.
Fortunately, this phase of his life didn’t last long, and he got a job proofreading and sweeping up at a local newspaper office. It didn’t pay much, but he was employed. He could feed himself and read. As his boss got to know his abilities better, he was impressed by Jimmy’s knowledge of words and phrases.
His boss entered him as a contestant on the television game show Wheel of Fortune. This show used a big spinning wheel for part of it, but the key part for Jimmy was guessing the phrase presented to the contestants. The phrase was on a big board with each letter covered up. With each turn, a contestant requests that all the letters in the phrase that are a particular letter of the alphabet (for example, all the letters that are “e” or all the letters that are “n”) be uncovered. If there is none of that letter, the turn goes to the other contestant. If there are letters of that type, they are uncovered and the contestants get a chance to guess the phrase. The number of letters in each word and number of words in the phrase are the only other clues. The first one to guess the phrase wins to loud applause and many prizes. Jimmy wasn’t excited about it, but went along to keep his boss happy. After his homeless experience, he tried extra hard to keep his boss happy.
On his first show, the four “e”s and the four “i”s were uncovered but not the other thirty-two letters when Jimmy guessed the phrase, “Bob, the phrase is ‘What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.’” Everyone, including Bob the moderator was stunned. Then the audience went wild. Bob, the host, was speechless. No one had ever guessed the phrase so early in the game.
The next phrase was put on the board and after two letters were uncovered (“e” and “a”), he guessed it again. “Bob, the phrase is ‘The vice presidency isn’t worth a warm pitcher of spit.’” The audience went wild again. Bob acted a little embarrassed. He smiled and assured the audience that the show was not rigged, and that Jimmy was an unusually skilled young man.
After a couple more phrases, the show was way ahead of its normal time schedule, and Bob chatted with Jimmy to take up time and to enable the audience to learn more about him. Jimmy’s quiet demeanor provided a challenge to Bob’s abilities to keep the show exciting. Jimmy mumbled and gave short answers. Bob had to work to get him to talk. The audience got quiet, and some figured it was a good time to take a bathroom break. People started walking in and out of the studio seating. Several conversations started up. One person began reading a newspaper.
Bob decided that the best thing to do was to proceed with the game. On the next phrase, Jimmy guessed it after only the letter “o” was uncovered. “Bob, the phrase is ‘Fifty-four forty or fight.’” The audience went wild.
As the winner, Jimmy was invited back for the next round. Jimmy won that one handily, also. He kept winning. He was on the show so much that his boss at the newspaper had to hire a replacement. Jimmy was pulling in gobs of prizes and money. Soon, everyone in the country was watching this phenomenon. He even guessed a couple without any letters being uncovered.
“Bob, the phrase is ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’”
“Bob, the phrase is ‘Read my lips, no new taxes.’”
He soon reached star status. Agents wanted to represent him; paparazzi pestered him; fans deluged him; women wanted to marry him. And the US Senate investigated him.
In serious tones and serious faces, senators faced the news cameras and made sound-bite declarations of national concern. The Senate was going to do its duty.
“It is un-American to have cheating on game shows.”
“The morals of this country’s children are at stake.”
“The United States will lose its influence in international affairs.”
“Laws need to be passed. Cheaters need to be punished.”
The Senate Subcommittee on Un-American Activities called Jimmy and Bob as witnesses. While Bob put on his game-show-host face and unsheathed his witty repartee, Jimmy was as uncommunicative as ever. The subcommittee members were sure he was covering up something, and they intensified their investigating.
Meanwhile, the show producers saw this as great publicity. Not only did they continue with the show, but started a second series called Wheel of Fortune Encores that showed reruns featuring Jimmy Duber. The whole country was watching both shows. Fees for commercials went through the roof. And when the show’s executives were called to testify before the subcommittee, they protested loudly about the indignity of it all, but were smiling and laughing on the inside as they thought about all the money this investigation was garnering for them. They knew that in show business, any publicity is good publicity. Try as they might, the subcommittee staffers and FBI could not find any cheating. Finally the subcommittee quietly closed its investigation.
Meanwhile, Jimmy passed beyond star status and became an American icon. He did endorsements:
Jimmy is sitting at a table with a bowl of hot cereal on it. He looks across the bowl and into the camera through the thick lenses of his eyeglasses. He declares, “I eat Quaker Oats oatmeal because it’s brain food.” He tastes a spoonful as his face transforms into the Quaker man logo.
Jimmy is lying on his back on a sofa, reading a book. The angle of the camera shows the bottoms of his sneakers. The pattern molded on the sole of one shoe says “read” while the pattern on the other shoe says “it now.” The camera then focuses on Jimmy. He puts the book down and looks into the camera. The camera zooms in on his face. He says, “Nike sneakers are perfect for lying on the sofa, reading. Just do it.” He pumps his fist in the air. The swoosh logo appears.
Jimmy is sitting back in a large reclining chair, a fluorescent reading lamp shining over his shoulder while he reads a book. He puts the book down and looks into the camera. The camera zooms in on his face and he says, “Lazy Boy chairs got me where I am today.” The camera pulls back and a long parade of recliners in every color and style cross the bottom of the screen while an announcer tells about Lazy Boy chairs.
Jimmy had agents, lawyers, money managers, fans, and fame. Mothers and schoolteachers were among his biggest fans because he encouraged reading.
But, after a few months, he grew tired of how all this fame was taking away from his time for reading. After winning one last time (“Bob, the phrase is ‘A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.’”), he announced his retirement on the show. There was a great gnashing of teeth in the show’s executive offices, and great wailing in the teachers’ lounges across the country, but no one could get him to change his mind. He had enough money so that he wouldn’t ever have to work again, and he didn’t want to. He just wanted to read.
In a small ceremony, Jimmy married one of the assistants on the show. I was best man. She is a crossword puzzle addict (“Jimmy, what’s a nine-letter word for ‘symbols of virtue’ with ‘e’ as the middle letter?”) and they get along great together (“Try ‘whitehats.’”). They’re living quietly in Cleveland now and send me a card at Christmas. They’re quite happy, spending their time reading and doing crossword puzzles under fluorescent lamps.