That's the word that stumped me in the Oakland Public Schools' spelling contest of 1956, when I was eleven and attending Lincoln School, near our home in Chinatown.
What kind of word is that to pose to a kid, anyway? No matter. Although I blew "fatigue," I won my school's championship, and got a hefty Random House dictionary along with a certificate that I've kept all these many years. And I've never forgotten that stupid word.
Over those years, I've won many things: student body elections in junior high and high school; DJ spots on the college station and editorships on the campus paper at SF State; the Deems Taylor magazine writing award while at Rolling Stone; a Billboard award for a radio special; a few Emmys in recent years for KTVU's broadcasts of the Chinese New Year Parade, which I co-host with Julie Haener. A couple of lifetime achievement awards (Remember, I was eleven in 1956; it's that time of life.)
The wackiest win had to be on Wheel of Fortune. I got onto the show in 1993, after attending auditions at a downtown hotel, thinking I'd write a newspaper article about the process. One puzzle led to another, and finally to Hollywood, where I wound up winning all three shows I was on. (Back then, as Wheel fans will recall, a "champion" could win three times, max.) I knew the game pretty well, and, at home, solved puzzles with ease. Once, I saw a puzzle go up: eight words, for a "title." I looked at the blank squares and told Dianne, my wife, "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." She gave me a supportive look, and we watched the puzzle unfold. She was not surprised; it's happened many times before. Anyway, we taped all three shows in one afternoon, and after winning the very first round, meaning we'd covered our travel expenses, I relaxed and breezed through the day. One puzzle, for a "thing," was at this point:
R _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ R. I asked for a "C" for some reason, two popped up, in the first word, I had five seconds to solve and blurted out, "recycled paper." Another championship; more fabulous prizes (and a few I wound up forfeiting, since all the winnings were considered earned income). A fun little trip.Just days before, our Audi had let us know it was on its last wheels, and I won an Acura Legend. I won a pair of Rolexes, which I reduced to one lovely watch for Dianne. I got a fancy Bang & Olufsen CD player, which went to a community fundraiser. I won just enough cash to pay taxes on the prizes we kept, and I held onto my cardboard name tag. And my memories of bantering with Pat Sajak and Vanna White.
It was a thrill, to be sure. But for some reason, my all-time favorite win doesn't involve a TV show or an Emmy, or even those satisfying awards at Rolling Stone or in college (the paper won a few statewide awards while I was editor).
It's that spelling contest. That first time out on a stage, under pressure, competing, hoping that your love of reading and your interest in building a vocabulary, your determination to focus on English, even though it was Cantonese that was being spoken by your parents and by most of the surrounding community, would see you through.
It did. I got the feeling that I could be a winner, and I hoped there would be other triumphs ahead.
And I didn't feel the least bit fatigued.
Causes Ben Fong-Torres Supports
Susan G. Komen For The Cure Rocket Dog Rescue