My Turn: Memories of ‘Jeopardy!’

  • Alex Trebek speaks during a gubernatorial debate in Pennsylvania on Oct. 1, 2018. Last March, Trebek announced that he had been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. AP

  • Mike Moffett of Loudon appeared on “Jeopardy!” in the 1980s. Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 11/7/2019 7:00:25 AM
Modified: 11/7/2019 7:00:15 AM

The Final Jeopardy answer is “Alex Trebek.” The Final Jeopardy question is at the end of this column.

Suffering from pancreatic cancer, Trebek is transitioning away from the Jeopardy! television game show he’s hosted for over 35 years. During that time the avuncular Trebek endeared himself to countless Americans who got smarter while watching regular people seek fame and fortune on his iconic show.

Trebek’s nightly Jeopardy! drama was and is a living room staple for many families. So Trebek’s health struggles impact millions of people who “know” him but have never met him – as well as those who have met him.

Like me.

I was a Jeopardy! contestant.

As a Marine Corps lieutenant stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., back in the eighties, I found myself watching Jeopardy! and knowing many of the answers – or questions, actually, if you know how the game works. So I headed up to a Jeopardy! tryout in Los Angeles, joining a big crowd of wannabes for a 50-question test. The tests were corrected and most people were sent home, but they kept a few of us for an audition, and then sent us home as well.

A few days later I received a call inviting me to be a Jeopardy! contestant. As Jeopardy! taped five shows a session, I was encouraged to bring a change of clothes.

Dreaming of fame and fortune, I speeded up I-5 to L.A., my Marine Corps dress blues hanging behind the driver’s seat. At the studio, would-be contestants were sequestered during preparations for the first taping – for which I was invited to be a contestant. Apparently a New Englander/Marine officer combination was desirable to the show’s producers.

I asked if I could change into my dress blues and they said yes, but I’d then have to wait for a later taping. So I got into uniform and watched three tapings with growing angst. They had great categories and I would have won all three shows. Why did I ever ask to wear a uniform?

I got the call for the fourth taping and took my place between Rocky, the defending champion, and a woman who was a member of the Mensa (genius) Society. Trebek bantered with the crowd and had some lights adjusted as it dawned on me that I was now positioned to humiliate myself on national television. I had a panic attack, which changed to abject horror when I saw the first round of categories – obscure subjects about which I knew little. Rocky flew out to a big lead followed by the Mensa woman as I lamented passing on the first taping.

But then Trebek did his contestant interviews and we chatted about New Hampshire. His calming demeanor dissipated my panic, and when I saw the next set of categories I figuratively licked my chops. The “Civil War” was very good to me and I made a charge and took the lead, with time for one more question. I chose “Golf” for $600.

“Of the Ryder, Curtis and Walker Cups, the trophy competed for by women.”

As a sports guy, I knew the Ryder Cup was a male competition so I buzzed in and said “What is the Curtis Cup?” But I immediately knew I should have said “Walker” and I lost $600. The Mensa lady buzzed in and said “What is the Ryder Cup,” which was obviously wrong. So Rocky, by default, buzzed in and said, “What is the Walker Cup?” thus winning $600. The $1,200 swing gave him a slight lead going into Final Jeopardy, for which the category was “In the News.”

A news watcher, I bet all my thousands and waited for the answer, which was “The year of a new pope, a test tube baby, and when Oscar turned 50.” I confidently wrote: “What is 1978?”

The Mensa lady got it wrong and Trebek then came to me and reviewed my answer.

“What is 1978? That is correct. And what did the lieutenant bet? He bet it all!”

The studio audience erupted with applause, apparently pulling for the Marine from New Hampshire who made the big comeback and then successfully bet it all.

“Wow!” exclaimed Trebek. “A lot of support here for the Marines!”

My heart was joyful. I’d done it! The only way I could lose was if Rocky bet all his money and if he also got it right.

Which he did.

The crushing defeat devastated me. The show ended and the lights went down and Trebek came over to chat with us and his generous comments eased my pain, and presumably that of the Mensa lady, too. Trebek clearly had special empathy for the losers on his show who put themselves out there only to fail on national TV.

Rocky would keep all his money and return again as defending champ. I later learned that Trebek hired him as an assistant. My second-place prize was a La-Z-Boy recliner, which still occupies a “reading nook” in my Loudon home.

I never watched Jeopardy! again. Too painful.

Except once, when 60 Minutes did a feature on the show, which interested me, as an erstwhile Jeopardy! alum. They showed footage from a show, of course, and of all the thousands of shows from which to choose, they selected the one I’d been on. There I was, again on national TV, in my dress blues between Rocky and the Mensa lady.

While insisting on wearing my uniform probably cost me fame and fortune, I remain proud of those dress blues, which now hang in a closet not far from my Jeopardy! chair.

C’est la vie.

Oh yeah. Our Final Jeopardy question: “What TV game show host will always be remembered for his kindness and empathy to a terrified Marine Corps lieutenant from New Hampshire?”

(Mike Moffett of Loudon is a retired professor, Marine officer and former state representative.)

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