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Commentary : From Out of the Fog, an Answer

October 11, 1987|MARK I. PINSKY | Mark I. Pinsky is a Times staff writer.

Today at 5:30 p.m., when UC Irvine carries the standard for California and the West on the Disney Channel's revival of the College Bowl, I'll be thinking of fog.

In 1970, the last year General Electric sponsored the long-running quiz show on NBC, I was on the team representing Duke University, and identifying that misty meteorological phenomenon was the only toss-up question I answered correctly in one of the longest half hours of my life.

What a contrast. Throughout junior and senior high school, I enjoyed demonstrating my grasp of academic trivia for family and friends on Sunday evenings in our den. I beat the show's participants to the buzzer time after time, confident I could do the same on the small screen if only given the opportunity.

At college in North Carolina in the late 1960s, I stopped watching the program. As that turbulent decade sped to a close, I stopped doing a lot of other things, like studying. In addition to discovering most of the things young people do during college years in any generation, I was too busy writing incendiary columns for the campus daily, making speeches on the quadrangle and washing the smell of tear gas out of my clothes.

Not that I didn't read. I read voraciously, but my reading rarely coincided with my course work. By the time I reached the midpoint of what I like to refer to as my "second" senior year at Duke--with time out for a remedial semester and summer school at several less rigorous institutions--I had failed more than 30 credit hours and recorded not a single A on my transcript. Only by judiciously spacing my failures, and through steadily declining academic standards did I keep from flunking out.

Then I saw an announcement that Duke had been invited to participate in the College Bowl, and that open tryouts for the team would be held.

A small light went on above my head. What an opportunity! With one fell swoop, on national television, I could compensate my parents in some small measure for the aggravation my academic peregrinations had cost them, and at the same time demonstrate that a long-haired, political rude boy could compete with the "good students."

As I went through the written and oral screenings, all those Sundays in front of the television came back to me, and I never doubted that I would make the team.

By the time the Duke administration's powers-that-were realized what I was up to, it was too late. My transcript was scrutinized, and there were a few last-minute, half-hearted attempts to disqualify me. The faculty coach appealed to my nascent feminist consciousness, suggesting that since four males had earned spots on the team, perhaps the most enlightened one might step aside for the female alternate.

Nothing worked, and when I started agitating for changes in the innocuous script prepared by Duke's PR department for the film about the school to be shown at half time of the broadcast, the coach threatened to quit and send us to New York for the weekend by ourselves. The university president, who taught a Friday classics course at his home, interrupted his lecture as I tip-toed out to make the plane for New York to wish me luck and express his confidence that I wouldn't do or say anything on the show that would embarrass the university.

Although I didn't offer him any assurances, I had quietly started down the slippery slope of compromise: agreeing to trade my jeans and work shirt for a suit and tie, and trimming my hair. I also felt I was trimming some of my convictions. For one thing, competitiveness was in disfavor in my peer group, from the arms race and the Vietnam War to intercollegiate athletics.

Saturday afternoon we did several informal run-throughs with the host, Robert Earle, to give us a feel for playing the game in person. No problems. Early Sunday afternoon, before the studio audience--including my parents and next door neighbors up from New Jersey-- took their seats, we took our places on the set and played a dress-rehearsal round against Oberlin College, which had already won several rounds and had three guys with hair longer than mine. Our confidence was growing, and we beat them.

From the opening bell, however, it was choke city. Or maybe just that the right questions didn't come up. Seventeen years later I can still see the Modigliani painting I failed to identify. As the broadcast wore on, and the outlines of a crushing defeat became apparent, I hadn't hit the buzzer once.

Then Earle said, "When a large mass of cool air descends . . . "

Bzzzz. "Duke, Pinsky!"


"Right, 10 points Duke."


I wish the Anteaters good luck today against Ohio State, but regardless of how the contest ends, remember that the questions are a lot easier to answer in front of the television set than in front of the camera.

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