My first-grade teacher, Miss Bosland of Pines Lake Elementary School in Wayne, N.J., once told my mother that I was "a vast storehouse of worthless information."
Thursday night I will appear on the game show "Jeopardy!" (7:30 p.m., Channel 7). Still think the information is worthless, Miss Bosland?
People's reaction to news of my appearance on the popular quiz program has been stunning. Some literally screamed when I told them, and I have been bombarded with questions for months. At the end of a November interview, Geoff Sanderson of the Buffalo Sabres turned to me and said, "Budd, what's this about you being on 'Jeopardy!'?"
Well, Geoff, appearing on the program is the most difficult intellectual exercise I've ever faced. Imagine taking a final oral examination on any subject during your wedding ceremony, with 15 million to 17 million people watching on television, and you'll get the idea.
To be considered as a contestant, applicants must take a 50-question examination, with 35 correct answers needed to be eligible for the show. "Jeopardy!" staffers came to the Buffalo area on June 15 and 16. I passed the exam, filled out an autobiographical form, posed for an instant photo and played a sample game.
We were told that we could be called at any time in the next year or so to come to Los Angeles for the program. But the chances of getting called depend on the number of qualified contestants, the show's staffers said. And because the program uses only 400 or so people a year, the figure is under 50 percent.
I wasn't counting on appearing, so I was rather stunned when the phone rang at my house on Aug. 31, and the voice at the other end said: "Hi, Budd, this is Suzanne from 'Jeopardy!' How would you like to come out to Los Angeles and be on the show?"
I wiggled out of working for four days to make the taping, which was scheduled for Oct. 13 and 14. Ten shows are taped over two days, and most of the out-of-towners arrive on the first day. Even five-time champions usually have to make only one trip to Los Angeles.
That gave me about six weeks to get ready. But how do you prepare for an examination that could be on any subject? First, I watched the show. Every day. When I couldn't see it in person, I taped it. A friend who was on the show several years ago told me to get a pen and practice clicking to work on the timing of ringing the buzzer to answer the question.
I played the "Jeopardy!" computer game until it ran out of questions. I bought a book that contained two-page summaries of great literature. I skimmed through a dictionary of cultural literacy. A friend gave me primers on classical music and opera.
Eventually, the weeks before the show melted into days and then hours. I started to feel nervous about three days before the taping. My wife and I arrived in Los Angeles on Oct. 12. By the way, the program does not pay for airline or hotel costs.
I arrived at the studio at 9 a.m. on the 13th, feeling a bit sleepy after a restless night and carrying two changes of clothing in a garment bag. Ten other contestants showed up, too. We were taken to the green room, a space reserved for that day's players, where we were greeted by a pair of staffers who reminded everyone what an accomplishment it was to be on the show and to have fun while playing the game. They did a great job making us feel comfortable.
Contestant coordinators then went over the personal information that players discuss with the show's host, Alex Trebek, at the start of the second segment of each show.
The contestants, who included a lawyer, a professor, a teacher, a concierge and a video librarian, had time to chat before the tapings started. Surprisingly enough, no one seemed particularly nervous. We were told not to talk to anyone other than each other and designated staff, so that we could not be accused of getting "inside information."
We were reminded that the outcome of a particular game depends a lot more on luck than you might think. The categories can come from almost anywhere, and the "Final Jeopardy" answer can dramatically change the outcome of the game.
I spent the morning hoping for such categories as "The Space Program," "Newspapers" and "Sabres Goalies of the '80s."
When we went out to the set for rehearsal, we took turns writing our names on a screen and using the signaling button. There are small lights on the panels on either side of the answer board that go on when Trebek is done reading a clue. No one can buzz in until those lights go on. Timing is almost everything in a game when three people are likely to know the answer to a question.
The contestants were ushered back into the green room, where the first three contestants were identified. (On the previous show a five-time champion had been crowned, meaning we were starting from scratch.) They went off for some last-minute makeup, while the rest of us headed to the studio audience to watch the show.
When one show ended, everyone was ushered back into the green room, the names of two more contestants were announced, and the drill was repeated. What you will see Thursday is the fourth show of the day's taping, which means I watched the first three shows and had a grilled cheese sandwich at the studio commissary for lunch before getting my chance.
Did I win?
Even my mother doesn't know who won, and everyone will have to watch the program Thursday night to see if I advanced to Friday. (And if I won that game, you'll have to watch Friday's show to see if I had another sleepless night before taping another show or shows the next day. And so on.)
However, I can share a few aspects of the experience.
The concentration level needed to compete under those circumstances is astounding. I barely remember Trebek talking, and I can't recall many of the categories that came up.
Contestants are told that it's a good idea to choose the easiest answers in a category first, if only to warm up to the harder ones. In the final moments of a round, the players can move down the board to make sure they get a crack at the more lucrative answers. The exception is an all-video category, as the slides are loaded in a specific order and can't be shown out of the top-to-bottom sequence.
As everyone says when visiting a television set, it's smaller than it looks. The studio audience has room for about 140 people. Trust me, the contestants never notice anyone else is there.
The program is more or less taped in real time, which means it takes about 35 to 40 minutes to record a 30-minute show. Trebek stays in his dressing room except when acting as host.
When the program is over, contestants are ushered to a table where they sign documents concerning their winnings and are sent on their way. They don't actually receive their money or prizes until after the program airs. Yes, it's all taxable . . . darn it.
When a particular show is over, the returning champion changes clothes while two new challengers get ready to face him. The losers either stay to watch the next show or call for a taxi. Everyone gets a copy of the "Jeopardy!" home game as a parting gift. The other keepsake should be coming in the mail shortly -- a photo of each contestant taken with Trebek on the set.
Until it arrives, it's not as if my house doesn't have reminders of the experience. I am the owner of a "Jeopardy!" pen left over from the initial exam, a "Jeopardy!" calendar for 1999 and a "Jeopardy!" golf shirt; my wife has a "Jeopardy!" sweat shirt.
And I'll probably be giving answers in the form of questions for months to come.