With Election Day looming, I thought I knew everything I needed to know. Until one night this week, when I felt the eyes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson upon me. I peered at the paper in my hand.
And suddenly, I was in the ranks of the undecided.
Who was the first president to cross the Atlantic Ocean on a ship, while in office?
Who was the first Hispanic to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
What year did Prohibition end?
Such are the quandaries on Trivia Night at Founding Fathers Pub.
This cozy Allentown tavern, a stable long ago, is the perfect place to test your horse sense. The soft light, historic flags, and ubiquitous presidential portraits set the stage for an epic showdown. Owner Mike Driscoll is a former teacher and he knows his trivia. And so, on the first Tuesday of each month, a crowd comes to the bar to be grilled.
Venturing into Trivia Night for the first time, I found it jammed, mostly with millennials. To my delight, the first group I spoke to invited me to join their team. My new teammates were Patrick Bartholomay, Stephanie Wheeler, and Pat's cousin Emily Doyle (nicknamed "Nacho" because that was her job, to go fetch the nachos).
What hospitality! The guy on the next barstool was visiting for a week from Los Angeles, had the same luck. He was embraced by a different team. Is Western New York great or what?
Soon after 7 p.m., Driscoll distributed 60 questions, in stapled, four-page handouts. Teams get 20 minutes or so to write down the answers, no electronics allowed.
Under the pressure, my head swam. I persuaded my poor team that John Adams was the first president who, during his term, had sailed to Europe. It sounds crazy now. How would the nascent United States have entrusted its chief executive to the high seas? I am also afraid I talked too loudly. Other teams, I learned, can eavesdrop.
Still, a lot went well. My new friends, seasoned competitors, stayed cool. Patrick knew, impressively, that a secret Irish society of Pennsylvania coal miners were the Molly Maguires. Stephanie, a nurse, answered scientific questions. Nacho, too, was worth her salt.
"Five minutes left," Driscoll intoned. And then it was time.
Teams grade each other's papers -- an old teacher trick. Driscoll ran through the questions. We shouted answers, and learned if we were right. I felt bad about my John Adams answer (the correct answer was Woodrow Wilson), and about a question I had misinterpreted, aptly about the phrase "mea culpa."
Grudgingly, Driscoll agreed to the crowd's insistence that he accept "sulfur" instead of "hydrogen sulfide."
"Ohhhhh, I'm being lenient with you!" he roared.
A cheer went up at the Hispanic musician question. The answer was Carlos Santana, and most teams, including ours, got it right.
"The bar rejoices!" Patrick laughed.
The top two teams -- we weren't one of them -- duked it out deafeningly. You had to witness it to believe it, a half dozen guys lined up, bellowing answers at the tops of their lungs. God knows how Driscoll could make out the answers. The melee ended in a tie, which I understood was a rarity.
The night ended with a round of questions open to all.
The crowd had thinned. I was able to approach, with deference, one of the winning teams. Folks at the bar had filled me in on these brainiacs who, I heard, had dominated for years. They get there early to score a prime table, now littered with their loot: Skittles, Godiva chocolates, wine.
They were teachers, wouldn't you know. And this being Buffalo I knew one of them, Sarah McFadden. She made me feel better about my screw-ups.
She said: "Every night, everyone has one thing that you're absolutely sure of, and then you find out you're wrong."
That made me happy. Actually, the whole night made me happy.
Who knew you could walk into a bar, and walk out smarter? Plus, revel in an unplugged evening. Polite company, too. Remember the election? Amazingly, nobody mentioned it.
The night brought one bonus question. I was honored when my teammates asked if I'd come back in December.
"I would love to," I said.
At last, an answer I was sure of.
Story topics: 100 things