Innocent Bystander


Exterior: long shot: the Masonic Temple in Detroit on a damp and chilling night in the fall of 1943. Decrepit Turret-Top Oldsmobiles, Torpedo-Body Pontiacs, and pontoonfendered Terraplanes stop, squealing, to let shabby crowds of pedestrians cross Cass Avenue to the almost windowless twelve-story Crusader-Gothic monolith of the Temple. Interior: the Auditorium. The coughing audience is seated, the house lights dim, the stage lights rise. Out onto the platform, where a gleaming walnut conference-room table waits unadorned except for microphones, troops a tiny queue of undersized mock-scholars in black gowns and mortarboards, its rear brought up by an oversized mock-scholar, me. The Quiz Kids take their seats, their quizmaster, Joe Kelly, bounds out upon the stage, the red On The Air signs light up, an announcer billboards the show, and, at eight o’clock straight up, the Blue Network and its affiliates carry the program to a waiting nation, coast to coast.

How did I, at fifteen, six-three, and a rather flabby 195, get myself into this? You may well ask. Probably mostly because, for a long time now, American children have been treated as extensions of their parents’ and teachers’ frustrated drives for power and glory, as little guided missiles programmed to rise meteorically and burst dazzlingly above the faces of the crowd. Probably partly, too, because I, like many of these children—the child stars, the infant tap dancers, the tiny, tail-coated piano prodigies—had discovered that the way to an adult’s heart, and the perquisites that flowed therefrom, was through the exercise of my trick intellect.

As an only child, I had been left largely to my own devices of selfentertainment, which netted out to a lot of miscellaneous (and undiscouraged) reading; when it became apparent to my parents and teachers that I was glibber than most in parroting things back, I was not quietly encouraged, as I might have been in Europe, to study deeply for a serious scholarly career—or a serious artistic one. Instead, being in America, I was loudly encouraged, not to say coerced, to become a competition winner. If I had been an athlete, I would have had my arm twisted to become an All-City or All-State (or even All-American) something or other; if I had been a pretty girl, which God forbade, I would have been tempted and goaded to become a Beauty, or, at least, a Homecoming Queen. Since, however, my bulge was in the brain, rather than the brawn or beauty, department, I was early tagged as a contender in the various useless-information sweepstakes with which Americans beguiled themselves and bemused their children during the last years of the Depression and the first years of the war. (I hold my teachers, always eager to aggrandize my struggling private school, more responsible for this than mv parents, who were perhaps too quick to endorse the teachers’ schemes of glory.)

Yellow-brick road

Anyway, my feet were set upon the yellow-brick road to wizardry as far back as 1938, when, at ten, I became the spelling-bee champion of my school and went on to lose the district competition. This was repeated in 1939 and 1940, years I chiefly remember as long, weary, eye-reddening sessions of dictionary-reading and spelling drills with my mother. By 1941, though, I was ready to make my move, and after winning the school spelling bee for the fourth time, I sailed through the district contest and found myself on the stage of WWJ, a local radio station, for the Metropolitan Finals, which, to my surprise, I also won. This sent me on to the, so help me, National Finals in Washington at the end of May, where, in the auditorium of the National Press Club, I bested some poor little girl from, I think, Kentucky on an easy word (“chrysanthemum,” as I remember) and became the National Champion, the emoluments of which office included a $500 Defense Bond, a wooden plaque with two bronze owls on it, and an all-expense-paid trip to New York, where I was interviewed by, and received a column in, Newsweek before heading home to Detroit. Back home, as a nine days’ wonder, I collected a gold watch and an unabridged dictionary from my grateful (and enrollment-conscious) school and a lot more publicity from the local papers. My main reaction to all this was to lose my lunch more frequently than usual, a long-standing symptom of my revulsion to performing in public, and to conceive a lifelong hatred for the exploitation of the young.

Quiz Kid

Admittedly, though, things were dull for all hands after the furor died down, and since I was disqualified from entering any more spelling bees, my mentors began to cast about for new worlds for me to conquer. Nothing showed up for two years or more, and I was left in peace to learn Latin, write several terrible, tear-jerking short stories about war heroes (mostly RAF fighter pilots), and design, with an air-minded friend of mine, model helicopters that actually flew. Then, in the summer of 1943, the fateful news burst upon us that the Quiz Kids radio show was planning a national tour in aid of the War Bond drive, and that they would include a local panelist on the program in each city they visted. There was nothing for it, of course, but for me to enter the various eliminations; and, memorizing the Information Please Almanac and the World Almanac flat out between rounds, I did.

This was an altogether slipperier proposition than a spelling bee, since one’s showing was not based on absolute knowledge but on good luck in being asked a question in an area where one was more or less informed; the only answer was to know a little about everything, or, in the words of Oscar Levant, to possess a smattering of ignorance. With my wide but superficial reading, I was well equipped to start with, and the various almanacs helped. At any rate, I went up through the various eliminating contests much as I had for the spelling bee, and finally lucked out in the citywide contest, which automatically made me a temporary Quiz Kid. Thus I found myself an awed participant in a runthrough with my tiny confreres (the questions were not rehearsed, of course, but I gathered that certain questions were directed at each panelist’s areas of interest during the program) and, finally, in the grand finale, the show itself. I recall only that I was very glad indeed to sit down at the contestants’ table, since I towered a clean foot over the next largest Kid; that I was not very brilliant, though I managed to clean up on one question about military weaponry named for birds and animals (Duck, Warhawk, Mosquito, Panther); and that I was damned relieved to have it over with, not even, this time, having lost my lunch.

Long after my brief appearance, I kept on getting breezy little newsletters full of the doings of the other Quiz Kids, all of which inspired gloomy thoughts of the grueling atrocity of that show-a-week life of being bright for money at home and on the road. Short-term, my spelling and quizzing experiences gave me an unwarranted confidence in my ability at handling myself in public; this got a comic comeuppance late in the war, when, in the course of an extemporaneous speech before the school on our armies in the Pacific, I got so patriotically wheed up that I ended by calling for three cheers for General Douglas MacArthur and getting, of course, dead silence. Longer term, my small ordeals soured me for life on the veracity of teachers and the validity of their desires for me, a sourness which led to my getting kicked out of Harvard for a couple of years after the war. In the longest term, as I’ve already suggested, my exploits on stage and radio fostered an unalterable belief in the sanctity of the child and his own wishes for himself, and I think that one of the things we’re seeing now is a sweeping and national revolt by the young against their elders’ plans for them. While I hope the kids will form real goals for themselves and not settle for such cop-outs as drugs, desultory sex, and aimless travel, I am wholeheartedly on their side of the argument, and I hereby cast one vocal vote for Children’s Lib.