Half a lifetime ago, I lived in Far Rockaway, Queens, N.Y. It was before cable TV was widespread. Being a rabid sports fan, it was my good fortune to live right across the street from the Blackwater Tavern, which had numerous satellite feeds. A typical evening started with the East Coast games, and moved westward across the country.
But no matter what the season, at 7 p.m., all the other TVs would get muted and the main TV would be tuned to the game show “Jeopardy!” A few minutes before 7 p.m., the bar started filling up with people who couldn’t have cared less about sports. They were there to match their wits and knowledge with each other and play “Jeopardy!” No score was kept, but everyone had a pretty good idea of who was doing well and who was not. I watched these high-octane battles of intellect with awe.
I don’t recall the bar contestants ever being stumped on the Final Jeopardy question. Except this one time.
“Jeopardy!” was, and still is, unique in that the host gives the answer and the contestants answer in the form of a question. I don’t remember how the host phrased the answer, but it had something to do with the social event of the year, occurring Sept. 12, 1953, in Rhode Island.
As soon as I saw the date and the location, I figured, “What else could it be?” The 30-second countdown began as the three TV contestants worked the problem. I knew the local contestants were having trouble too, as they gathered into small groups to brainstorm. It was considered bad form to take a wild guess. An educated guess was acceptable, but it better have a good line of reasoning behind it.
Thirty seconds had elapsed from first hearing the answer. Now the host repeated it, and one by one, the TV contestants whiffed miserably.
In the moment of silence after the last contestant missed, I heard myself say, “JFK and Jackie, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Newport, Rhode Island.”
A few heads turned my way. The host repeated the question. Then he gave the answer that I had given, just better phrased.
Right away a protest was lodged. “Is this a repeat?” someone asked.
The bartender, an early form of Google, reached for the TV Guide and said, “No, it says it’s new.”
As with many things, there was a simple explanation. A few weeks before, a friend and I had gone to Newport to meet my son who was stationed there as a Navy lieutenant, junior grade. The Navy had a mini law school there to train officers who then can act as counsel for enlisted men.
While we were there, we took a tour of the mansions on Easton Bay. The Breakers, built by the Vanderbilts before the turn of the previous century, was most impressive. It showed what could be accomplished by skilled craftsmen paid 40 cents an hour.
(Fun fact: The Vanderbilts had a rail line built into the ground level of the house so they could transport art, furnishings, silverware and china there from their Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City. After the summer season, it all went back to the city by the same rail line. Not so fun fact: Mrs. Vanderbilt was pre-deceased by her husband and four of her seven children.)
After being awed by all this opulence, we started to hike up into the adjoining neighborhood. A few blocks into our walk, we came to a church with a mounted bronze plaque which said that on Sept. 12, 1953, Sen. (and future President) John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Jacqueline Lee Bouvier were married here.
I thought, “That’s interesting.” Little did I know this would be instrumental in making “my bones” among the Blackwater intelligentsia.
That’s how my story ends, or should have. But the bartender came over and wanted to know how the hell I knew the answer.
At this point, my credibility was sky high, off the charts. It occurred to me that I might never again have a chance to prank a roomful of folks who prided themselves on their IQ, so I replied, “I was there!”
The room got quieter and I realized I pretty much had the stage to myself. So, as calmly and matter-of-factly as possible, I told him a story. I said my favorite uncle was a heavy-hitting lawyer who had business dealings with the Kennedy family and took me along to the wedding. I said the only thing I really remembered was that, at 9 years old, I had to wear a suit.
That seemed to satisfy everyone. Life went back to normal at the Blackwater. Ballgames resumed, the “Jeopardy!” crowd left, and never again did I open my mouth during “Jeopardy!”
In time, though, it dawned on me that while I was out walking in that JFK-loving, predominately Irish neighborhood, I was frequently pointed out as the person who was at JFK’s wedding.
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