Sitting here in Alexandria watching fat snowflakes float lazily past the windows, I thought of my first-ever trip to the DC area.
It was in the summer leading up to my senior year of high school that I sat on the couch watching Teen Jeopardy! and thought to myself, “I could do this.”
Indeed, and there’s no point denying it, I have been 100% a nerd for pretty much my entire life. I have always read voraciously, loved school, sat near the front row, aced tests, and watched public television. Jeopardy! became the show that occupied my 7:30-8:00 TV viewing slot as soon as I was old enough to realize that there are people in the world who get paid for raising their hands faster than anyone else because they knew a bunch of stuff. My tribe lol
So when I saw at the end of the week of Teen Jeopardy the invitation to audition, I sent in my postcard and figured nothing would come of it.
But then I got the letter: Come to Washington, D.C., it said. You’ve been invited to the tryouts, it said.
My dad went around telling everyone who would listen. My mom started freaking out a little about how we would get to D.C. You gotta understand, we weren’t a traveling family. I loved going places and seeing things, but I did most of it through school. (God bless teachers.) D.C. was going to be a 5 hour drive (what?!) into a giant city (OMG!). My mom got car sick anytime she wasn’t the one driving, and she abhorred big city traffic, lane changes, or pumping her own gasoline. (Hey, PA was the land of plenty, where gas station attendants waited at beck and call to keep drivers from having to smell like gasoline.)
Salvation came in the form of Suzanne, one of my mom’s coworkers. Not only was she happy to go on adventures, she had a friend near DC who worked at Andrew’s Air Force Base. I think he might have been a chaplain’s assistant, but I can’t remember. In fact, about the only thing I remember is that his name was John, and he and Suzanne seemed *really* friendly. And he was a nice guy.
Thus, in a cold November, I found myself in the back seat of a car headed to DC for a weekend. I was missing two days of school (the tryout was on Friday) – also extremely rare. So this was 1000% exciting.
The Jeopardy! tryout consisted of meeting in a room with about 30 other high schoolers to take a multiple choice test. Alex Trebek was there afterward to talk about the show & the process while we waited for the tests to be graded. I don’t remember the bar for passing; I think it was 80% correct. An assistant came into the room and called seven names to advance to the real tryouts.
Alex stood at a makeshift podium while the assistant handed us a bell (like the ones you ring at a counter for service) and explained we would play a mock round of Jeopardy, 3 people at a time. If you knew the answer, “ring in” and follow the “What is…..” format of the show. It was nervewracking, I’ll be honest. I’m sure they were looking at this point for poise, personality, charisma. I did ok; my stage experience at that point in my life was nearly non-existent, so I was quickly given a thank-you and shown the door.
But it was cool. 🙂
With that out of the way, the 4 of us had time to explore the city. John took us onto Andrews AFB — there was extra security at the gate because George HW Bush was there playing golf! We drove up to the clubhouse where several black SUVs lined the drive, surrounded by bored Secret Service agents. I got my photo taken with one of them. He was quite friendly. I’ll have to scan my photos & upload them sometime.
We attended the Protestant serviced at Andrews on Sunday morning, one of my first glimpses into a world of Christianity that wasn’t defined by separatism.
This trip also marked my first visit to the Smithsonian — that occupied the bulk of Saturday. I think I wore out the adults in the group. My goal was to hit as many of the museums on the Mall as I could. We made it through an art gallery, the Castle, the American History museum (parts of it), and Air & Space. Truly, Air & Space was the absolute highlight. I had inherited my dad’s love of all things flight plus developed a devotion for space exploration and science fiction. Mind-blowing.
We fit in a few landmarks too – I saw the Vietnam Wall for the first time on that trip, where my mom paused to look up the name of someone she knew in our hometown. We did a rubbing of his name and took some photos to take back to his mom, who had probably never been to DC to see her son’s name memorialized on the wall.
Alexandria. The Old Town is famous for its brick streets, old buildings, and quaint shops and architecture. I’ve been there several times since then (and I’m typing this post from an apartment only a few miles away) but I’ve never found it as magical as that first time when the lights were twinkling on the streets as we crossed the drawbridge into the historic district.
Travel is mind-expanding. It’s funny to me now to see myself as a kid with little experience beyond the narrow confines of Western Pennsylvania, but that’s where I got my start. I’m thankful for all of the adults who threw me in their car and took me places – near and far – because I can’t imagine living a life without those opportunities to see that the world was bigger than I ever imagined.
My “Backstory” series collects a variety of stories from my formative years. You can find them all under the category “Biography.”