Friday, November 28, 2003


My father had surgery earlier this week. Although everything appears fine, I have been thinking about him much the past few days. Probably I should have gone home for the holidays, I know, I know.

My father has watched Wheel of Fortune every night for as long as I can remember. The station carrying it is the CBS affiliate (Channel 8) in Des Moines. Back when I was in college, they would run this contest where they would flash some icon on the screen at the start of a puzzle, and then the eighth person who called in with the answer to the puzzle would win a prize and, probably more importantly from my father’s point of view, have their name and hometown flashed on the screen. He used to be excited when I would come home from college because I can usually get the puzzle pretty quickly. I would tell him the answer, and he would run to the phone.

We had a rotary phone then. (Or, at least, my father was nearly deaf from his thirty years meatpacking, and the rotary phone was rigged so that he could hear with it.) My father would sit there and determinedly crank out all ten digits of this telephone station’s phone number. If the line was busy, he would do it again, until the name of the winner and hometown appeared on the screen. I don’t know if you have any idea how slow dialing a rotary phone is, but also back then it took some time to connect a long distance call.

My sister, who had a deeply merciless streak within her, took some delight in noting that there was someone in Des Moines who had the digits for the local call on his speed-dial making thirty calls in the time it took my father to make one. The hometowns of the winners were almost always either Des Moines or some town very close to it; I never saw a winner from over a hundred miles away like we were. My father had basically no chance of winning but carried on every night as if he was oblivious to that. This annoyed my sister to no end, like it was some kind of affront to the familial intellect. I sometimes I allowed myself to feel annoyed too, although I don’t know why.

What was my father supposed to do? We had the rotary phone because it was what we could afford that would accommodate his hearing. Nobody would have regarded it as sensible for us to pay a bunch of money we did not have for a touchtone telephone for the hearing impaired just so we could have a better chance of winning this contest someday. We did not have the resources to pick up and move closer to Des Moines, I think most people would think it was foolish to pick up and move just so one could have a better chance of winning a little television station contest some night.

What my sister and I had concluded was that it was the smart thing to resign that one wasn’t ever going to win the prize. As I get older, it becomes harder for me to see wisdom in someone deciding that losing is inevitable and that labors to the contrary are pointless. Especially when you don’t have any alternatives that will increase your odds of winning and especially when, ultimately, you just really enjoy Wheel of Fortune. Even though he never won, I am positive that my father enjoyed rushing to the telephone every night more than he would have enjoyed staying put in his chair and grumbling about how the contest was really just for people in Des Moines.

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