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"Poise under Pressure"

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“Poise under Pressure”

   New York. Manhattan. NBC Studios. Set of the quiz program “Twenty-One.” Evening–7:33. The weekly routine–camera rolling, music playing, announcer’s voice: “Geritol presents...’Twenty-One.’” Instant applause. Voice of Jack Barry, handsome host.

Out from the wings walks Charles Van Doren, first of the evening’s contestants. Charles Van Doren–blond and blue-eyed, young and patrician, Ivy League-educated, university lecturer. America’s current golden boy of trivia–returning tonight after nineteen weeks undefeated–he is a household name. Such was not always the case; the son and the nephew of academic luminaries, he once placed, in name recognition, a distinct third behind his father, Mark, and his uncle, Carl. “Charles Van Doren? As in Van Doren Van Doren?” had been a common refrain from those who met him. It is not so common now.

The other contestant, Mrs. Vivienne Nearing, is in his line of sight. A lady, attractive and smartly dressed. “Wouldn’t letting her win be the gallant thing to do?” Charles asks himself. “It would suit my image and mean freedom for me.” The thought is tempting. For the past five months he has been incapable of leaving “Twenty-One” by the fallibility of his own brain–because for the past five months he has been supplied, on every show, with all the right answers. It was the studio heads’ idea–their policy–and its last victim was America’s former golden boy of trivia, Herb Stempel. Herbert Stempel of Queens, the anti-Charles Van Doren in so many ways. An underdog, a schlemiel with an amazing memory–or so the public believed. He had gotten off finally–as per executives' orders, Charles knows now. But if Herb made an exit, why couldn’t Charlie? An idea forms...Yes, it's a possibility! At the right moment, perhaps...

In the meantime, the match has begun. Question after question–the answers to Charles’ coming, promptly and predictably, through his headphones. Before he knows it, the final and decisive round is reached. The category is royalty.

“Royalty,” Charles repeats. He wagers five points. Here is the question: “Name the kings of the following countries–Norway, Sweden, Belgium, and Iraq.”

The shadow of an idea takes shape in Charles’ mind. Can he try the “Belgium” part last? Yes, certainly.

Now begins the monologue–a show of stalling, a masterpiece of tension (all acted, of course!):

“Well, Norway–that’d be Haakon. King Hakkon. And Sweden-Gustavus. Iraq...I remember, that’s his great-uncle in that wonderful book, The Seven Pillars of...Wisdom. Abdul–no...Faisal. King Faisal! ”

So far, all correct. Nice T.E. Lawrence reference there, neatly inserted.

"And Belgium?"

Now for–as Jack Barry had said–“the moment of truth.” What an apt choice of words! The stalling monologue resumes:

“Belgium, Belgium, Belgium...King of Belgium...Um...Let me see...” Suddenly, the tension is genuine! Out comes his handkerchief–formerly a prop, currently a necessity as perspiration is breaking out, from hot lights and nerves. He pats his forehead and cheeks. “Belgium, King of Belgium...I can picture him, Jack, right down to that Habsburg lip.” More perspiration. Gently, he applies his handkerchief to his forehead again.  He is nervous.  But at least he looks elegant.

A response is called for.

This is it!

“Seems like an easy one...”

Now’s the right moment!


There! The wrong answer-given on purpose and in defiance of the voice through the headphones! At least it was inflected sincerely.

Gasps from the audience–audible disappointment! “I can’t believe it!” someone breathes. From the hot booth Charles can practically hear the executives reeling from shock at the fact that Charles Van Doren, without their permission, just took a dive.

Jack Barry’s voice is surprised as well. “No. No, I’m sorry, Charlie. The answer is 'Bouduain': King Bouduain.”

“Bouduain–of course.”

Of course!

Resting his forehead against the wall of his booth, Charles smiles. The surreptitious smile is gleeful because, with poise and reputation intact, he has managed to exit the quiz show maze.