My father, Mac McCaughey, was appearing on the daytime version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, now called simply Millionaire. As one of his three “lifelines,” he was allowed to make a call to a friend for help.
Most of my dad’s phone-a-friends had specializations: two doctors for medicine, a NASA man for science and my musician brother, Scott, for those flummoxing rock-and-roll questions.
The last phone line went to my sister’s Fremont home, where a group of five was assembled, including my mom and me. Kerry had a master plan based not on knowledge but on instant research.
Kerry sat in a Captain Kirk swivel chair next to me. Both of us held phones and faced computer screens with the Google search engine up and ready. Just for the Millionaire show, she’d switched to broadband cable. These babies were fast, but I was skeptical. We’d have only 30 seconds to hear the question, do the research and provide the answer. Time was critical.
There were reference books, too–a stack of them. Books? Was I supposed to lunge to the perfect page and line, shoot the right answer to my sister in time for her to relay it over a beeping phone line to my hard-of-hearing father in New York City?
No way this was going to happen. Our best chance was good old-fashioned knowledge. I myself could answer just about any question on Peter the Great, having lived and read in Russia for the last five years. Beyond Peter, unfortunately, my scope was limited.
At 8 a.m. Kerry got the preliminary call from a guy named Burt on the New York set. Yes, we were home. And ready.
The next call came at 11:40 a.m. Burt informed us that Dad was going onstage–into the hot seat.
“All right,” Kerry said. “The next call is it. Remember, everybody, don’t answer your phones until I count to three. Kev, remember to mute.”
Something was wrong with my phone. I was to hit mute after I answered or the thing would start beeping.
Right. Follow instructions. I outlined them in my head: Answer. Mute. Listen. Compute. That was all I had to do. But inside I was hoping, fantasizing, for a good, solid Russia question: Battle of Poltava, Founding of Petersburg …
The call came at 11:50 a.m.
Kerry picked up. Answer. Mute. Listen. Compute. I punched the answer button.
There it was. The familiar voice: “Hello, Kerry, this is Meredith Vierra of Millionaire.”
I forgot all about muting. I was already into listening. If I was beeping, Meredith was polite enough to ignore it.
“We’ve got your father here,” Meredith went on. “He’s a real cutie.”
“You want to keep him?” Kerry said.
Over the line came a burst of laughter from the studio audience.
Meredith told us he was going for $8,000 and he needed our help. She turned us over to him.
My father started into the question–a long one. I listened. But I had forgotten a key step in my answer-mute-listen-compute game plan. COMPREHEND.
There was something about Oprah Winfrey (I’d heard of her) and a book list. (Oprah Winfrey had a book list?) And a novel called Sula.
If my comprehension had been fuller, I might not have fumbled. But the phone, which I tried to pinch between my shoulder and ear, dropped and went bouncing off the reference books.
Kerry turned and whispered, “Sula.”
Compute. Forget the phone. I typed “Sula” in the search box. Or tried to.
My “Sula” had eight letters.
Down to 10 seconds. Maybe less.
I glanced at Kerry’s screen. She’d done her search cleanly and was scanning the answers. “Toni Morrison,” she said into the phone.
“Are you sure?” said my dad’s voice.
“Yes,” Kerry said. But we were cut off. My father never heard the confirmation.
He did not last long after that call. Ten minutes later he phoned us personally to say it was over. In accordance with his Millionaire contract, he refused to divulge how much he had won. He wasn’t certain about Sula, the answer Kerry had given him, so he used his last “lifeline,” polling the audience to confirm. Two questions later, he walked away, not wanting to risk the $16,000 dollars he’d won.
“Is that your final answer?”
That’s the line associated with the show. But for the families of contestants, what lingers is questions. Whenever the McCaugheys get together, we talk about Millionaire, and our questions begin again: “What would have happened if … ”
Everyone plays the “if” game–those of us, like me, whose roles were negligible, and those of us whose roles, like Kerry, were indispensable. It’s all in good fun. Millionaire is just a game, and $16,000 is a happy sort of ending.
My father says he enjoys watching the show more now that he’s been on it. Every day at 4 p.m., he and my mother are in front of the TV. But I know he is wondering which one of these questions would have been his next.
Kevin McCaughey of Saratoga is the son of Mac McCaughey, who won $16,000 as a contestant on the ‘Millionaire’ television show that aired on Nov. 13, 2002.
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