I dial the 11 digits with practiced accuracy. A familiar voice answers: "Hi, this is Regis Philbin," the recording says, "and you've reached 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.' "
Calling Regis, hoping to land a spot on the show, has become my newest hobby. It's a simple process, but a difficult task. After entering some identifying information, the caller hears as many as three "fastest finger" questions, where four answers must be sequenced on the first try and within 10 seconds. Those answering all three correctly are eligible to become contestants.
The tricky part is the limitless range of topics. You're as likely to be asked about world culture as pop culture, radio-carbon dating as actor-actress dating, molecular weights as film stars' birth weights. But still I try.
My interest in "Millionaire" is, I admit, only the newest phase of my I-wanna-win mentality. I've competed for prizes in radio games, applying my small talent for trivia with a big dose of speed-dialing technology. I've been a finalist in a shopping-mall version of "Wheel of Fortune." Yes, I was that kid in your seventh-grade gym class who ran at full throttle just because some lady with a clipboard yelled, "Go!" I don't always win, but I do like to compete.
In spite of my competitive experience, success with the "Millionaire" calls didn't come easily. I failed to get beyond question No. 2 in my first attempts.
Then I dialed while loading the dishwasher, a method guaranteeing that no family member will get close enough to disturb me, and Regis answered immediately. "Grab a pen and have a calendar ready," he advised. "Question No. 1: Put these four rivers in order from west to east." I nailed that one, helped by the fact that I've moved a lot.
"Question No. 2: Put these movies in order by their date of release, starting with the most recent." Take notes, I tell myself. Think backward. Punch those keys within 10 seconds. Yes!
For the first time ever, I was rewarded by hearing "Question No. 3: Put these rock groups in order according to size, starting with the fewest members." Furiously, I took notes and tried to visualize album covers. My teenage daughter walked past me. "How many members does 'N Sync have?" I screamed. She knew better than to ask questions during a parental phone frenzy. "Five," my live-in lifeline answered instantly.
In the nick of time, I pressed in
"That's correct," the phone voice said over the thump of my heart. "Now it's time to select the taping dates should your name be selected in our random drawing." A few seconds later and I had promised that I could be in New York next week. (Surely I could convince the boss to be happy when the time came.)
"Finally," the recording said, "punch in the phone number where you can be reached between 9 and 11 a.m. Eastern Time tomorrow."
That's 7 a.m. Mountain Time. I'll still be at home. I punched in my home number. "If this number is incorrect, press 1. Otherwise, please hold for instructions."
My mind continued to spin. What if they don't call right at 7? I can't just stay home all morning. I pressed 1, then punched in my work number instead.
"If this number is incorrect...." said the phone, and again my worries began. I'll leave home early and get there by 7, right? No! I have an offsite meeting tomorrow! Do I have that number in the house somewhere? I pressed 1 once more, trying to stall.
"I'm sorry," the no-longer-friendly phone voice said. "For a complete set of rules, please check our Web site."
I collapsed onto the couch, the phone still in my hand. "The cellphone," I whimpered. "I could have used the cellphone!" But no one was listening.
Each time "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" airs, some worthy contestants only wave to the camera and never get to play. But at least they got to New York. They answered their phone questions, they made it through the random drawing, and they got to try.
Me? I'm still sitting home, knowing that, no matter how many fastest-finger questions I got right, it was the multiple-choice question that really mattered: What's your phone number?
I think I'll jot that down.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society