PETER THE UNLUCKY. A MEMOIR
Since we graduated from high school in Meriden, Connecticut, Peter and I have kept in touch or, rather, he has. We never exchange letters — although I've written him, he's never written back. Instead, about once a year the phone will ring, and it will be Peter calling from California or wherever else he happens to be. In our high school yearbook The Annual for 1952 he is pictured with Carolyn Kamens among the class notables as "Most Likely to Succeed." Among the ads at the back of the book there's a snapshot of Peter standing in front of a blackboard. On the board there's a diagram and the caption reads, "The Peter Theorem," for the man has an I. Q. of 165.
Sometime during the fall of 1986 he phoned. "Luigi!" he said, "do you ever watch 'The Wheel of Fortune' on TV?"
I laughed. "Never. What's up?"
"Don't miss it tonight," he said, "tonight or tomorrow night — check your local listings. I'm on."
"Not again!" For Peter had been on a game show several years earlier, and he'd won quite a number of cash and prizes — but I'd missed that one. We chatted awhile.
"Do you have my new address?" he asked.
"I think so," I said, assuming he meant his second California address, though it wasn't that new. He asked if we'd be going back to Meriden for the Christmas holidays, but I said no, I had no family living there any more, and my wife Jean's sister Ann was the only member of her family still in town. "I'll be going to the Modern Language Association convention in New York City just after Christmas, though, to help publicize The New Book of Forms which will just have been published."
"I'll be in the east then, too," he said. "Where will you be staying?"
"At the Grand Hyatt."
He said he'd probably catch me there. "Don't forget 'The Wheel of Fortune,'" he said.
I answered something like, "Okay, Peter, I'll make an effort to watch you tonight." But I did better than that. Even though I couldn't be home to see the program, I asked a colleague to tape the show for me, and not long afterward I bought a VCR myself. The tape became one of my fourteen-year-old son Christopher's favorite playbacks for a while. He kept bringing in friends to watch it.
The first contestant was Lee Stewart, a sailor; a secretary, Becky Edsel, was the second. Pat Sajak, the host, introduced "Peter" as "George." In fact, his first two names, like those of his late father, are George Peter, but when he was young everyone knew his father as George and no one called the son "junior," so he was called Peter instead. After the death of his father Peter began using his real first name, but I could never get used to it.
Sajak said that he saw my friend was a writer, and this seemed to take Peter aback. What I surmise is that he had said he was a "grants writer," someone who puts together proposals for foundation and government funding — Peter had been free-lancing along those lines for several years on the West Coast — and Sajak had misunderstood. In fact, Peter had wanted to be a writer, but he had never done anything with it. I'd been responsible for publishing a science-fiction poem of his in a little magazine called Starlanes back in the early 1950s, but I am unaware that he'd ever followed up with efforts of his own to appear in print. Whatever the case Peter, typically, blustered through Sajak's error and said he'd written some short stories and was working on a novel.
Peter was a good deal balder than when I'd seen him ten years or so earlier when he'd visited us in Oswego, New York, and brought us all a virulent, alien strain of flu. There was no mistaking him, however: the prominent aquiline nose set among the matching Greek features; the slightly stooped posture, which he righted now and again with a hitch of his shoulders thrown back; the satyr's grin, and the lively eyes darting shrewdly about. He looked newly showered and he was immaculately groomed.
My wife says her clearest recollection of Peter was at a party during high school at the home of our high school classmate and her childhood playmate, Tomie DePaola, now the famous children's writer and illustrator. She walked into a nearly-empty livingroom to see Peter standing before the mirror over the mantel, preening in the glass and admiring himself. "I remember thinking to myself, 'That's pure Peter,'" she told me.
When the preliminaries are over the sailor begins the game. He is looking to fill in a phrase, and on his first spin of the big wheel he asks for a "T." Vanna White turns over the appropriate square, and he gets his letter, but when he spins again the arrow lands on "Bankrupt," and it is the secretary's turn. She asks for an "H" on her first spin and gets two of them. The first word on the board is obviously "The." On her second spin she asks for an "R," but there is none in the phrase, and Peter gets to spin for the first time.
The arrow lands on $250.00 and Peter says with a big grimace, "I'd like an 'N'!" There are three of them in the phrase. He says, "I'll buy a vowel" — there are two E's in the phrase, including one in the first word, "The." On the next spin the arrow lands on $400.00 and Peter asks for an "S" — there are two of them; then "F": one word is obviously "of." Peter cannot lose — he spins again while the other two contestants look on with envy and boredom.
Next Peter wants an "M" and he gets two of them; "K" next — Peter has it. He says, "The milk of human kindness" in the carefully enunciating voice of an intelligent robot. Applause, applause — Peter, who has $2750.00, applauds himself and the audience does likewise. He shakes hands with Sajak.
When he came to visit us in Oswego where I had been teaching college for many years, we reminisced about our high school days and our crowd. I showed him that I still had a copy of our "Fantaseers" calling card: white lettering on black plastic, and a photo of the Fantaseers' Salem Witch Trials skit that I'd written and we'd performed in our junior year. There was Ben Barnes on the bench as judge Hathorne, holding up a string of paper dolls and cutting their heads off with a pair of scissors. I am dressed in my father's old swallow-tail coat, and Paul Wiese is the other prosecutor in an insane getup no Puritan ever wore. Peter is a member of the jury with the rest of the boys — Lindsey Churchill, Bill Burns, George Hangen, Art Von Au and the rest of them. Paul had wanted to gouge the eyes out of one of the witches, palm a hard-boiled egg, and throw it out into the audience, but the faculty censors — one was Mark Bollman, as I recall, and another, the Latin teacher, Ruth Coleman — wouldn't let us do it. Nevertheless, the production was a great success.
Some of the girls in our crowd had played the witches. Peter selects gold cufflinks as part of his prize, and "I've got to have that oak tray set for munchies," he says. Jean and I are groaning with chagrin as we sit in our living room before the television set. This is her first viewing, but I've returned to the tape time and again, fascinated as a cobra in a wicker basket listening to his fakir's piping. This is vintage Peter, the Attic pixy.
In high school Peter and Lindsey were known as the brains of the school. They were both members of the National Honor Society, both straight A students. Lindsey and I had been occasional playmates when I'd lived on Curtis Street during the third and fourth grades at Israel Putnam School. The Churchills had lived on Elm Street, not far from the high school were Mr. Churchill taught English, and it was a considerable hike for me to Lindsey's house — I had no bicycle until the fifth grade. But we had gotten along well, though he was a year younger than I.
A year or two later Lindsey had skipped a grade, and in Meriden High during our sophomore and junior years, he was a member of our Class of 1952. Both he and Peter were charter members of the Fantaseers, our "Science Fiction Reading Club," the distaff side of which was the "Reesatnafs," of which my future wife was a peripheral member — peripheral in her own eyes, not in anyone else's. The combined bunch was "The Fantatnafs" — it was the girls who had coined that phrase.
Although Peter's I. Q. was well into genius range, Lindsey outstripped everyone at the end of our junior year by winning a full tuition scholarship to Yale University and skipping his senior year in high school. Peter was himself scheduled to attend Yale when he graduated. Although his classmates were well aware of Peter's brainpower, we also knew he was not as highly motivated as Lindsey, and we could hardly miss the fact that he tended to get through his courses with a minimum of effort and a maximum of glitter. Peter was nothing if not flashy in a sardonic sort of way.
Lee, the secretary, bends over to spin the Wheel of Fortune for her second try. She asks for a "T" — she is trying to figure out an event. She spins again and asks for an "H": there are two of them; spins again...and lands on "Bankrupt!" She loses her turn.
Back to Peter who spins, smiling. The arrow lands on $200.00 and he asks for an "R" — there are three in the event he's trying to guess. He elects to spin again; he calls out, "Pin! Pin! Pin!" and it does...the arrow lands on "Pin." He bends over the railing to pull the cover of the "Pin" space and discovers he has won only $150.00.
While we sat and talked during his visit to Oswego I was startled to hear Peter say, "I felt threatened by the Fantaseers."
"Threatened?" I asked.
"Yes. The Fantaseers seemed to be your milieu, but it was destabilizing for me. It wasn't the image I wanted. I wanted to be accepted by the athletes as well as the intellectuals, and the Fantaseers had the reputation of being oddballs."
"Then why did you belong?" I asked.
"Because all my non-jock friends belonged," he said.
He asks for an "N" — it begins to look as though his victory is assured. Vanna White turns over three N's on the board and Peter spins again. The arrow lands on $250.00 and Peter wants a "D" — the fourth word of the event is obviously "and." Peter wants an "A" and gets six of them!
Peter always wanted A's but, unfortunately, when he went to Yale he didn't get them. The glitter evidently wouldn't sustain him on the college level. While I was beginning my floating hegira about the world courtesy of the U. S. Navy, I heard that he'd had to leave Yale and, further, that he'd enrolled at New Britain State Teachers' College, now Central Connecticut State. I was amazed to learn eventually that he'd had no better luck there than at Yale.
Peter spins again, asks for an "L," gets two and elects to solve the puzzle for $1950.00: the event is, "Arriving an hour and a half late." Peter chooses a pocket watch for about $300.00, a chest for $435.00, an entertainment center for $1190.00 — after two rounds Peter has won $9275.00.
I'm not sure of the exact sequence of events that followed in Peter's early career. I know that he had to leave New Britain College a second time after being readmitted, and that he joined the Army and spent some time in Germany with the M.P.'s, but which came first I'm not sure. I do know that eventually, when he'd served his enlistment and returned to civilian life, he attended Fairfield University and acquired his B. A. at last. He was married.
Jean and I, and a friend, Marie, had dinner with the newlyweds one evening. Peter's bride served a dish I'd never had before but that I loved — hamburger Stroganoff. A year or two later their marriage was annulled — there were no children — and we were into the 1960's.
Jean and I had been married four years when, in 1960, our daughter Melora was born in Meriden during the summer between my leaving the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and beginning my first teaching job at Fenn College, which is now Cleveland State University. My First Poems was published the same summer. I'm not sure in what year Peter founded an "alternative school" for children in or around New Haven, but he stayed there awhile. Next we heard he'd gone to Cape Cod to be the founder of a similar public school program there. And then we pretty much lost track of what he was up to, though he'd fill in a few details when he put through his annual phone call.
Peter gets to spin first in the third round of "The Wheel of Fortune." The arrow lands on $400.00 and he asks for an "S" — there are two of them; he spins — $500.00 — asks for an "N" and gets it. He spins again: $250.00, asks for an "R" and gets two. Another spin, Peter asks for a "T" and gets one of those as well. He buys an "E" — there are three of them in the three words.
When my daughter Melora was about seventeen and my son, Christopher, four or five, Peter got married again. His bride was the daughter of a well-to-do New Jersey couple. Jean and I went down to Meriden to visit our families, and we drove with Marie down to Jersey to the wedding. Unfortunately, we ran into a huge traffic jam on the Newburgh bridge along the route, and we arrived too late for the ceremony, but in time for the reception.
There we ran into several of our old high school classmates. One was Phil Riley who had lived nearly across the street from my family on North Third Street when I was in the fifth and sixth grades. Phil had a brother who was afflicted with Downs syndrome, and most of the neighborhood kids had been at least leery of him, if not downright afraid. Fortunately, these are more enlightened times. Jim Pagnam, also from the West Side unlike Peter, who was from the East Side of Meriden, was present as well, and one or two others including Jim Masterson. In high school Peter, like Lindsey, had been something of a jock as well as an intellectual, and these were more-or-less his jock friends rather than Fantaseers or Reesatnafs.
Peter wants another vowel, so he buys an "A" and Vanna White turns over the squares. He spins, the arrow lands on $900.00 this time! Peter wants a "P" — it's obvious now that the "thing" he is trying to guess is "Peppermint Life Savers," and Peter solves the problem. He applauds himself while Sajak celebrates his accomplishment. Peter selects his-and-her wedding bands and he says, "Okay, for $1800.00, let's go for the brass bed!" He says, "I'll take the books," and, with vast understatement, "I'm kind of a reader." He gets a stack of Simon and Schuster books, including the novel by John Erlichmann of Watergate infamy. Peter licks his lips as he listens to the list of all the things he's getting. He now has a total of $13,475.00 in money and prizes. We glimpse the sailor and the secretary out of the corner of the camera from time to time.
Peter worked for a New York publisher for a while as some sort of technical person having to do with the printing operation — or so I seem to remember, but that may have been earlier. He and Ceil moved out to California after a while and he began doing his grants writing for various colleges and institutions out there. I think, however, that eventually the Reagan administration cutbacks in support for science, health, and education seriously undermined Peter's ability to make a living by free-lancing, though Ceil always had a steady job.
This game-show program is practically a duplicate of the other that Peter had won not long after he began living on the west coast — it was, if I recall correctly, "Jeopardy" on that occasion. I hadn't seen it, but I heard that he'd won something like $40,000.00. Sajak wishes the sailor "Better luck next time" and thanks him and the silent secretary for being on the show. "It's a clean sweep for this guy," he says patting Peter on the shoulder.
Mugging away, Peter says, "Well, that's the way it goes." He says he's going to go for "The ca-a-ar!" — a Mazda RX7 sports car worth over $13,000.00. Peter has to guess a "Thing" in this portion of the show, which is a hurry-up version. He is given five consonants and a vowel, and he chooses "T, N, R, S, L," and "E." He gets the "L," the "N," two E's" — "Lead pencil" is the object. There is no way Peter can lose now. He solves the puzzle, and the audience goes bananas. Peter applauds too.
Pat Sajak takes the microphone off Peter, escorts him, with Vanna, to the car, and he gets in. Sajak says, "Look out, look like a winner, and wave to America." Peter hangs his head out the window, waves at the camera, and grimaces — it's supposed to be a smile, one surmises. He mugs away like crazy. Sajak says, "You know, back in the early days of television, there were a lot of kind of cerebral game shows with people like Bergen Evans and so forth...you look like a panelist on one of those shows."
Peter replies, "I would have been a panelist, but I ran out of wood." Sajak does a slow double take, mutters something half under his breath, says goodbye to the audience, and the game is over. Peter has won everything, over $32,000.00 in all.
That was in 1986. Four or five years later Peter put through his annual call, but he acted a bit oddly on the phone. When I tried to call him back at home I got Ceil who seemed startled. She said he wasn't there, and she gave me another number to call. When I got Peter back on the line he admitted that he'd phoned to ask for a loan but had chickened out. He and his wife had split up and he'd been living in an apartment with several other men. He was afraid he was going to be out on the street if he didn't get up his half of the rent.
"But what happened to the money you won on 'Wheel of Fortune'? I asked. Ah, he said, that had gone to pay the back taxes on the things he'd won on "Jeopardy" — the IRS had hounded him for years. I told him I'd send him a fair amount to help him out. He said he'd pay me back one day, but I told him not to worry about it.
A year or so later he phoned again. The touch was easier this time, it seemed. "I can't afford to adopt you," Peter, I said. He argued with me, but I refused. "I already have a family," I told him. "You have one too, don't you?"
"Yeah, if you can call them that," he said.
"I've already sent you a rather large sum of money on one occasion," I told him.
"Oh, yeah. That came in handy," he said.
Some time later he called once more. This time all he wanted was a small loan — he said he was living out of his car. I told him that what he wanted from me wouldn't solve his problem, nor even stave it off for long. There were social agencies in San Francisco that could do him some permanent good, so I refused again and he rang off in anger. Since then I have received one or two collect calls from San Francisco, but the caller on each occasion has hung up before I could accept. "You will not be charged for this call," the operator informed me.
In July of 1994, at a reunion of the old high school crowd that was held on Cape Cod in the home of Carolyn, one of the Reesatnafs, I discovered that Peter at one time or another had also phoned several of those who were present to request money, which some of them had sent. "You know, we saw him several times when he was working with his alternative school in Barnstable," Carolyn said. She told us that when Peter had called her from the West Coast to ask for a loan, it had coincidentally been on the evening that some friends of hers and her husband's had been visiting from San Francisco. When Peter had hung up Carolyn explained the situation to her guests, one of whom was herself a worker in the San Francisco social services system. She promised that when they got home she would try to locate Peter and give him a hand. "She did try," Carolyn said, "but she could never locate him anywhere."
On another visit to Meriden some time later I was discussing Peter with Jim Masterson. “You know what his problem is, don’t you?” he asked me.
“He’s an addict.”
I was astonished. “I never saw Peter take drugs, though I’ve seen him drink some.”
Jim shook his head. “Not drugs or alcohol,” he said.
I cast my mind back to the early years, and I recollected that Peter had always been involved in poker games, at Fantaseer meetings, at parties, after school, even during study halls sometimes.
“That’s why he never went to class in college,” Jim said. “All he did was play cards. That’s what happened to the money he won on those game shows, all the money his friends sent him. Sometimes he was lucky, most times he was not.”
And that’s what luck can do to a guy with an I. Q. of 165.
There is a belated epilogue for this story. Just before Christmas, 2016, Peter called me once more from San Francisco. He had been trying to phone me in Maine. He didn't know Jean and I were spending the winter at our home in Oswego, New York. He tried to get me twelve times and finally called the Lincoln County sheriff to ask him to check out our Dresden residence to make sure we weren't lying around dead inside. Our neighbor Nancy Call saw the sheriff's car in our drive and went over to see what was going on. It all got straightened out eventually, and I phoned George to reassure him that all was well.
It appears that all these years later he had decided to repay some of the “loans” he had received from his friends, including Jim Masterson and me, but when he tried to phone Jim, Peter discovered that Jim had recently died. Panic seems to have set in and he made the first of the calls to me to try to make sure he wasn’t too late in my case as well – I assured him I was not yet quite dead, and he said he was sending me a check for the $500.00 he owed me.
He did that. I received it, was amazed, and immediately deposited it in my bank account. Peter called once more to request that I deposit the check as soon as possible. I assured him I had done just that. He thanked me, and I told him I’d be in touch. By way of my gratitude for something I had never expected to happen, I sent him a few of my books. I hope he’s enjoying them.
Except for the epilogue of this memoir, it was collected in Fantaseers: A Book of Memories, by Lewis Turco, Scottsdale, AZ: StarCloudPress.com, 2005, 196 pp., ISBN 1-932842-15-2, paper. Available from Amazon.