In which your humble narrator learns some key life lessons, courtesy of Mrs. Smith and “Wheel of Fortune”. Some of the names in this tale have been changed to protect… Well, to protect my friend.
Joe Smith is one of my oldest and dearest friends. He was my first roommate in college. That in and of itself does not account for the special bond that has been forged between us. Joe is a just plain special person. He never finished college, and his path between those halcyon days of yore and his current respectable status took several dark and dangerous turns. But Joe is one of my best friends. Years may go by between our get-togethers these days, but time is meaningless to a great friendship.
Joe was the kind of guy, who having read the story in a book (I believe that it was the original M*A*S*H novel) about how to succeed with women, simply had to put the idea into practice. Joe would arrive at a party and immediately start asking each and every attractive woman in the room if she wanted to f***. He would often get his face slapped, or get laughed at, or humiliated in some form. But occasionally, very rarely even, it would work. Joe’s theory was that it saved him a lot of time – and if none of the women in the room were interested he could just have fun getting drunk with his buddies without wasting time and effort playing games to attempt to attract a girl.
Joe was always working on a scheme of some sort in those days. And occasionally, the scheme would require some muscle to back him up. Now, that wasn’t really what I was into, but Joe had some sort of magic field that to this day makes it impossible for me to say “no” to him.
After graduation I got a job working in the Engineering Computer Center for Ford Motor Company. It was a pretty good job, it paid really well, it was interesting, and it was respectable. But one cold January Friday in 1984 I got a phone call at work from Joe. He needed some back up for some sort of scheme that he was working, so he told me “you need to come down and meet me at Ma’s house after work.”
As I said, I had zero ability to say “no” to Joe – so after work I drove to one of the downriver suburbs of Detroit to Mrs. Smith’s house. Mrs. Smith was one of the sweetest little old ladies you could ever hope to meet. I was completely baffled at the time how such a sweet little old lady could have produced a son as nefarious as Joe. That would be just one of the lessons I learned on this day.
It had been snowing all day, so the trip from Dearborn to the downriver area was horrendous. When I finally arrived at Mrs. Smith’s house, I had to park on the street because her driveway was totally filled with wet heavy snow. Mrs. Smith was a recent widow, and an incredibly sweet lady. There is no way that she could possibly have been as old as my memory recorded her being at that time, but she was a tiny frail thing indeed. As always, Mrs. Smith was most gracious in welcoming me in to her home. Of course, Joe wasn’t there yet. I’ll never know if his late arrival was just his standard operating procedure or if he set me up. It doesn’t matter.
Mrs. Smith fed me brownies and hot chocolate and asked me if I wanted to play “Wheel of Fortune” with her. It was her favorite program, she said, and she just loved trying to solve the puzzles before the contestants on TV figured out the solution. Something in Mrs. Smith always brought out the “oh, gosh, shucks” small town boy in me, so of course I told her that I would really enjoy that. As the opening credits of the program played, she asked me if I wanted “to make it interesting.” She proposed a wager, if I could get more answers before she did, she would make me dinner. However, if she were victorious I would have to go shovel out her driveway before she made me dinner. I told her that if she wanted her drive shoveled, I would be happy to just go out and do it. But she insisted that we had to “play” for it.
Now I was a recent college graduate, with a very large vocabulary and I had always been quite good at solving puzzles of most any sort. It seemed totally unfair to me, but I figured that I would play along, win the bet, and then go shovel her drive anyway – just to show her what a good guy I was.
The first puzzle is displayed on the TV and before I can even get my mind around how many words and letters are in the puzzle, Mrs. Smith calls out the answer! She does this consistently all throughout the program. I never even got to the point where I could offer a guess on a single word within a single puzzle. She just waited until they put the puzzle up and called out the answer.
Feeling pretty stupid, I shuffled outside and started shoveling. Just as I finished, Joe drove up and parked in the driveway. The first words out of his mouth are “So, you played ‘Wheel of Fortune’ with Ma. You know, she gets the same program an hour earlier on the station out of Toledo.” Joe had quite a long and healthy laugh at my expense, and then asked me to keep it our secret that I knew how she had defeated me so handily.
Dinner was delicious as Mrs. Smith was an outstanding cook. Joe’s little scheme came off O.K. – that is to say neither of us got hurt or arrested. And I learned more than one lesson on that snowy evening downriver.
Several years later, I attended Mrs. Smith’s funeral. Just before the service started, Joe cornered me and said, “When they ask for people to share memories of Ma, you have to stand up and tell the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ story.” I was very reluctant to do so, it seemed out of place to me to tell the story of how this sweet little old lady conned me. But I can’t say “no” to Joe, especially at his mother’s funeral. So I did as he had asked, and afterwards all of his 10 brothers and sisters – as well as many people I didn’t know – stopped and thanked me. Many of them had tears flowing freely as they told me that my tale perfectly captured her essence. I consider that a bonus lesson from that evening.