Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cool things about the 1989 National Spelling Bee

Here's Kavya Shivashankar, last year's very deserving winner, modestly rejoicing after clinching "Laodicean." But don't let her composure fool you. That's almost certainly the best moment of her life...up to that point, at least. Most other people's reactions in the auditorium were more like her parents in the background.

Anyhow, this year's bee is coming up. Finals on Friday evening at 8:00; catch the details here.

I already wrote at length about the bee last year. (And aptly enough, I'm posting this 21 years to the day after I won Nationals. Not intentional, actually.) So indulge my solipsistic side. What made 1989 for me? (Aside from the obvious, of course.)

- The Capitol Hilton. No cooler hotel EVER. Well, at least until the bee moved in 1996 to the Grand Hyatt Washington. Wait...no. This one was still the coolest, if only for two things. The competition was held on the 2nd floor above ground, and not three claustrophobia-inducing floors below terra firm. Also...

- Trader Vic's, part 1. Probably where I nurtured my nascent tiki fetish, and definitely where I indulged my love of pina coladas. (Virgin at the time, folks, virgin! I was only 14! Geez...)

- Trader Vic's, part 2. Much to the consternation of my fellow spellers, I was not present at the post-banquet spellers-only party. The last thing I wanted to do was while away the evening doing nothing but sign autographs. I felt I'd earned the right to do whatever I pleased that night. So once the banquet was over, I turned to my pal and fellow speller Joel, and said, "Let's get outta here and go to Trader Vic's." Thus began one of the greatest evenings of my life, wherein Joel and I just talked about all things bee-related, and then some. Major bonding, the type that happens rarely in a lifetime, at best. And years later, we're still in touch. (The Trader Vic's didn't enjoy the same fate; when I returned in 1995, I was crushed to find it was gone.)

- Questionable songs, part 1. To be specific, Pink Floyd's "On The Turning Away." Meh, okay version from Momentary Lapse of Reason. But the version I had going through my head was from Delicate Sound of Thunder - exponentially better than the original. This one was with me ALL DAY - literally, from the second I woke up until I nailed that final "r." I even ran it through my head so that I spelled the last letter at the moment the final verse finished and the grand outro began. Video of me at that time shows me deep in thought. Well, kinda. I felt confident I had the bee in the bag, but I was just playing the song in my head, waiting for it to get where it needed to, and I knew the moment couldn't be rushed. Milking it, milking it...

- (Really) Questionable songs, part 2. I can't believe I actually had "Wind Beneath My Wings" running through my head nonstop from shortly after I won for a few days afterward. Actually brought tears to my eyes once or twice. TOTALLY ashamed to admit this.

- (Really, REALLY) Questionable songs, part 3. Of all the cracktastic CDs I could have gotten with my prize money, I chose those two toe-tapping classics: the Batman soundtrack by Prince and American Dream by CSNY. (Sold within a year after purchase, folks.) And for some reason, "Got It Made" ended up being my expression of elation in the weeks following June 1st. Kind of a light sound, but a bummer of a song. Only lyric that really applied: "Glad that you got it made...you are the only one I've ever seen do what you done."

- Superstitions. Like the idea that if I saw my reflection at any time while I was onstage, the next word would have been my last. And in such a mirrored, chandeliered place like the Presidential Ballroom, this could have been WAY easy. But I never saw my reflection anywhere on the second day.

- #218. Out of 222 spellers. MAJOR stroke of good luck. Why? Back then, there was no "tied for 15th place" with 33 other spellers who got out in the same round as you. If you were the first speller to go down, you got 48th place. If you were the last, you got 15th. (The powers that be have since corrected this policy.) Not to mention that if you were at the end, psychologically, you had a good feel for how the round was going. If you were the first speller in a round, getting that first word sometimes felt like being plunged into ice cold water.

- Getting lei'd. Huge banquet the night after the bee. The speller from Hawaii somehow found me a lei and presented it to me that night. Cooler than cool. It looked great, smelled wonderful...how could I put it aside? I happily wore it all night.

- River Phoenix. No less an authority than the Washington Post branded me a River Phoenix look-alike. And the Post is renowned for writing among the best bee articles anywhere. If the Post says it, it must be so.

- The Chattanooga Times. For writing a feature article about "darkly handsome Ojas Tejani," the Chattanooga rep and the 2nd place finisher, while totally branding me the bad guy. Seriously, it was cool. I knew the press rep for the Times at the time...she was sassy and fun, so it was a great inside joke. I'm sure Tennesseeans appreciated it, too.

- Spoliator. Duh.


David said...

Great post! Sounds like you were a pretty cool 14 year old.

I enjoy watching the NSB on TV every year. I think the first time I remember seeing it on TV was in '93 (or '92?) on CNN.

Incidentally, "Wind Beneath My Wings" was the #1 song on the Billboard charts the week of 6/10/89, so I guess that's partly why it was in your head :). Ah, "Beaches"...

Can I ask you a few questions?

1. Which TV shows were you on after you won? Any other cool things you did?

2. Did you meet Pres. Bush (Sr.) in person? Any other famous people?

3. Was the '89 national bee televised? If not, when did CNN start televising it live (I know I saw it in '93, and maybe the end in '92)?

4. Did any kids try to study the whole Webster's Third back then?

5. What percentage of the "dictionary round" words did you know in '89?

6. Would you say the words are harder now than when you were in the NSB? I read somewhere that around 80% of all the words in the NSB now, even the "dictionary" words, come from the Consolidated Word List on the NSB site, so maybe the kids have more of an edge now than they did in '89. Maybe that makes today's NSB easier?

Probably the best blog on the Internet for NSB coverage is "A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago." They have some entertaining live-blogging throughout bee week. There's also commentary from some previous NSB contestants (the '91 5th place winner gave a lengthy account of his NSB experience last year, and an '83 contestant wrote a nice article and put up pics from the '83 bee). I'm sure they would love to hear from you and your account of your '89 win. :)

Joel Kammeyer said...

Awww, Scott!

I've been thinking about making a list of "greatest moments in my life," and there's no question that the 6/1/89 twin tandem of the "Holy mackanoli, he's actually going to pull this off!" moment and the night at Trader Vic's is on that list.

(Inspired by the above comment, I had to look it up, and Michael Damian's "Rock On" was number one in Billboard during 1989 NSB week. I miss the 1980's. The song that I remember from that week was "Iko Iko" from the Belle Stars, which had peaked a few weeks earlier, but still. What song could possibly say junior high than "Iko Iko?")

Some random musings:

I keenly remember: meeting you for the first time after Gunston Hall, making our way back to the hotel, and for whatever ridiculous reason, we decided to sit down and go through words for about an hour - whereupon I realized that I was totally outclassed. This doubled as the moment that I realized, "Yeah, I'm probably going to place pretty well, but I'm not going to win," and, "Yeah. This guy, Scott, is a CONTENDER."

I remember being irritated with my parents that we opted for the Baltimore Inner Harbor tour over the monuments tour on Tuesday.

Of course, there was Dan Quayle. For the above poster's benefit - I represented Fort Wayne, and on a whim my parents contacted Dan Quayle's office to try and arrange a meeting. To our absolute shock, he agreed - and extended the invitation to the winner and all of the spellers from Indiana. It largely turned into a pie-throwing contest by the media centered around Quayle's misspelling of 'potatoe' the previous year, but we always appreciated the Vice-President making time to do this.

(I've always been amazed that Presidents and Vice-Presidents haven't prioritized this since then. Politically, what cleaner photo opportunity could possibly exist? And after all, the NSB is in Washington...)

I remember sitting at the banquet, and rating the cutest girls at the Bee with the others at my table. Ah, the eighth grade.

I very keenly remember Marianne Hess and Betty Saxton, the two newspaper representatives from the Journal-Gazette, whom to this day I count as two of the most special influences in my life.

For the past fifteen years, since the change was instituted, I've identified myself as "tied for 18th in 1988; tied for 34th in 1989."

I would point out that you would have made it to the top two irrespective of your 218 draw.

It's bordering on a criminal sin that I haven't converted some of our grainy videotape to digital. Effective immediately, this will become a top priority for my summer.

Several times this week, I've thought that we're making a mistake by not venturing out to Washington for a few days - maybe a long four-day weekend, say - during Bee week, at least every few years. Something to think about for next year, maybe. :-)

Uncle Spike said...

WHEW! Lots to respond to here.

David: I was on gobs of local newscasts. I was on Good Morning America the morning after (took a quick flight to NYC and got caught in a traffic jam over the Hudson at midnight), then Inside Edition and finally the Tonight Show. Johnny was still there, but I got lucky and Jay Leno was the guest host that night, and man, was he a blast! Along the way, I rubbed elbows with Kenny G and 10,000 Maniacs. Met then-Governor Roy Romer as well.
Like Joel said, we met Quayle. Bush was at some summit, if I remember correctly.
Only the last part of the bee (between me and Ojas) was televised live on CNN. But the bee had been televised at least since 1986.
Did any kids try to study Webster's Third back then? Absolutely! That was me. I was one of those freaks who read the dictionary for fun.
In 1989, they threw down 903 words. Of those, I think I would have stumbled on about 40 of 'em, all on the second day. (IMHO, toughest word of the year was "feuilleton," followed closely by "psychorrhagy.")
Yes, I think the words now are significantly harder than they were back then. But kids have better access to more lists, as you point out.
Can you post a link to the blog post re: the 1983 bee? I think that'd be great to see, and can't find it on their blog.

Joel: Wow, the memories! I love your "tied for 18th in 1988." It sounds so much better to me than what I've said for so long...39th. Wonder how that worked out for all the sixth-rounders in 1987?
"IKO IKO"! Man, I forgot about that song! Fun one.
Ya know, going back to DC always sounds fun. Maybe 2011 will be the year!

David said...

Heather P. on the "Throwing Things" blog was the one who wrote about the 1983 NSB. Here are some pics she posted:


Here's what she wrote about the '83 bee:


Rafael Noboa (tied for 5th in '91) wrote this about the '91 bee:


and a little more here:


You were on the Tonight Show? Cool! Do you have a video of it? I found '86 winner Jon Pennington's Tonight Show video on Youtube:


Maybe you could upload yours to Youtube!

I wonder how far back the winners appeared on the Tonight Show? Was Jacques Bailly on there, or did it start in the late 80s?

Was all of day 2 of the NSB broadcast live on CNN back in '86, '87, '88? Or just the last 2 spellers?

Uncle Spike said...

I don't have a copy of my Tonight Show appearance, for better or for worse. I'm not sure when winners began appearing on the Tonight Show. In 1986, I just happened to see the bee on CNN, and they were down to the last 4 or 5 spellers, if I remember right. They definitely did not broadcast the entire 2nd day, and I'm not sure if they ever have.

Gleemonex said...

Hey, how about a "coolest things about the 1988 Bee" post? ;-)

In 89 I caught it on TV live, and was pacing back and forth on the living room floor, as nervous as if I had been the one onstage -- and then when you won I was jumping around screaming like a maniac. You made a lot of people happy that day. :-)