Friday, November 8, 2019



By Mike Moffett

The Final Jeopardy Answer is “Alex Trebek.”

The Final Jeopardy Question is at the end of this column.

Suffering from pancreatic cancer, Trebek is transitioning away from the Jeopardy television game show he’s hosted for over 35 years. During that time the avuncular Trebek endeared himself to countless Americans who got smarter while watching regular people seek fame and fortune on his iconic show. Trebek’s nightly Jeopardy drama was and is a living room staple for many families. So Trebek’s health struggles impact millions of people who “know” him but have never met him—as well as those who HAVE met him.

Like me.

I was a Jeopardy contestant.

As a Marine Corps lieutenant stationed at Camp Pendleton, California, back in the eighties, I found myself watching Jeopardy and knowing many of the answers—or questions, actually, if you know how the game works. So I headed up to a Jeopardy tryout in Los Angeles, joining a big crowd of wannabes for a 50-question test. The tests were corrected and most people were sent home, but they kept a few of us for an audition, and then sent us home as well.

A few days later I received a call inviting me to be a Jeopardy contestant. As Jeopardy taped five shows a session I was encouraged to bring a change of clothes.

Dreaming of fame and fortune, I sped up I-5 to L.A., my Marine Corps dress blues hanging behind the driver's seat. At the studio, would-be contestants were sequestered during preparations for the first taping—for which I was invited to be a contestant. Apparently a New Englander/Marine officer combination was desirable to the show’s producers.

I asked if I could change into my dress blues and they said yes, but I’d then have to wait for a later taping. So I got into uniform and watched three tapings with growing angst. They had great categories and I would have won all three shows. Why did I ever ask to wear a uniform?

I got the call for the fourth taping and took my place between Rocky, the defending champion, and a woman who was a member of the Mensa (genius) Society. Trebek bantered with the crowd and had some lights adjusted as it dawned on me that I was now positioned to humiliate myself on national television. I had a panic attack, which changed to abject horror when I saw the first round of categories—obscure subjects about which I knew little. Rocky flew out to a big lead followed by the Mensa woman as I lamented passing on the first taping.

But then Trebek did his contestant interviews and we chatted about New Hampshire. His calming demeanor dissipated my panic and when I saw the next set of categories I figuratively licked my chops. The “Civil War” was very good to me and I made a charge and took the lead, with time for one more question. I chose “Golf” for $600.

“Of the Ryder, Curtis, and Walker Cups, the Trophy competed for by women.”

As a sports guy, I knew the Ryder Cup was a male competition so I buzzed in and said “What is the Curtis Cup?” But I immediately knew I should have said “Walker” and I lost $600. The Mensa lady buzzed in and said “What is the Ryder Cup” which was obviously wrong. So Rocky, by default, buzzed in and said “What is the Walker Cup?” thus winning $600. The $1200 swing gave him a slight lead going into Final Jeopardy, for which the category was “In the News.”

A news watcher, I bet all my thousands and waited for the answer, which was “The Year of a New Pope, a Test Tube Baby, and when Oscar turned 50.” I confidently wrote: “What is 1978?”

The Mensa lady got it wrong and Trebek then came to me and reviewed my answer.

“What is 1978? That is correct. And what did the lieutenant bet? He bet it all!”

The studio audience erupted with applause, apparently pulling for the Marine from New Hampshire who made the big comeback and then successfully bet it all.

“Wow!” exclaimed Trebek. “A lot of support here for the Marines!”

My heart was joyful. I’d done it! The only way I could lose was if Rocky bet all his money and if he also got it right.

Which he did.

The crushing defeat devastated me. The show ended and the lights went down and Trebek came over to chat with us and his generous comments eased my pain, and presumably that of the Mensa lady too. Trebek clearly had special empathy for the losers on his show who put themselves out there only to fail on national TV.

Rocky would keep all his money and return again as defending champ. I later learned that Trebek hired him as an assistant. My second place prize was a La-Z-Boy recliner, which still occupies a “reading nook” in my Loudon home.

I never watched Jeopardy again. Too painful.

Except once, when “60 Minutes” did a feature on the show, which interested me, as an erstwhile Jeopardy alum. They showed footage from a show, of course, and of all the thousands of shows from which to choose, they selected the one I’d been on. There I was, again on national TV, in my dress blues between Rocky and the Mensa lady.

While insisting on wearing my uniform probably cost me fame and fortune, I remain proud of those dress blues, which now hang in a closet not far from my Jeopardy chair.

C’est la vie.

Oh yeah. Our Final Jeopardy Question:

“What TV game show host will always be remembered for his kindness and empathy to a terrified Marine Corps lieutenant from New Hampshire?”


Monday, April 29, 2019

Education Industrial Complex

My Turn: Beware the education-industrial complex

For the Monitor
Published: 4/29/2019 12:15:09 AM
President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address remains consequential. A five-star general, Ike warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex – an informal alliance between our military and business establishments. This relationship between the government and “defense” corporations benefited both sides – one obtaining redundant and extravagant war weaponry while the other made huge profits from supplying it all. Taxpayers anteed up accordingly.
A soldier and patriot, Ike saw the military-industrial complex as a threat. Veterans who’d been in harm’s way echoed Ike’s sentiments. Those who committed their lives to our nation’s defense saw that pledge as sacred, and like Ike, had contempt for war profiteers safely seeking to get rich while paying lip service to national security.
Now in 2019 we must similarly shine a light on an education-industrial complex, which like the military-industrial complex involves special interest alliances seeking to materially and politically benefit from a supposed advocacy for youngsters and teaching – when in reality this alliance threatens education.
Consider Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris’s recent call for a $13,500 or a 23% increase in salary for each teacher nationwide. That’s good politics in that her proposal mobilizes countless educators for her candidacy.
Harris – a lawyer – has spent minimal time in the education trenches. So let’s see her proposal for what it is – a craven, cynical and unaffordable exploitation of teachers. But committing teachers’ unions to liberal causes worked well for California Democrats, while public school enrollments – and test scores – dropped. The sordid mess that California became under Democratic rule rates much attention – but that’s another column.
Consider the recent calls of Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to refinance or forgive college student loan debt while making public colleges tuition-free.
The student debt debacle is of Democratic making. As college costs shot up – largely due to exorbitant salaries – Democrats were at the forefront to make money available for student loans. Students subsequently went deeply into debt. But the beneficiaries were college faculties and administrators, whose pay skyrocketed. The more loan money the government made available, the more colleges spent, while professors redirected much largesse back to Democratic politicians. Campaign contributions are public record. It’s a shameful shell game. And yet many proselytized college students pathetically voted for Democrats. But they’re finally figuring out that they’ve been fleeced by the folks they supported.
Having enriched their academic allies and advanced their political agendas while putting students deeply in debt, Sanders and Warren typically now want to leave taxpayers on the hook.
Ponder that Warren “earned” $429,981 as a part-time Harvard law professor during 2010-11. Or that Sanders’s wife, Jane, made hundreds of thousands of dollars while mismanaging Burlington College into bankruptcy. Or that many New Hampshire school superintendents make more than our governor.
Education-industrial complex indeed!
Like war profiteers who wrapped themselves in the flag to position themselves to make money, education profiteers cite “the children” as they seek to redirect public money to themselves.
The percentage of school budgets that actually go to classroom teachers is smaller than ever. Check out how much money now goes to administrators, bureaucrats, lawyers, lobbyists, consultants, accountants, “support” personnel and the like, not to mention numerous other budget line items that rate more attention. But rather than make tough choices to support education fundamentals or protect taxpayers, school boards err on the side of “the children” as property taxes go ever higher.
This plays into Democrat hands, as Dems call for broad-based taxes – ostensibly for “property tax relief.” The reality is that new taxes allow Democrats to expand government and hire countless more public-sector workers who then become Democratic voters.
Many of us who devoted our lives to education did so not to get rich or to advance political agendas, but rather to enjoy the intrinsic rewards associated with making differences in people’s lives. So it’s painful to see a liberal education-industrial complex convert our academic establishments into subsidiaries of the Democratic Party.
It may be good politics, but it’s not good for taxpayers or for traditional Granite State educational priorities and values.
Or for “the children.”
I’m sure Ike would agree.
(Michael Moffett of Loudon is a retired Marine Corps officer who also taught in public, parochial and military schools, as well as at the community college and university levels. He served on a school board as well as on the House Education Committee.)

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Two Flights, Two Fathers


By Mike Moffett

Sport is usually a safe discussion topic at holiday gatherings. So it seemed safe when basketball came up during a conversation with a Michelle Walters---a friend of my co-author, Fahim Fazli---at a California social event last month. Then I mentioned that I’d once coached college hoop and Michelle responded that her dad had also been a college basketball coach—at Evansville University in Indiana.
Our eyes locked and I knew we were both thinking of one of the most tragic sports stories ever.


I was seated with a dozen other Marines in the back of a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter flying over rugged Korean mountains when the engine started screaming and the aircraft started shaking. Terrified, I looked to the crew chief for reassurance, but he too, looked concerned as he spoke on his headset to the pilot. Then he yelled to us:

“Tighten your seatbelts!  We’re going down!”



It was on Dec. 13, 1977, that a Douglas DC-3 crashed on take-off in Indiana—killing all 29 aboard, including every member of the University of Evansville Purple Ace men's basketball team, except for one who was not traveling with the team. Was Michelle’s father among the victims?


Our CH-53 came down in one piece in a dry stream bed near a small Korean school. Youngsters swarmed out to see the spectacle. Repairs were made and we flew back to base to further prepare for a special training mission for Lima Company 3/5—a long distance night raid over the Korean mountains. We’d utilize six CH-53s in a reprise of the ill-fated Iranian hostage rescue mission of 1980—four years earlier. One of the pilots from that Iranian mission would lead our operation.


Two weeks after the Indiana plane crash, the only member of the Evansville team who was not on the plane was killed by a drunk driver.

Michelle’s dad, Dick Walters, was NOT on the plane. The head coach was a Watson, not a Walters. Bobby Watson was named Evansville head coach in 1977, beating out Walters and distinguished Evansville grad Jerry Sloan for the job. (Sloan would go on to become one of the NBA’s winningest coaches.) The charismatic Watson was fired up about his program advancing to the Division I ranks. A standout player at Virginia Military Institute, Watson was a highly decorated Viet Nam vet, earning, among other awards, FIVE Purple Hearts. Walters took over the program after Watson’s death. Had Walters been named head coach in 1977 instead of 1978, Michelle would have lost her dad in the plane crash.


American and South Korean Marines loaded into the six CH-53s after nightfall on March 24, 1984, for our raid mission. We flew over jagged Korean mountains en route to our objective, near the DMZ, far to the north. We ran into bad weather and the Sea Stallions were buffeted about in the dark, terrifying many Marines—including me. We eventually turned around and returned to base. But when we landed, there were only five CH-53s, not six.


Walters sought to honor the Purple Aces by not only reviving but elevating the Evansville program. His 1978-79 team went 13-16 and steadily improved thereafter. In 1982 the Purple Aces went 23-6 to earn an NCAA bid—losing a close first round game to Marquette University, led by Doc Rivers. Michelle, aged 10 at the time, remembers the joy that team generated, and how their success helped honor the memories of the fallen Purple Aces.


Our missing CH-53 had crashed into a mountain, killing all aboard. I accompanied a detail that quickly flew to the crash site to retrieve the bodies—accomplished with great difficulty, given the steep, rugged terrain.


The day after my conversation with Michelle, I received a Facebook invitation to join a special group of Lima Company survivors, for whom a 2019 reunion is being planned. I happily accepted the invite and quickly made my first post. I soon received a message from a woman named Jessica Liddle. She asked if I knew her dad, Staff Sergeant John Liddle—a Viet Nam veteran and a Lima Company platoon sergeant—and if so, did I have any memories of him? Liddle’s was one of the bodies we’d retrieved from that 1984 crash site. Jessica was five at the time. I replied to her that I indeed knew her dad. I shared some recollections, to include that he’d become a big San Diego Charger fan—despite his earlier K.C. Chief inclinations—and that we’d often talked football. She seemed happy to learn more about her father.


At yet another California social event on New Year’s Day I received a surprise. Michelle’s dad showed up late in the afternoon. We subsequently spoke at length about basketball, life, and death. Coach Walters shared much about his basketball journey, including wondrous anecdotes about the likes of Bobby Knight. But clearly the Evansville plane crash was something that’s never far from his mind. That his Evansville predecessor had survived the horrors of Viet Nam only to perish with his basketball team will always be a tragic irony.


Through the wonders of social media, communication continues with the extended basketball and Marine networks associated with Michelle and Jessica. The holiday recollections about fallen Marines and deceased basketball players revived their spirits while reminding us of our mortality and how precious life is.

Semper fi … And go Purple Aces!

(Immediately below are Michelle and Dick Walters, on New Year's Day 2019 and at a basketball camp, circa 1978. Below that, me and Coach Walters. Further below: Jessica and John Liddle.)

Friday, December 7, 2018

Here's a copy of a 1996 letter sent to me by the late President George H. W. Bush (41). R.I.P.