Quick! What term suggests both an annual Easter event at the White House and a popular appetizer in a Chinese restaurant?
"EGG SALAD!" screamed John Sotos, a second-year medical student at Johns Hopkins who maybe doesn't get out much these days.
The crowd looked at him in anguish.
"EGG ROLLLLLLLLL!" coorected a highly amused Mac McGarry, moderator of the WRC-TV high school quiz show called "It's Academic."
Everyone else seemed highly amused, too. Sotos, however, said later he would never again be able to eat an egg roll without thinking of the question.
All this happened Saturday at the 20th reunion of "It's Academic," a party in the Cannon House Office building full of 400 grown-up smart kids. Through the years the program has been shown in 11 cities, so the alums came from across the country to compete in quiz panels (untelevised), drink beer, wine or Tab, and -- like any high school reunion -- size each other up.
"It was curiosity, mostly," said Jennifer Gottschalk, a New Jersey prosecutor who was explaining why she came. "When I got the invitation in the mail, I showed it to my mother, and she said, 'Aha! We'll have to make you look successful.'"
Generally, the crowd did look successful -- and conservative. The men wore dark jackets and ties, and the women, simple spring dresses with occasional pearls. Almost all went to college, and many have business cards. Nobody is older than 37. Lots of them are lawyers. (Sixteen percent, according to a survey of 500 respondents. Seven percent are doctors.)
Several are state legislators, at least two are rabbis and one a newspaper publisher, another is a lute-maker, and still another a shepherd.
And several, to judge from party conversations, suffered the trauma of being high school eggheads.
"I think it was rough being a smart girl, because you didn't date," said Marcia Blitz, who was on the 1967 Passaic High School team in New Jersey. Now she's director of advertising for Ballantine Books.
"Oh, I distinctly saw you at the senior prom," said Alan Handler, a former teammate and current New York lawyer.
"No," sighed Blitz.
"Junior Prom?" asked Handler.
"Yes," said Blitz. "But I had to ask him."
Besides checking each other out, the alums spent the evening watching or being part of the alumni quiz panels. The first was composed of three teams: doctors, lawyers and press. The participants took their places on a stage in the Cannon building's Caucus Room, and most everyone else, as if it were a high school pep rally, sat on the floor.
"Well, tell us about yourself," said McGarry to the contestant on the far left. On the show, the response is usually some variety of "president, senior class; captian, debate team; captain, chess team; editor, yearbook; member, National Honor Society. . ."
This time, the responses were shorter. Like from Robert Gordon, 31: "chief of cardiac surgery, Chicago's Lutheran Hospital."
And they were off. The questions weren't especially hard, but then, it's not how much you know, but rather, how fast you know it. This is not a show for pondering scholars.
A question to the doctors: "Mutual cowardice keeps us in peace,' said Dr. Samuel Johnson as reported by what companion and biographer of his?"
A pregnant silence.
"Have you got it?" chuckled McGarry.
An additional silence.
"Come on, who's the guy who hung around with Sam Johnson?" asked McGarry.
"YOU DON'T KNOW!??" creid McGarry with delight. (He doesn't do this on the show to quivering high school students, but apparently saw it as open season on a 31-year-old chief of heart surgery and two prosperous colleagues.)
"DUMBHEADS!" roared McGarry. "IT WAS JAMES BOSWELL!"
Another question. "What compass direction names George III's prime minister, who moved in the wrong direction in dealing with the colonies?"
A slight pause. But then: "Ah, Lord West," said a tentative doctor.
"LORD WEST???" cried McGarry. "LORD NORTH!!!"
At the end of the first round, McGarry announced the score as "120 for the lawyers, 120 for the press, 80 for the doctors." He looked at the audience. "Don't get sick," he advised, to general laughter.
In the end, it was the lawyers who won. They were aided most noticeably by Jeffrey Berlin, Walter Johnson High School '61, then Oberlin College in Ohio. Now he handles federal litigation in Washington.
"So how did you do it?" Berlin was asked afterward by a small knot of reporters.
"Call it a pathological reversion to competitive habits," he responded pleasantly. "Felt like the old days."
He was then asked about his IQ.
"I don't know it," he responded.
"Oh, come on," somebody said.
"It's adequate," he answered. "Just adequate."
Then there was a second match. The teams: those alums from teams during the years 1961 to 1967, then years '68 to '73 and, finally, '74 to '81. McGarry figured the young folks would win.
But as it happened, the old folks did -- if you consider 35 old, which a large majority of the party crowd did. ("I just turned 25," said Mag Gottlieb, a Hill staffer from a Cincinnati team in 1974, "so I feel a little bit old. When I turn 30, I figure I'll really be over the hill.")
The star on the old folks' team was Helen Butler King from Poolesville High School in Poolesville, Md. She graduated in 1964, majored in literature at West Virginia University, then became a librarian. So she knew, faster than all the rest, that Philip Marlowe is a creation of Raymond Chandler and Auguste Dupin can be found in the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
She also read these three books on the 21-hour train ride from Chicago to Washington: Mary Gordon's "The Company of Women," a children's book called "A Billion for Boris" and, appropriately, a mystery novel.
So far, according to "It's Academic" producer Sophie B. Altman, some 20,000 high school kids have been on the show. The only thing they have in common?
"They all know a lot," she replied.