Ten years ago, I won the regional spelling bee for the Richmond area. Instant fame: I had a trophy, I was on TV, I was on the front page of the paper. And I was on my way, with my family and my dictionary, to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.
On a Monday in June 1975, the spellers arrived at the Mayflower Hotel, with our retinue of reporters and photographers. Each of us was sponsored by a local newspaper. That year there were about 75 spellers, since several states included more than one participating newspaper.
Before the competition began, there were a couple of days of fun. First there was an icebreaker party for the kids. Some of us had brought gifts for the others: 75 autograph books, 75 plastic paperweights in the shape of Texas, 75 road runner lapel pins.
During this party, spelling bee staffers taped a celebrity name to each person's back. We milled around the room, asking each other questions -- "Am I a movie star? Am I on TV?" -- in order to discover what celebrity we were. My new friend Leslie, a petite girl from Pennsylvania, was Isaac Hayes. I was John-Boy Walton.
Then we were taken on a whirlwind tour -- a cruise on the Potomac, Mount Vernon and the memorials. We were greeted at the White House by Betty Ford. And we ate at Sholl's Colonial Cafeteria (this was not part of the agenda, but there was at that time a Sholl's across from the Mayflower, and many of us stumbled into it). We were interviewed and photographed.
And we did things that kids do: cartwheels in the hallways, elephant jokes, elevator racing. A hotel maid remarked that she always knew when it was spelling bee time, because the elevators were always busy.
We kept studying, of course. We interrogated each other on words like "quixotic," "diphthong" and "interrogate," hoping somehow to learn all the obscure words we would be asked to spell, but knowing that, except for one lucky person, all of us would misspell a word by the end of the week.
On Thursday, the contest began. We sat on the stage in the Grand Ballroom. Each speller in turn stepped up to the microphone, front and center. Hearts beat, palms sweated, and faces broke into a smile each time a familiar word was heard.
Sitting on stage for hours, we found ways to relax. Someone was asked to spell "connubial," and Leslie, on my right, leaned over and matter-of-factly whispered, "C-o-n-n-u-b-i-a-l. It means having to do with marriage."
When another was asked to spell "damask," (next to Leslie, and slightly lame from a cartwheeling accident) grinned and hissed, "Take off da mask!" Jeff, on my left, drummed his fingers.
Then, a boy misspelled "sonata." We gasped as we heard him say, "S-a-n-a-t-a." A bell went "Ding!" He was led off stage, and the rest of us slid over one seat to close up the space where he had been.
We were sorry he was out (especially on such an easy word), but each of us was thinking, "I'm glad it's not me."
"Windlass." The boy said, "W-i-n-d-l-a-s." No ding, but no applause, either, so he added another "s." He was still in.
"Anisette." My friend Ketan, originally from Tanzania, didn't know it: "A-n-a-c-e-t." Ding!
"Gypsum." The youngest speller, a fifth-grader named Craig, almost got it right: "G-y-p-s-o-m." Ding!
I was asked to spell "avocado," "sylph" and "haboob," among others. I was still in at the end of the first day of spelling. Thirty of us had survived.
But then there was the second day. The words got harder, and more of us had to guess. Jeff missed "hokku." Molly stumbled over "sciatica." And "phthalate" was Kent's undoing.
"Dipsomania." I had never seen this one. I knew the "mania" part, but was it "dipso" or "dypso"? It sounded scientific, so I said "d-y-p-s-o-m-a-n-i-a."
I took a last look at the crowd of spectators, who were giving me my valedictory applause. None of the spellers ever got emotional on stage, and I, too, was stoic as a woman led me away.
Alone in my hotel room, however, I did get privately hysterical for about 10 minutes. Then, somehow, I washed my splotchy face and went back to the ballroom. After all, I consoled myself, I had come in 18th out of a total of 7.5 million kids who had entered nationwide. That wasn't so bad.
I saw Leslie fake her way through "psychedelic," then falter on "cucaracha," landing in fifth place.
We sat in the balcony and cheered for a guy named Hugh, who eventually won on "incisor." Any of us could have spelled "incisor" -- but words like "chlorophyll" and "dipsomania" had gotten in the way.
That night, there was a farewell party. We frantically collected each other's autographs -- we had to sign them quick, while we were still celebrities! I exchanged addresses with Leslie and Molly (my brother referred to them as my spelling bee "honeys"). We wrote letters for several years.
Now I'm a copy editor, spelling for a living. I mentioned the spelling bee on my re'sume', partly to give prospective employers something easy and interesting to ask me about when I was interviewing, and partly because the credentials are relevant to my work.
My trophy is on the bookcase in my apartment; I keep my bills in it until payday rolls around. My mom compiled all my clippings and "memorabeelia" into a scrapbook. Some of her friends still say, "Now, which one of your sons is the speller?"
Sometimes I think back and find it hard to believe it was me. For a few weeks, I was involved in something special.
In the past 10 years, I've never seen the word "dipsomania". I've never heard anyone use it in a sentence. It doesn't often pop up in conversation.
But I know how to spell it.
Brian Throckmorton lives, works and spells in Bethesda. Contestants in the 58th Annual Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, to be held Wednesday and Thursday at the Capital Hilton, will be coming to town this weekend.