At first, I thought she was kidding. At second, I thought she was kidding. Finally, she convinced me she was serious: Would I agree to serve as a "lifeline" for her brother, who was about to make an appearance on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?
What a complex person her brother must be - smart enough to qualify as a contestant, dumb enough to want my help.
Still, he wanted me. And, like most people, I need to feel wanted.
Yes, I will be his lifeline. I will throw a rope to this poor, misguided lad of 39, this Greg Snelson, this 1979 graduate of Revere High, this owner of an MBA from Carnegie Mellon who works as a computer wizard in Charlotte, N.C. I will steady him, fill in his mental blanks and hold him close as we shoot into the hot glare of the national spotlight, returning home with one million buckaroonies.
The sister, Kathy Pietz, a neighbor and friend, soon hooked us up for a get-acquainted phone call. During our chat, he asked about my areas of expertise. I told him I had none. He laughed. Apparently, he thought I was joking.
The rest of Snelson's lifeline lineup was impressive: a physician, a professor, a minister and a pal who is a walking encyclopedia of movies and music. Obviously, that left him in desperate need of a person who writes goofy stuff for a newspaper.
Snelson is nothing if not persistent. Over the last year, he and his wife called the show's 800 number about 75 times. About 25 times he passed the first round of three questions, but couldn't survive the second round of five. Finally, in mid-August, he made his breakthrough. The show was taped Sept. 14 and is scheduled to air tonight at 9 on WEWS (Channel 5).
I was told that, on the morning of the taping, ABC would call me between 9 a.m. and noon and outline the ground rules. With only 10 minutes left on the clock, a pleasant soul named Gina rang to tell me that, if Greg made it into the "hot seat" that evening, a producer would call to alert me. The next call would be Regis.
I was to let the phone ring three times, then pick up and simply say, "Hello." No speaker phones. No TV or radio in the background. The call would come between 5 and 8 p.m. - meaning my volunteer work could keep me glued to the phone for a total of six hours. The good news: I wouldn't be alone. Lifelines are allowed to recruit their own lifelines.
The house began to fill up shortly before 5. The experts-in-waiting included Greg's parents, Al and Neva; his sister; my wife; and several other Mensa candidates of various ages. We quickly assembled our game plan: I would repeat the question and the choices, and my helpers would scrawl their choices on a piece of paper, along with their percentage of certainty.
As the clock struck 5, we ate appetizers. As the clock struck 6, we ate pizza. As the clock struck 7, we turned on the Indians game.
A watched phone never rings.
Suddenly, at 7:23 p.m., a jingle. I jumped. His parents absolutely levitated.
Unfortunately, the caller was not a producer but Greg himself, informing us he had come oh-so-close to the hot seat. He had been one of only two contestants to correctly put four TV characters in chronological order, but the other contestant was faster. On his second try, he answered incorrectly. The third time, he was right - but again too slow. The million dollars had drifted from view, setting behind the skyscrapers of Manhattan.
"It's like finishing fourth in the Olympics," he said a couple of days later, still wounded.
So if you tune in tonight to see Greg, look fast. He doesn't get much face time. But at least he got there. He earned a three-day visit to New York, a meal allowance and a bunch of limo rides.
And we, dear readers, have solved a mystery. We now know why Millionaire gets such great ratings: If each of the 10 contestants has five lifelines, and each of the five lifelines invites 10 people to the house . . . well, in another month, every person in America will have had a firsthand experience with the show.
You're a sly dog, Regis.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org