If I can remember myself right, it was my father who first saw the dark-blue minivan swerve. We were on the 10 freeway headed to my Jeopardy! Teen Tour interview. The minivan had just passed us with a pretty lady driving. I know she was pretty because we smiled at each other as she passed and maybe I waved too. She seemed like a nice lady and I remember wondering to where she was going. She pulled in front of us and sped up and I could see a yellow and blue sticker on her bumper. It read UCLA. I remember because I made a joke to my father like: I see L.A. Do you see L.A.? If my mom had still been alive, so she would have rolled her eyes to me for that one. But not my dad. He was always appreciating my sense of humor. He laughed and asked where I saw the bumper sticker. I pointed to the dark-blue minivan in front of us. And then, in another moment, it was crashing into the guard railing on the side of the freeway and flipping over on itself. It made a terrible sound and I shouted but my father did not panic. I looked over at him with my eyes full for fear but he was focusing on the brakes and pulling our dilapidating Winnebago over to the shoulder.
He unbuckled his belt and said to me in Arabic, Stana henna, zein—You wait here, okay?
I said that I wanted to go with him to see if the lady was okay but he said no. I said, But dad… But he said no and slammed the door and ran up the freeway some few meters to where the minivan rested upside-down.
There was a lot of glass and all kind of parts of the car on the side of the road. Some other car stopped in front of the minivan and I saw a black woman come out on her mobile phone. I thought she was probably calling 911. That’s what I would have done if the Winnebago’s CB radio still worked. If I can remember myself right, I think I even turned it on and off few times and did a breaker breaker 10-4 to make sure it still didn’t.
We had a similar CB radio in the small Druze village at the north of Israel where I used to live until six months ago. This was before my mom died. Before we moved to California. Before my dad and I lived in this Winnebago. Before I signed up online to go to take a written test for Jeopardy! Before I was qualifying for the interview where I would get to play a mock game with the buzzer and everything.
In Hebrew, our word for CB radio is pas ezrachi. In Arabic we don’t really have it so you could just say see bee, or lasilkee, which is more like a walkie-talkie. Including English, I speak three languages plus a little Russian, but only swear words like govno and zhopa. And oh yeah, Ostoroshno, dveriy zacrivautsay, which means Careful, the doors are closing, I think.
The Citizens’ Band radio operates between 26 and 27 megahertz. This is the kind of information Alex Trebek might want, so you need to be prepared. I happen to be obsessed with electronic trivia so I also know garage door openers operate at 40 megahertz. Baby monitors operate around 49 megahertz and FM radio between 88/89 for college stations or public radio and up to 108 where you might find Latin contemporary hits or something like this in Los Angeles.
In Jerusalem the top frequency is 106.7 and it’s boring talk radio about all kind of politics. There’s a lot of that on the radio in Israel because I guess there’s a lot of politics going on. In Ramallah you can hear Radio Tariq Al Mahabeh on 108, which is also a lot of people talking, mostly reporting. But that’s for the Palestinian Arabs and Christians. In my Druze village we listened more to Israeli stations because we are Israeli. Sometimes people forget that there are Israeli Arabs and Christians and Druze, not just Jews. Most Druze live in Lebanon and then some in Jordon, Syria, Canada, many places, actually. Because Druze don’t want their own country, so wherever they live they are very patriotic and are supporting the country where they are living.
As Israelis, we are very patriotic citizens. My father, before he decided to go around California in the Winnebago painting houses, he was having a career in the Israeli army. For fifteen years, since the year before I was born, he was a soldier in the IDF. My mother was patriotic too. She organized a club for Druze women and took them to the bases so they could understand what their husbands were doing in the army. When the war with Lebanon started and they were calling up my father’s reserve unit, he said enough already with the warring let’s go to California and drive around the state in a Winnebago and see things like the Golden Gate Bridge, which once was the largest suspension bridge in the world in 1937, and Hollywood Boulevard, which has two stars for Harrison Ford: one for a silent film person named Harrison Ford from the 1920s and one for the Indiana Jones.
Deciding to leave Israel didn’t mean my father was any less patriotic, he had just seen enough of that life. For me, I started to get excited because it meant maybe I could audition for my favorite show. But my mom, she didn’t want to move to California. My brother was stationed at the border with Lebanon and she didn’t want to be approximately 7,500 miles away from him. So we stayed in our little village and I volunteered for a summer camp which we made in some of the underground bomb shelters. We decorated them so the children wouldn’t think they were just ugly bomb shelters, so they would think they were more like regular summer camp. But with all these rockets happening around us, it was hard to pretend like it was regular summer camp. Very hard, actually.
Since my father and I have been living in the Winnebago, there have been many SigAlerts. When I first came to live in this state and heard the radio, I thought it was Cig like cigarette, like in A Streetcar Named Desire: May I have a drag of your cig? But when I thought about it some more, it didn’t make sense for a cigarette company to be sponsoring a traffic report. So I asked some few people whose house my dad was painting one day and they told me Sig was a man named Sigmon and they didn’t know anything more. Being a trivia junkie, I had to know everything about this Sigmon. One day I went to the Internet café and Google this Sigmon, who I discovered was Loyd C. Sigmon. He owned KMPC AM radio 710—that’s 710 kilohertz, not megahertz. Sigmon was also an engineer and he invented a machine that allowed the police to send special traffic dispatches to the radio station. These alerts became known as SigAlerts.
As I watched my father go on his back into the upside-down minivan, for a brief moment I thought about the SigAlert that would be on the radio soon. I thought about how they’d say it was a crawl from Vermont all the way to Alameda and all the people who would kind of shake their heads with frustration or who would bang their fist into the steering wheel. I thought about the people further back on the 10 who’d be late to work and probably annoyed. It was sad, I thought, because the further away from the scene of the accident, the more selfish peoples’ thoughts could become. I wondered how many cars back in the traffic you had to be before your brain went from hoping the unknown person in the dark-blue minivan would be okay, to thanking God you weren’t so close that you were involved, to wondering how late you were going to arrive to your work.
And then when I heard the ambulance sirens starting to come closer, I suddenly thought that maybe there were also some children in that minivan. That maybe that was why my father and the black woman were going around to the other side of the car now and trying to get in the backseat. When the pretty lady had smiled at me, I never thought maybe she has some kids strapped into car seats in the back. Her window was down but the others were colored dark so you couldn’t see in. She was young but not so young she wouldn’t have kids. And anyway isn’t that why people were buying the minivans, so you could carry around lots of kids?
Now I was beginning to get more worried and wanted very badly to run and help my father and the black woman. It was a struggle to remain in the Winnebago as my father instructed. Two years ago when I was thirteen, I was again volunteering in my village. I was helping pack boxes of supplies for the soldiers. And if not packing, so I am gathering supplies sometimes, and if not gathering, so I was thinking about what else we could do for the families of the soldiers from our village who died. The state of Israel is so small. Its population is 7 million, so everyone knows someone who died in a war or terror attack. Or knows someone who knows someone who died. You can’t say that about people who live in the state of California. And you could fit 18 states of Israel in here. I know this because after my mother died and my father decided we are moving, I made some few simple mathematical calculations with the square miles of both. Anyway, one day, when I was 13 and knocking on doors to gather supplies, an old man with a friendly face answered and tells me to wait while he goes to get some towels he’s going to donate. When he returned with the towels he asked me how successful I’ve been in collecting and I said it was a struggle so far. Mostly candy and that’s it. So he said it’s okay. He said you don’t measure success by how much you accomplish but by how much you overcome to accomplish. I liked this philosophy very much and remembered it there in the Winnebago while trying to obey my father’s instruction to stay put.
It’s hard being a trivia junkie. There’s so much to know. It’s also hard being 15. If you’ve ever been 15, you probably remember. Some boys like me start to develop tender breasts now and the other kids whisper and giggle when I take my shirt off at the beach. It’s called gynecomastia (the breast tissue, not the teasing). I once looked it up in a book I have on puberty. I have lots of books that are feeding my trivia addiction. It said pubertal gynecomastia was fairly common in boys 12-15. It said there was really no reason to see an endocrinologist unless it went on for more than a few years. When I showed my breasts to my dad’s cousin, a pediatrician who lives in Santa Barbara, the man who helped us get out of Israel, so he said old men can get gynecomastia too, especially if they’ve been on steroids. But theirs doesn’t usually go away he said without surgery, or an asterisk, he said laughing and then I made him explain the joke and am glad I did because to prepare for the Teen Tour of Jeopardy! you need to know all kind of things about people like Barry Bonds too. Sports are always my worst category. And pop music, too. For some reason I can never stop confusing Dr. J with Dr. Dre.
Books, quotes, words and language, at the other hand, these are some of my strongest categories. I have a couple really good etymological dictionaries. So gynecomastia is made up from the Greek words gyne meaning woman and mastos meaning breast. I already knew mastos because my mother, she died losing the battle with breast cancer. We wanted her to have the mastectomy, which in Hebrew is kreetat shad and in Arabic it’s isti'sal al-thedyi. I don’t know how you say it in Russian but it doesn’t matter because she didn’t have the surgery in time. My father, he cried for many days in a row after we buried her. They let my brother come from his army base for the funeral. It was good to see him but the reason for seeing him was not. Maybe it was the saddest moment of my whole life. I don’t know. There is so much sadness where I come from. I thought by now I might start missing her less but everything I see in California I want her to see too.
Except the minivan crash.
My father came back after speaking to the police and we watched them spend a long time getting the pretty lady into the ambulance. She was unconscious and my father said he didn’t think she would make it.
The police let us leave and we started again toward Sony studios for my interview. My father asked if I still wanted to do it and I said yes even though I wasn’t sure I should. Maybe they’d let me postpone until the future when my head was more clear. I’d probably only get one chance to play in a mock game to qualify for the Teen Tour. It was a very big deal to me so maybe it was best to wait. The more I thought to it, so the more I didn’t know what to do. We were getting closer to Culver City where the studios were. I wondered a lot of things about life. Both big things, like why my mom had to die of breast cancer, and small things, like why so many birds will pick one telephone wire to sit on and not another. I wondered if the pretty lady was really going to die, like my dad thought. And I also wondered if it’s sometimes better not to know how bad things are. When the pretty lady smiled at me, so everything seemed like it was in its right place for a moment. But now if Alex Trebek offered, When I say to the Moment flying: ‘Linger a while – thou art so fair!’ I wouldn’t smack the buzzer with, Who is Goethe’s Faust? but instead: Why is it always like this?