Hammered on phonics

Did you ever see "A Boy Named Charlie Brown?" It's the movie in which everyone's favorite blockhead gets to represent his school in a national spelling bee. Good ol' Chuck spends so much time memorizing rules of English -- and depriving himself of sleep in the process -- that he ends up a dazed wreck, stumbling around while murmuring confused mnemonic shortcuts like "'i' before 'e' after milk."

Had he ever grown past kidhood, Charlie Brown would have felt right at home last Monday at Java Jabbers coffeehouse. But he would have had to trade dairy for the harder stuff to take part in the Drunken Spelling Bee, a beer-swilling tournament of word power that rewarded intellect and self-abuse in equal measure.

As overseen by Doug "Big Daddy" Laffin, the venue's co-owner, the event welded the intellectual pursuits of elementary school to collegiate drinking rituals. It even boasted a printed set of official rules. (No. 1: Don't talk about the spelling bee. No. 2: Don't talk about the spelling bee.) The basic format followed an average round of quarters. If you spelled a word correctly, you chugged a beer. If you got it wrong, everyone in the audience took a drink.

But as soon as the nine contestants -- most of them Java Jabbers regulars -- began to match wits, it was apparent that the game's play would be fairly informal. The audience was encouraged to throw paper airplanes at the losers or hurl spitwads in their direction. Those instruments of juvenile torture were left on our tables by Laffin and crew, completing a Schoolhouse Rock decorating motif that filled the room with miniature American flags, and cardboard portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. The atmosphere was so scholastic that I almost forgot how close we were to the University of Central Florida.

Everyday language

The competition was suspiciously easy for the first few rounds, beginning with the word "feud" -- "As in Family?" the woman in the hot seat inquired -- and gradually working its way up to polysyllabics. For a while, the nine little brainiacs had a harder time making it to the podium for their turns than they did coming up with correct answers. A few admitted that they had started drinking long before the game was under way.

The contest heated up when John Chalky, who had been spellin' real good up to that moment, declined to even hazard a guess at "connoisseur." "No, there's just no point, man," he said, shuffling off to the side of the room to imbibe in earnest.

The more words were missed, the more penalties were imposed for our sadistic pleasure. Losers were forced to wear dunce caps emblazoned with such legends as "Dipshit," "IQ 80" and "Shmuck." (They meant "Schmuck." ) Players who were found guilty of rule violations and/or disrespectful behavior were turned over to the fetching Sister Erin, who swatted them on the wrist, or anywhere else she was told to, with a wooden ruler. Laffin, you see, had dressed his entire event staff in clerical collars, nuns' habits and plaid skirts, making the night a trip not only back to elementary school, but a Catholic one to boot.

The ruler-swatting was eventually abandoned; most of the recipients liked it too much. The audience's favorite segment, however, was the Physical Challenge, a series of humiliating stunts players could undertake in lieu of making doomed tries at particularly difficult words. The crowd went wild when one Sean "Shag Rug" Rugge demonstrated an "oral confession," an unspeakable act performed on a marital aid. (Yes, photos were snapped. Notice that you don't see them here.)

Dizzy spells

By the arrival of the last round, we had all augmented our vocabularies with new, non-Webster's expressions like "pistacio," "exuberent" and "epitomy." Only two players remained: Leslie Roth, a criminal-justice major, and Sam Santos, a systems analyst. "We've got two people who can spell," Laffin said. "Let's see who can drink!"

Glasses in hand, Roth and Santos battled it out for what seemed like an eternity. The former finally aced the bee with her perfect spelling of "idiosyncrasy," a feat I myself couldn't have performed without a laptop and a good word-processing program.

Roth was rewarded with a first-prize package that included a $50 gift certificate to Best Buy, $25 worth of credit at Echo Exchange and a trophy that doubled as a very attractive table lamp. Her victory came not a moment too soon. For at least half an hour, she had been holding on to the microphone for dear life, her eyes nearly shut and her voice a medley of throaty slurs. She looked and sounded like a torch singer purring her way through "La Vie en Rose."

Before you cluck your tongue in disapproval, I should point out that adherence to the designated-driver rule was strongly encouraged, and coffee was fed to the participants free of charge. For all their giddy mischief-making, Laffin and company obviously knew that some lessons are more fun to learn than others. After all, "blockhead" is so much easier to spell than "breathalyzer.

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