Herald Columnist

If I had to summarize, in one sentence, the major lesson I have learned in life, that sentence would be: "Sometimes, you have to buy a vowel."

I learned this lesson when I became a contestant on Wheel of Fortune, the hugely popular game show in which contestants try to figure out the hidden phrase, aided by the lovely and talented Vanna White, who smiles radiantly while turning over the letters one at a time. (Vanna, a total professional, could smile radiantly while having her spleen removed by weasels.)

The way I got on the show was, a Wheel staff person named Gary O'Brien, whose title is Talent Executive, sent me a letter asking me to participate in a special Award Winners' Week, to be taped in March and broadcast in May.

"Famous actors, actresses, directors, writers, singers and sports stars will be spinning the famous Wheel for their favorite charities," Gary wrote.

I said I'd do it, and not just because I like to benefit charity by hanging around with famous actors and actresses. I also happen to be very good at word games, particularly the part where you cheat. You should see me play Scrabble.

ME (forming a word): There!
MY OPPONENT: "Doot?" There's no such word as "doot."
ME (offended): Of COURSE there is. It's an infarctive gerund.
MY OPPONENT (skeptically): Use it in a sentence.
ME: "Look! A doot!"

So I figured, how hard could Wheel of Fortune be? Whenever I've watched the show, the hidden phrase has always seemed pathetically easy to figure out. Some contestant will be staring at the big board, sweating bullets, trying to make sense of some letters and blanks arranged like this:

- - N - - - - - - - - N - - R - - - M -

I'll look at this for two seconds, then shout at the screen, "It's OBVIOUS, you moron! HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME!"

I bet you do the same thing. We all do. Each day 24 million people watch Wheel of Fortune, and every single one of them always figures out the hidden phrase before the actual contestants do. But after I agreed to be on the show, I began to have second thoughts. I realized that it's probably WAY harder to solve the puzzle when you're under the hot studio lights, in front of cameras and a live studio audience, with Pat Sajak standing right there and Vanna beaming high-intensity smile rays right at you from close range.

So as the date of my taping approached, I worked on my Wheel strategy. I started asking everybody I talked to, including Directory Assistance, whether I should buy a vowel. Unfortunately, there was no consensus on this issue. Some people said yes, definitely; some said no, absolutely not, never buy a vowel.

The only real expert I consulted was a United Airlines ticket agent named Rico, whom I met at Dulles airport when I was catching a flight to Los Angeles to be on the show. Rico told me that he had actually been a winning contestant on Wheel of Fortune.

"Should I buy a vowel?" I asked him.

"Not unless you really need it," replied Rico, helpfully.

In Los Angeles I was taken to the Wheel TV studio by an Iranian limousine driver named Max, who was deeply impressed by my enormous fame and celebrity.

"So, Mr. David," he said. "You are a singer?"

"No," I said. "Should I buy a vowel?"

"Yes," said Max. "You have to."

At the studio I met some of the other famous celebrities participating in Award Winners' Week, including rap artist and actor "L.L. Cool J." (That is not his real name, of course. His real name is "L.L. Cool M.") I also met the two celebrities I would be competing against, actresses Rita Moreno and Justine Miceli.

Gary, the Talent Executive, gave us a briefing on how to play the game; this briefing consisted almost entirely of detailed instructions on how to spin the wheel.

"Make sure your hand is dry," Gary said. "Reach as far to the right as you can, get a good grip on the upper part of the spoke, and then pull."

We all practiced spinning the wheel and calling out consonants, although some celebrities, unfamiliar with the rules, tried to call out vowels.

"You have to buy a vowel," Gary said, several times. "Once you spin, you're committed to calling a consonant."

When all of us celebrities were fairly confident that we didn't have a clue what was going on, the live studio audience was brought in, and we began taping. In the interest of drama I am not going to reveal the outcome of my game, which has not aired yet, except to say, in all modesty, that I did get to the Bonus Round, where I had 10 seconds to try to solve the following phrase:

- OME - O L - - E

You have no idea how truly stupid you can feel until you try to guess a hidden phrase in front of a live studio audience - every single member of which, you are convinced, knows the answer. For 10 seemingly endless seconds, sounding like a person with some kind of language-related brain malfunction, you blurt out random incorrect answers ("HOME TO LOVE!" "ROME TO LIVE!" "NOME NO LIKE!" "DOME SO . . . )

Of course I'm sure that you, Mr. or Ms. Smarty Pants Reader, immediately figured out the right answer, which is: "SOME DO DOOT."

No, really, I'm sure you solved it. If not, you should watch the show. Or you can contact me. If you play your cards right, maybe I'll sell you a vowel.