View from Out West: Community engagement no trivial matter

By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter

I can’t repeat every verbal rejoinder that Trivia Master Sarah Evans unleashes to the throng during Trivia Night at the Willow Tree bar each Tuesday in Dillingham — this is a family newspaper, after all — but I can report that the F-word is bandied about as heartily as the beers are consumed.

And while I can’t commend Sarah for her use of proper language, I certainly can praise her ability to keep proper order among the rowdy, suds-swilling trivia buffs seated at plastic tables spread throughout the sprawling establishment:

“Put that phone away, or I swear I’ll cut your F—ing hand off!”

“Come on, guys! No cheating! Don’t be d—!”

“Shut up! Shut up and listen! Okay, question number seven … .”

Such exclamations and enthusiasm readily grab one’s attention. Such exuberant vulgarity even has its own kind of charm. And such rawness adds to the flavor of a beloved community event occurring weekly inside a shadowy saloon along the Nushagak River.

In many ways — minus all the swearing, of course — it’s not so different from Trivia Night each Wednesday near the Kenai River at Odie’s in Soldotna, or the Triviapalooza event benefiting Triumvirate Theatre and held periodically at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. The participants in these events are essentially the same, as is the spirit of the competition, the corny or clever and occasionally offensive team names, the consternation caused by the need to recall almost arcane bits of data, and the beer.

Well, the beer isn’t exactly the same. At Triviapalooza, good beer is dispensed from taps inserted in chilled kegs into clear plastic cups arrayed on a table covered with white linen. At Trivia Night at Odie’s, servers mete out cold craft beers from taps behind the serving counter.

But at Trivia Night at the Willow Tree, customers are sometimes left with only domestic American brews (Budweiser, Coors and Miller) contained in and consumed from 12-ounce cans.

Still, it is the games, not the beers, that are important.

Games bring together people across the globe, but the unifying effect of games in small communities seems particularly acute. In villages and tiny towns, with no national branding or television coverage to prompt widespread loyalty, and no metropolitan centers to bolster mass attendance, the allegiance to the games comes from within, from the union of conglomerate souls facing challenges together.

In Dillingham (outside of commercial fishing, which is the hub of the universe here), residents unite for community events — the winter festival known as the Beaver Roundup, the Tony’s Run benefit marathon in September, the slate of sporting events centered around Dillingham High School, and, of course, Trivia Night at the Willow Tree.

The first community trivia event I ever attended was Triviapalooza two or three years ago. A small band of us, pulled together by Redoubt Reporter publisher Jenny Neyman, joined at a sturdy table and tested our wits at numerous rounds of questions. According to the tote board, which was updated after each round, we forged a solid victory that returned to Jenny her buy-in money and netted our team a used trophy that had had a previous life at some golf or bowling tournament, I believe.

Beyond Triviapalooza, my first trivia-competition steps occurred last winter when my friend Stephanie and her boyfriend, Ryan, drove in from Seward to meet me at Odie’s and test our intellectual mettle. At Odie’s, Trivia Night, consisting of nine theme-centered rounds of 10 questions each, costs $5 for a small team like ours, or $10 for a larger team.

Our come-from-behind victory earned us the entire pot of entry fees — $105 that night. After posing for a photo in front of the tally sheet, I walked out with a handful of cash — more money than I’d walked in with.

My first taste of Trivia Night in Dillingham occurred Sept. 17.

The competition at the Willow Tree consists of a single set of 20 questions, all based on a common theme, yet the game manages to stretch into a two-hour-plus affair, complete with cigarette and beer breaks after every five questions. Before the festivities begin, a thirst-inducing pregame snack is provided — something like cheesy nachos, meatballs or hotdogs with chili.

Team size is unlimited, and the collection of professionals, fishermen, campus folks, construction workers and others provides a rich tapestry of community life.

One night, the not-exactly-sober crew from the Discovery Channel’s Emmy-nominated “Deadliest Catch” reality television show barged into the Willow Tree in the middle of the game, halting the competition with a bell-ringing barrage of bar tabs and good humor. Once the hubbub died down and the TV folks dispersed outdoors, Trivia Night picked up where it left off. No minor interruption, regardless how exciting, was going to stop the game.

There is no tote board at the Willow Tree. If some participant reminds her, Trivia Master Sarah is content to holler out the scores at the end of each round. With so few questions (some of them with multiple parts for extra points), the scores tend to remain fairly close, keeping the competition lively and the commentary raucous until the end.

Sometimes a team like “Tons of Fun” may get the upper hand; other times, perhaps, it’ll be their good-natured rival, “F— Tons of Fun,” or maybe “The Dillingslammers,” “Pork Chop & Applesauce,” or “The Hospital People.” On Sept. 17, however, it was our turn to shine, as “The Drifters” slid neatly alone into first place on the fifth tiebreaker question (selected from cards out of a Trivial Pursuit game).

Among the prizes available to the winners were several anti-Pebble Mine stickers, a baseball-style cap depicting the F/V Brown Dog, a berry picker, some canned soup, a Lonely Planet book (“Europe on a Shoestring”), and an assortment of candy, key chains and fishing tackle.

Afterward, we walked away into the chilly Dillingham night — and into a town with fewer strangers.

Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.

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