Whoa! What Am I Doing Here?

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

We’ve all had them—those panicky predicaments. You’re stuck and don’t want to be.

I call them “Help, Mister Wizard” moments. No one ever gets the literary allusion. No one seems to know what I mean when I punctuate some personal, cliffhanger narrative with, “It was, you know, one of those ‘Help, Mister Wizard’ moments.” Actually, it is not a literary allusion at all. It refers to a long-gone cartoon that was pretty obscure even in its heyday.

“The Tooter Turtle Show” was a segment of the cartoon programs King Leonardo and His Short Subjects and later Underdog that aired in the 1960s and early ’70s. In each episode the earnest and eager turtle would ask the wizard to send him off on some exciting, exotic adventure—a safari, a wagon train west, a dog sled race, a mountain-climbing expedition. The wizard would grant the wish, and the turtle would set out full of hope, romance and joyful expectations. Then little by little, step by step, things would go bad and land poor Tooter Turtle in perilous straits with no possible means of escape.

The hapless turtle would then cry out, “Help, Mister Wizard,” at which point the wizard intervened, reciting, “Drizzle drazzle drozzle drome, time for this one to come home,” and magically deliver Tooter Turtle from his gruesome fate. Tooter Turtle would happily return to the safety of his dull and otherwise uneventful life.

For some reason, probably due as much to my personality as anything else, this cartoon has stuck with me for a lifetime. How often—in a tense meeting when all eyes are on me, stepping to the podium where I’m about to speak to 300 strangers, driving aimlessly in a dark and scary corner of Chicago (gas gauge on empty, no cell phone)—have I echoed Tooter Turtle’s desperate incantation. Even during more serious encounters—gripped by vertigo on a ledge too high, on an airplane with smoke spewing from the cockpit, entering a hospital to confront prospects stomach-churningly grim—I have longed for rescue and whispered, “Help, Mister Wizard.” If nothing else, this little semiprayer lightens the moment, reminds me of life’s delightful alchemy of tragedy and comedy, the absurd and the profound. None of it lasts very long.

I’ve had many occasions in my life to wonder what I’m doing here. It’s the ultimate human question if you think about it. In this issue we’ve got lots of stories by and about people living out that question—some caught in uncomfortable situations, some facing horrific consequences, some pondering the purpose of their lives, some contemplating their role in the universe, their place in society, the meaning of their actions. Some are there by choice, by courage; some are there because of fate, destiny, good and bad luck. These are the times when life calls us out, when we are asked to rise to the occasion, when we meet ourselves.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.