The 29th annual town-wide spelling bee got off to a dramatic start.

"Mechanic," said Mitchell Hom, a fifth grader at Jennings Elementary School. "M-E-C-H-A-N-I..."

Then he stopped. The auditorium fell silent as Hom sorted out the letters in his head. Before him, three judges readied their pencils to strike his name from the competitors' list. Behind him, 44 other fifth graders prepared for their own turns, and for the prospect that their odds of winning were about to improve. To his left, the audience members filling the Roger Ludlowe Middle School auditorium homed their eyes on his lips.

Hom kept on thinking. Finally, he spoke.

"C. Mechanic," he said

Applause shot up before the judges could indicate that he was right.

Over the next two hours, the microphone bent upwards and downwards as the town's savviest fifth-grade spellers -- of varying heights -- convened on a single stage to determine who among them was the best. One by one, they took turns in front of the lectern and spelled out words most adults have long since forgotten -- or never actually knew -- how to accurately spell (Corduroy? Parfait? Anonymous?).

As the competition was set to begin, the contingent from North Stratfield Elementary proved cool and collected in their collapsible chairs. Asked if there were any words they were nervous about, the four boys yelled "No!" in unison.

"Except for Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," said Eddie Li, who went on to tie for fifth place.

True to their word, the students got off to a torrid start, dispatching the first 15 words with apparent ease before someone mistook the word "through" -- though accurately spelled -- for "threw."

"This is kind of nerve-wracking for the kids, but it's also nerve-wracking for the parents and teachers," said David Foster, a teacher at Stratfield Elementary School, during intermission. While he spoke, his student, Andrew Baratz, was in the cafeteria getting refreshments in anticipation of round four.

Baratz had been studying vocabulary words from the past fall during the previous week, Foster said. He also studied the words on the way to the competition Thursday night. The preparation, Foster predicted, would show results in the coming rounds. And it did. Baratz made it to round seven before stumbling on the word "anticipated."

Baratz, of course, brought natural prowess to the stage, too. When it came time for the classroom competition, Foster said, everyone in the class knew either he or Max Lee would win. Lee was the alternate and in attendance with his mother. The word "peninsula" had slipped him up in the classroom competition, he said.

Proving that many techniques can yield equal results was Meghan Kelley of Osborne Hill Elementary. Kelley is the youngest of three. Her older sister and brother also made it to the town-wide competition as fifth graders. The secret to the family's success, her father said, was that they avoided practice.

"Practice brings about too much stress," he said.

Erin Kelley, Meghan's older sister, was in attendance to watch. Now a sophomore at Fairfield Ludlowe High School, she still remembers the word "guitar" eliminating her from the town-wide competition. Her friend, Melissa, won the town and state competitions that year. Now they now are in the same chemistry class.

Asked how Melissa is doing now, Erin said she's "really smart."

Erin said that chemistry class helped her correctly spell -- albeit from the audience -- what this reporter considered the most challenging word of the first three rounds: Fluoride.

"She said, `They're going to miss the `U,'" the girls' father said.

And that's exactly what Kristin Chen, of Mill Hill Elementary, did during round three.

In Chen's defense, author Mark Twain was reputed to have once said: "I have no respect for a man who can spell a word only one way."

Alternates were asked to attend Thursday's competition in case something happened to their class's champion. Holy Family's alternate, Emma Geckeler, sat in a back row with her mother to watch her classmate, Olivia Graziano compete. A savvy fifth grader, Geckeler parried this reporter's badgering as to what word had stumped her in her class finale.

Asked repeatedly, she shrugged her shoulders each time and then looked at the stage.

"It was a fight to the finish, right before February break," her mother said, turning to her daughter. "Oh, you remember the word, don't you?"

Geckeler lifted one index finger to her mouth and pointed with the other one to the stage. Instructions were being given to competitors as to what rules would govern the competition. The rest of the room was silent. Reporter and mother shushed.

As competitors were eliminated, the pool of contestants looped back to the microphone steadily faster. By the time the field was whittled down to three, it seemed the competition might go on all night.

Ryan Cimmino, of St. Thomas Aquinas, stood with his hands in his pockets as he spelled. He rolled back and forth on his feet gingerly as he thought. When he got a word correct, he slapped his hands together rapidly and looped back into line with a skip in his step. Ultimately, though, he faltered at the word "reciprocate."

Geoffrey Gaugler, a tall fifth grader from Burr Elementary, advanced to the finale. Clad in a blue polo shirt, he bent his arms behind his back as he fired letters out as if he didn't even need to think. Only the word "uninhabited" could trip him up.

Which set the stage for Patrick Salts, of Riverfield Elementary. Salts, dressed in a red polo shirt, kept his hands at his side and enunciated letters with a robotic precision. When the word "pressurized" was thrown his way, he had the poise to ask for the correct tense of verb. After arranging the right letters in the right order, the crown was his.

He stood still at the microphone, his hands moving up and down the pole, as if he was still waiting for a challenging word.

His dad stood up.

"Patrick, you won!" he yelled.

Salts slowly turned to address his cheering family. He looked at his dad.

"So?" he responded.

Salts and Gaugler will represent Fairfield at the state championships.