COLUMN: It’s all a puzzle to me

  • Posted: Saturday, October 6, 2012 9:00 a.m.

When I was in high school quite a number of years ago, I recall the visits made by my grandparents.

They were Pittsburghers who had transplanted themselves to the warmth of St. Petersburg, helping Grandma escape the ragweed which plagued her unmercifully in the fall and the cold winters which neither of them enjoyed.

Typically they came north to Aiken in the spring to spend time with their oldest daughter and her family. My grandfather was obsessed with the weather. He kept track of the systems that were coming across the country, and he was able to predict with a good degree of accuracy how things were going to be in the next day or two.

One of my clearest memories of those visits was seeing them when I walked into the yard after taking the bus from school. They would be sitting side-by-side in folding chairs on the front lawn of my parents’ house. In spite of the warmth of the early spring weather, Grandma would be wearing a sweater. She was tiny (5 feet tall with shoes on not even 100 pounds) and was susceptible to the chills that even a spring day can bring.

Between them would be a newspaper folded in a special way so that only one portion of the page was visible, and one of them held a pen. They were working the newspaper crossword puzzles.

I was always amazed at the answers they were able to come up with: a six-letter word that means followed. They would quickly come up with the answer “ensued” and be off to the next clue.

I did mention that they used pen to complete their crossword puzzles. No pencils. No erasers.

At the time the family received three daily newspapers, and each one had a different puzzle. The two of them would spend a couple of hours each day poring over the clues, filling in the blanks, going back to the ones they had not figured out the first time around and finally completing the puzzle in that precise printing that Grandma had.

She was a retired first-grade teacher, and seeing her writing (whether printing or cursive) was always a treat. The birthday cards she sent always had that lovely handwriting, and even into her 90s it was as pretty as ever.

Getting back to the crossword puzzles, my grandparents always said that working those puzzles helped keep their minds sharp. And those two were mentally as sharp as ever right up to the end when they passed away in their late 90s.

With another birthday in the not-too-distant past, I decided that maybe I should give Grandma and Grandpa’s recipe for sharp minds a try. I have looked at crossword puzzles in the past, but they have tended to irritate me more than entertain. The clues to my way of thinking are vague and confusing. Maybe that’s the way they are supposed to be. For a novice, however, I did not find them to be fun and actually decided that crossword puzzles should be renamed to cross word puzzles, because my comments about them were often just that – cross.

I started again this week to try to duplicate my grandparents’ relaxing moments. Knowing that the Sunday New York Times puzzle was not the one to begin with, I waited until Monday. Just like my grandparents, I folded the page in the newspaper so that only that quarter of the page that contained the crossword puzzle was showing. Then I found a pencil in a drawer – a pencil with an eraser – to begin what I hoped would be the writing of answers.

“Spanish farewell” was the first clue. Five letters. Without having a Spanish course in my background, I still came up with “adios.” The next was a bit more challenging. A five-letter word for “inclines.” Inclines could mean lots of things, but in this one it meant “hills.”

While a few of the clues stumped me, I was heartened to find some that I knew immediately. The three-letter answer for “Golfer Ernie” was “Els” and one that was a no-brainer for me. But “Planet worker” kept me guessing for awhile until some of the boxes became filled, and I realized that “Lois Lane” was the answer.

After working up and down, side to side for about 30 minutes all the little squares had letters in them, the answers made sense, and I was through. Granted, I did not do this with a pen, and there were some erasures on the paper, but I finished it.

I took time each of the next few days to do the same with the puzzle and have so far been relatively successful. Sometimes it has taken me longer. Sometimes the clues are ambiguous: “finds info about” turned out to be “gets a lead on” and “prepares to deal with” was “gets a lead on.” Another confusing aspect to this novice is that there are no spaces, so those two answers were “getsaleadon” and “getsabeadon,” and nowhere in the clue did it say that there was more than one word.

Those of you who have done these puzzles for years are probably shaking your head at these meanderings. I do not claim to be an accomplished puzzler. At this point I am just trying to figure out the double meanings, find words that fit and hopefully finish with most of the boxes filled in and no holes in the paper from repeated erasures.

And I am trying to change my cross word puzzle escapade into a crossword puzzle escape.

Jeff Wallace is the “No longer working” (six letters) “Works with words” (six letters) for the Aiken Standard. (Retired editor)

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