[Originally published in 2006]
Magicians always fascinated my father. If you sat him down in front of a really good magician, he’d watch him for hours and hours without becoming the least bit bored. His favorite type of performer was the sleight-of-hand artist. Anyone who could manipulate cards or coins, close up, was a hero to my father. And the thing that really made him tick was trying to figure out how a trick was done. Inevitably, this led to him learning a few tricks himself.
He learned how to perform false shuffles and cuts. He knew how to palm a card. He practiced his patter and learned how to use misdirection. In the end, he learned how to perform three or four very good card tricks. He often used these during sales calls to loosen up a client, so it was a practical undertaking. Of course, in a relaxed social gathering, he’d do these tricks at a drop of a hat. He was quite proud of them, and they were good.
He also had a healthy respect for people who could accomplish something unique with their hands in a non-magical manner. He loved to watch, at their work, any person who was unusually adept at what he or she did. A good example would be his love of professional chefs. The simple tricks that a good chef accomplishes with grace – the flipping of foods in a skillet or the rapid slicing of a vegetable (without concurrently slicing off a finger or two) – were also things that he worked hard to emulate. He became quite an adept amateur chef.
I mention all of this as background for a short, but extremely funny, bit of business that went down between my father and his brother, my Uncle Jimmy.
My father originally told me this story shortly after it happened, some 35 years ago. I had completely forgotten about it until Uncle Jimmy jogged my memory during a recent phone conversation. I’m glad he did.
My father and I were living together in the Boston area, a few years following his divorce from my mother. I’m about 21 at the time, sort of bumming through life with undefined dreams of becoming a rock star or something else that didn’t require heavy lifting. My dad worked for an airline. He held the position of District Sales Manager for the New England region. Actually, he was the only employee of this particular foreign carrier living in the New England region, so he pretty much set his own hours. Since I had no hours to speak of, we ended up spending a fair amount of time together doing useless, but fun, things.
Somewhere in our journeys, we had picked up a set of five puzzles. These puzzles were constructed as follows: a clear plastic cube, perhaps three inches square, and inside of each cube is an orange piece of plastic and four small ball bearings. The orange plastic had a different form and function in each puzzle. In one, for instance, it was attached to the bottom of the cube and shaped as a series of four small bumps, with a ball bearing-sized indentation on the top of each bump. In that puzzle, the idea was to get the four ball bearings simultaneously resting on top of the four bumps.
We’d play with these puzzles at random times; watching TV, perhaps, and trying to solve the puzzles during commercial breaks. Four out of the five puzzles were relatively easy. They took a bit of concentration, but we could do them in a couple of minutes. The fifth puzzle, however, was a bitch.
The fifth puzzle had the piece of orange plastic set on an axle that ran from corner to corner in the middle of the cube. The orange plastic was flat and had four holes in it, slightly smaller than the ball bearings, near its four corners. The idea, as you might imagine, was to get all of the balls into the holes. What made it so hard was that if you put the orange piece of plastic out of balance on its axle, the plastic would spin and the balls would all fall out.
Now, I may or may not have described the puzzle adequately for you to picture it; I hope that I have. However, the important thing to know is this: whoever designed that puzzle was a sadist. We each took turns at it and not only weren’t we able to complete it successfully, we were rarely able to get more than one ball in place before the thing went out of whack and we had to start over.
We worked at that puzzle for months. Any time we weren’t doing something else, that puzzle would be in one of our hands. As I said earlier, my dad could manipulate cards and coins and do some sleight of hand, so he wasn’t all thumbs. I was a musician, so I had some fairly nimble fingers myself. Neither one of us was going to give up on this damned thing; we were both too stubborn for that.
To make a long story short, through some minor miracle my dad finally got the ball bearings to rest in the four holes without the axle spinning. He had solved the puzzle from Hell. He then very carefully and deliberately placed it on a bookshelf by our front door. There it stood, in perfect balance, as testament to his mastery. We never touched it after that and he was damned proud of having been able to do it.
A few weeks later, my Uncle Jimmy came over to the house for a visit. My dad answered the door and let him in. He had to go do something in another room, though, so he told Jimmy to wait and he’d be right back.
Being a curious sort, Jimmy glanced around the room and then his eyes came to rest on the bookshelf. He saw the puzzle. He picked it up. The ball bearings fell out of the holes.
When my father came back into the room, my Uncle Jimmy held out the puzzle and asked, “Tom, what’s this?”
According to my Uncle Jimmy, the look on my father’s face was somewhere between murderous and suicidal. Had he been a younger man, he might have cried.
“Oh, no! Do you know how long it took me to do that puzzle? I worked on it for weeks and weeks and weeks, and then you come in here and just ruin it! Do you know how hard that thing is? Aw, crap...”
My Uncle Jimmy looked at the puzzle in his hand. He sort of shook it slightly and the four balls fell right back into the holes as though they couldn’t possibly have done any different. He put the puzzle back up on the shelf and said, “What’s so hard about that?”
If my father hadn’t wanted to cry before, he sure did then.
When my Uncle Jimmy reminded me of that story, he added a fact that he never told my father.
"Jim, you should have seen the look on his face. When I ruined the puzzle, it was like his best friend had died and I felt really bad about doing it. I didn’t know what it was and how hard he had worked on it. But, when I put it back together, it was almost worth the first look just to see the second one he got. His eyes bugged out, and his jaw hung open, and... well, Jim, it was just an amazing stroke of luck! I didn’t even try to really do the puzzle. The balls just fell into place. It was one of those great cosmic accidents that happen only to piss off someone else."
My father never took the puzzle off the shelf again for as long as he lived, God bless him.
(In the meantime, use these coupons for toys and puzzles and start your own traditions.)
Soon, with more better stuff.