Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Uncle Jimmy And The Puzzle

My Father really liked magic. Magicians always fascinated him. If you sat him down in front of a really good magician, he could watch him for hours and hours without becoming bored in the least. And the thing that really made him tick was trying to figure out how a trick was done.

While he enjoyed stage magic and big illusions, such as the type performed by Siegfried & Roy, his favorite type of performer was the sleight-of-hand artist. Anyone who could manipulate such things as cards or coins, close up, was a hero to my father. 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 those 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 things that he also worked hard to emulate. And so he became a fun person to watch in the kitchen, as well, as he mastered these techniques.

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 25 years ago. I had completely forgotten about it until my Uncle Jimmy jogged my memory a couple of days ago. I’m glad he did.


My father and I were living in Dorchester, a few years following his divorce from my mother. I’m about 24, just sort of bumming through life at that point with undefined dreams of becoming a rock star or a professional bowler or something else that didn’t involve heavy lifting. My dad worked for Singapore Airlines and held the position of District Sales Manager for the New England region. As a result, he pretty much set his own hours and I had no hours to speak of, so 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 very small ball bearings. The orange plastic had a different form and function in each puzzle. In one, for instance, it might have been attached to the bottom of the cube and shaped as a series of four small bumps, with an indentation on the top of each bump. In that puzzle, the idea would be to get the four ball bearings simultaneously resting on top of the four little bumps.

Well, four of the five puzzles were relatively easy. It took a bit of concentration, but we could do them in a few minutes. We’d play with them at random times, watching TV or whatnot, and trying to solve the puzzles during a commercial break. However, the fifth puzzle was a bitch.

The fifth puzzle had the piece of orange plastic set on an axle in the middle of the cube. The axle ran from corner to corner. 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 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 this puzzle for months. Every time we weren’t doing anything else, that puzzle would be in one of our hands. As I said earlier, my dad was pretty good with his hands and could manipulate decks of 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 very carefully and deliberately placed it on a bookshelf by our front door and there it stood, in perfect balance, as testament to his mastery. It was never touched after that and he was damned proud of having been able to do it.

One day, 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, 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 said, “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? Shit. Shit.”

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 have possibly 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 a couple of days ago, he added a fact that he never told my father.

“Jimmy, you should have seen the look on his face when it happened. 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 the damned thing. But, when I put it back together, it was almost worth the first look to see the second one he got. His eyes bugged out and his jaw hung open and... 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 just one of those great cosmic accidents that happen only to piss off someone else.”

My father never took that puzzle off the shelf again for as long as he lived, God bless him.

Soon, with more better stuff.


Magazine Man said...

Funny stuff! My brother is like that with puzzles. He's had a Rubik's Cube on his desk for 20 years that no one can touch since he finally solved the thing.

FYI, dunno how long your disclaimer below has been up, but it made me smile, and then reminded me how many hearts I've broken with empty promises about updating my roll. I swear I will get to it.

But today, I only managed to add one new name.

You deserved this a lot sooner, and not because of how kind and complimentary you've always been (well, not JUST because). I only link to blogs I actually LIKE to read and yours has been on my mental list for a while now. Just needed to update the actual list to reflect it. Sorry you had to wait so long. --mm

Suldog said...

You are The Man, MM. Thank you very much, both for the link and for the kind words. Coming from you, they mean quite a bit to me.

In all honestly, your writing is to mine as Twain is to a collection of knock-knock jokes.

Anonymous said...

Nice story and true, but they are always the best stories. Another piece for knitting into my suggestion.
Thanks Jimmy.

Unknown said...