Nov 302009

“A Nine-Mile Walk” is a classic mystery short story by Harry Kemelman, who also wrote all those Rabbi Small novels — Friday the Rabbi Slept Late and etc. In the short story, two men hear a single line of dialogue spoken into a pay phone (“A nine mile walk is no joke, especially in the rain”) and from there begin playing a game in which they try to infer as much meaning as they can from that one simple moment. They decide that the speaker of that line must be travelling between two specific towns, which are exactly nine miles apart, and then they decide something else based on the fact that he had to walk that distance in the rain, and before you know it they’ve logically deduced that a murder is about to take place. They call the police… and it turns out they were right, and they halt the murder before it happens.

It’s a pretty unlikely story. Nonetheless, we attempted to re-enact it in our own fashion this past weekend at the Miami Herald Hunt, an annual puzzle event headed up by humor writer Dave Barry and Herald editor Tom Schroeder.

Each year, teams are teased with five separate puzzles, the answers to which are numbers, which in turn refer to clues found in a special section of that morning’s newspaper. Teams have three hours from the start of the event to figure out which five clues they need. After that, a Final Clue is given out to all teams… and then the race is on to combine all the clues in just the right way to come up with a secret phone number or to determine the hidden location of the finish line.

My team, as always, was made up of professional puzzle constructors and members of the National Puzzlers’ League — which sounds mighty impressive, until you realize that we have never won this event or even come close. Nonetheless, we usually make short work of the first five puzzles, and this year was no exception.

The puzzles were…

The Carolers. A lineup of Christmas carolers repeatedly sang the same two songs: “Hark, the Herald Angels” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” On that second song, two women dressed in wings and halos only sang on a few of the verses: Eleven drummers drumming, five golden rings, and three French hens. As we were instructed by the first song only to listen to what the Herald Angels were singing, the answer to this puzzle was 3511.

Except, these weren’t really angels but human beings, and as such were capable of making mistakes. One angel forgot to sing on 11 a few times, and the other one kept throwing in “four turtle doves” for good measure (you could see her mentally kicking herself each time). While we understood immediately how to arrive at the answer, we initially landed in the wrong place, believing the answer to be 53. We only corrected this at the very last performance of the carols, stumbling to the right answer (3511!) with minutes to spare. Whew.

The Wristband. Volunteers were giving out small blue wristbands; near them was a sign saying “Put this on your wrist.” Inscribed on the band was the cryptic message “P.3.” Or, not so cryptic: We turned to page three in our clue guide, where we had previously noted a large rectangle filled with letters of various sizes and in various fonts. We looked for and found the words YOUR WRIST, spelled in a circle among the jumble. Placing the wristband over these words encircled a group letters which could be anagrammed to spell SIXTEEN.

One-Act Play. Eight actors performed a bizarre little sketch in which seven of them try to determine who has killed the eighth. Information about the various characters was thrown about at a maddening pace — I was writing down character names and other keywords as fast as I could move my pen. But for all that, there was only one thing you really had to notice: After a brief delay in which lights were blacked out, the audience was told that “something was now different,” and this was the key to the mystery. I was baffled, but this is why I make sure I’m on a team with people smarter than me: One of my teammates noticed that the dead body, which started off as a white actor, was now being played by a black actor. As the corpse’s name was Jack, this could now only be a blackjack, leading to the answer 21.

Romeo and Juliet. Two more actors (and pretty good ones, actually) performed the balcony scene from Shakespeare’s play… until the moment where they started changing things rather dramatically. It ended with Romeo telling Juliet to give him a call at his house. When she said she didn’t know his number, he informed her that she could simply look it up. Finis.

The phrasing “call me at my house” seemed pertinent, and a clear reference to the “House of Montague,” but what did that mean? Just as the first beads of worry appeared on my forehead, one of my teammates found a fake ad in the clue guide, for a restaurant called — yep — “House of Montague.” Calling the number in the ad gave us a brief message: “Wherefore art thou has four syllables. No, yes, no yes.”

Looking only at the second and fourth syllables (the ones marked “yes”) gives you the message “four thou,” and the answer was 4000.

This was probably the best puzzle of the day: The fake ad really fooled us on our initial inspection of the clue guide (fake ads are commonplace in the Hunt, but they are usually pretty blatant), and I like how the final message tied back into the theme of the puzzle. Good stuff.

Sudoku. We were given a 4×4 sudoku grid with not enough seed numbers to solve it. Other numbers, we were told, could be found elsewhere around the Hunt. Finding those other numbers was no big challenge, and once we had them, solving the sudoku was a simple matter. We were told which digits formed the answer we sought, and that was that — this was the easiest puzzle of the day by far.

Except for the glitch with the Christmas carols, which we wouldn’t correct until moments before the final clue was delivered, the five puzzles took just over an hour to solve. This left us plenty of time for lunch… and to theorize madly about what the final puzzle would be. Unlike the heroes of “A Nine-Mile Walk,” however, we followed a path of logic that took us wildly off course.

The first of the five clues said something about “forewords” being important. I decided to count the number of four-letter words in each of the other four clues. This gave us four digits. For a while we thought, well, that’s probably about as far as we can take this without the final clue.

But then we thought: Assuming we are right about the importance of these digits, what would be the next logical step for the people who made this puzzle?

I threw out a suggestion that seemed so magical and wonderful that I honestly could not see how it could be wrong: The final clue would be a four-letter word. Each letter in that word would then pair up with one of our four digits to make a series of map coordinates.

No, said my friend Trip. They wouldn’t send us all over the map like that. Running to four distinct locations is a lot to ask of the teams in the endgame.

Aha, I said. That would be correct if the final clue was something like CALL. Those four coordinates would indeed be all over the place—and in fact, anything in the L column of the map would require teams to rent a boat and go out to sea. More likely, then, the final word would be something with letters close together in the alphabet, thus keeping the four coordinates reasonably near each other on the map. A word like BEEF would do the trick nicely.

But that’s not a clue, Trip said. Dave Barry isn’t going to just say the word “BEEF” into the microphone. He’s going to give us a clue to the four-letter word.

No sooner had he said this then Trip had his own magical leap of logic: What if the four-letter word was ABBA? No word had letters closer together. We would wind up with four map coordinates within a few blocks of each other. And that word could be clued easily by playing a song from the Swedish supergroup.

After some discussion, we were morally sure — well, not sure, but more than a little hopeful — that the final clue was going to be the song “Dancing Queen,” blared through the speakers.

We still had plenty of time before the final clue was given to us, so we decided to check out those map coordinates in advance, just to be safe. We didn’t see anything at any of the four locations, but perhaps something would be placed there at the appropriate time: Surely they wouldn’t put out important information a solid twenty minutes before the final clue was given. That would give certain lucky teams far too much of an advantage. We discussed stationing somebody in the area but ultimately decided against it.

During this little scouting adventure, we passed an unusual sight: There was a small array of orange pylons and police tape, placed in a particular place on the sidewalk. One of the other teams had decided that this was a terribly important location, and they were peering through the holes in the tops of the pylons, trying to see what was underneath. My teammates glanced at each other and decided these people were crazy. Although, two Hunt volunteers were lurking about… no, no, this couldn’t be anything. Red herring. We went back to the mainstage to hear the final clue.

We arrived just in time to catch the last performance of the Christmas carolers, and were pretty much floored when we saw the “angels” singing the number 11. One of our clues was wrong! We quickly made the necessary corrections. Whoa! Good thing we caught that in time! Otherwise we might have been wildly wrong about everything!

After a couple of announcements, Dave Barry gave us the final clue.

It was not “Dancing Queen.”

The final clue was simply the words “too gross,” which of course meant “two gross,” which clued the number 288.

At this point, we had already lost, though we didn’t know it. We tacked the digits 288 to our previous four digits, giving us a seven digit phone number which was out of service. So we put 288 before our four digits, which gave us a different phone number which was also out of service. And that’s when one of my teammates saw that 288 represented another clue in the guide: The clue read, “If words were inches…”

Boom. Somebody counted up all the words in all the clues. There were 48 of them. 48 inches equals four feet. On the map was a drawing of four feet. We ran to that spot on the map along without about two thousand other people. And you have already guessed the punchline: At that location on the map were the orange pylons we had passed earlier and dismissed. Now they had been removed to reveal bricks laid into the ground. Not that I ever saw these bricks myself — a near riot of puzzlers kept all but the very first arrivals from seeing what was inscribed there.

Inscribed into those bricks were the names of four fictional people, along with their dates of birth and death. A message in the clues (taking every fourth word, which was the real importance of “forewords”) instructed Hunters to figure out the ages of these people. Doing so gave you a seven digit number: A phone number. The first teams to call this number were the winners.

Obviously, we didn’t come close. But, oddly, neither did another team we were friends with. This team, unlike us, had made all the correct leaps of logic before the final clue was read, and had stationed a teammate at the orange pylons so she could see what was under there at the very moment those pylons were moved.

But even this team was too late. Too many other teams had already taken the next step, peeking into those pylons to see what was underneath, a solid twenty minutes before they should have had access to the information. This was, I think, a mistake on the part of the constructors. By stationing Hunt volunteers in bright purple shirts by the suspicious-looking pylons so long before the final clue was revealed, the Hunt organizers attracted teams to information they should not have had. (The Hunt volunteers did nothing to prevent people from peeking; though even if they had, this would only have confirmed their importance.)

And by making the final location — the bricks under those pylons — so very small, they guaranteed that once the “two gross” clue was read aloud and the stampede began, only a small handful of hunters would get to see those important names and dates. Everyone else got to see the backs of the people who arrived there ahead of them. Not that anybody who waited to hear the final clue had much of a chance. The game had ended almost half an hour earlier.

One last amusing anecdote: When one of my teammates finally got to see what was under those pylons — how he did it without bloodshed I will never know — his glance was so brief that he, in fact, didn’t see any names or dates. Instead, he saw some other words nearby: a metal grate inscribed with the words LINT INTERCEPTOR. Was this the clue? Well, it was all we had. What could these words mean?

And that’s why we spent five minutes or so looking on the map for a picture of a belly button.

Yes, this was nothing more than another wrong answer. But you’ve got to admit: We came up with some mighty entertaining wrong answers over the course of the day.

All in all, a fun day, and it was, as always, wonderful getting together with all my puzzle friends for dinner afterward. The only problem — and it’s a serious one — is that I still have “Dancing Queen” stuck in my head.

Nov 192009

Greetings from Tampa, Florida, where I am midway through a full week of school visits. The kids have been crazily enthusiastic, and it’s been a delight to serve up puzzles to them and watch their little hands shoot to the ceiling whether they know the answer or not. Oftentimes they raise their hands before I have even presented the puzzle. I think it’s possible one or two of them have their hands up even now, at home in their living rooms, on the off chance I might suddenly walk in and call on them. I don’t know whether these kids will love puzzles this much tomorrow, or all their lives, but by golly, they sure loved puzzles today!

The teachers have been only slightly less fervent. It would not be improper to view me as a general contractor: They are paying me a sum of money to come here and do a job. But this is not the view at all, and I am being treated, slightly to my embarrassment, as some kind of celebrity. Both of my schools today set aside special parking spaces for me. (And in neither case did I see the parking spot until I had parked elsewhere. Sorry about that. It was still a sweet gesture!) I am also being festooned with gifts. So far I have received:

- A leather binder for a notebook, pen included.

- A Spanish cookbook. (Spanish cuisine, that is. The book is not in Spanish, thankfully.)

- A cigar. A cigar! I think if I do another thousand school visits, I will never again receive a cigar.

- Back last month when I was in Orlando, one of the Tampa teachers stopped me and inquired about my favorite snack food. I said, “Pringles.” And now I have a lot of Pringles.

But the best gift of all stopped me in my tracks. At first I didn’t even know what I was looking at, when the classroom representatives handed it to me. They actually had to explain it.

They made me Winston’s box. They wrapped a cardboard box in fake “wrapping paper” just like the kind Winston uses in chapter 1 to make a puzzle, and inside the box was a card thanking me for visiting their school. And the box had a false bottom, under which were the wooden strips. Is that not the most thoughtful gift? I wonder if the kids thought it up or their teacher directed them. Either way: Wow. I am generally a polite person, I think, and have been thanking people all day for the Pringles and the cigar, but I’m pretty sure my thank you this time sounded less like “I acknowledge that you have just given me a thoughtful gift” and was more along the lines of “You have just blown my mind.” Thank you!!!

Tonight: Dinner with a small group of media specialists, at the very Spanish restaurant whose cookbook I now own. Tomorrow: More great kids, more puzzles, and, unless I miss my guess, more Pringles. Friday: The last two schools and then a plane ride home. More on this really wonderful visit soon, hopefully with a couple of pics.

Nov 142009

Lea had homework the other day where she had to write sentences using various assigned words. For one sentence, she wrote: “I would like to learn about squirrels someday.”

Today this homework came back with a single application of red ink from the teacher: She inserted a caret in front of squirrels and wrote, “Adjective needed.”

Does this make sense to any of you?

Not only do I not think an adjective is needed, I think it would be a mistake to include one, unless Lea needed to specify the particular kind of squirrel (“flying”) she wants to learn about. In which case, sure.

Gosh, it unsettles me to see a teacher make errors on a second-grader’s homework. Or is this not an error at all? What do you say?