There they lay before me – thousands of little pieces.
Oh, how would I ever assemble them? I didn’t want to look like a klutz in front of my family. But the task looked nigh unto impossible.
I’ll tell you, those massive jigsaw puzzles we amused ourselves with back in the 1950s could be intimidating. All the “A”s on your grade-school report card meant nothing once you went up against a box of crazy-looking pieces of stiff pasteboard that were supposed to fit together somehow.
Fortunately, though, my dad gave me the mental key I needed. “Build the frame and then fill in,” he said, noticing my bamboozlement.
So that’s what I did. Taking the pieces with straight edges, I was able to built pretty much the whole frame for the puzzle. Along the way I was then able to add some of the pieces of the interior. Then the rest of the frame. Then the rest of the interior. It wasn’t easy, but it was an approach that worked.
This particular puzzle I really liked. It was a huge portrait of Dick Tracy, the detective of comic-strip fame, hosting a party at the station house for all the wild and wacky characters who’d ever populated the story.
As the pieces fit together, I saw emerge the villains Pruneface and Flat Top, Tracy’s sidekick Sam and his girlfriend Tess, plus more.
Suddenly I felt like an “A” student again.
I also learned something from the Dick Tracy puzzle, and the advice I was given. Look for the broad outlines of a task, and then go for the constituent parts.
Our parents probably understood this truth, and the truths behind other games, which is why they bought them for us – perhaps partly to keep us quiet, of course, but mainly to teach us something.
Once I tried (believe it or not) pick-up sticks. Now there’s a challenge.
Your instinct might be to try to remove that blue stick that’s protruding out of the pile. But if you survey the scene you notice that sliding it out would likely cause the green one supporting the yellow one to drop an eighth of an inch, meaning you lose your turn.
So, you look for the less obvious solution. That black one in back that you didn’t notice at first really doesn’t affect any other one. Aha!
Lesson learned: Take your time and don’t jump at the first “solution.”
Checkers? It’s pretty obvious what that game is meant to teach you about planning ahead and not acting until you’ve looked at all the possibilities: that you might be wrong. Really, it’s no fun to get a king, smile smugly and then see four of your men jumped by a piece you weren’t watching.
Some people grasp these lessons of childhood very quickly. In fact, sometimes you find yourself as an adult overwhelmed by young minds on the way up.
I learned that sobering lesson when I bought a stock market card game called Pit and a little roulette set complete with wheel and chips to teach the young folks in my family.
“Teach?” About all I can say is it’s a good thing for me I never aspired to become a gambler.
Do families today have game nights after dinner? Do they get out coloring books and crayons and teach kids how to focus efforts and keep within the lines? Not sure.
One thing I do know, though: Pruneface was a really cool villain.
Tom Mooney is a Times Leader history columnist. Reach him at [email protected]