My Father’s Games

I remember the first time my father showed me GAMES Magazine.

I must have been around ten years old, because it was shortly after the magazine premiered in 1977. We’d seen puzzle magazines before, but this was a new kind of thing: It had a slim section of traditional puzzle magazine-type puzzles surrounded by news of the gaming world. Articles focused on anything that someone interested in board and card games, puzzles, riddles might be interested in.

This was the intersection of our worlds. My parents spent many a weekend night playing Oh Hell with their friends. He loved word-based games like Probe and Scrabble. Family time was spent with Triominos and Twister. He despised the TV: He preferred spending family time with family, but he also treasured time with other adults while my brother and I played quietly or read in the next room.

Meanwhile, I loved brainteasers and mental challenges. He insisted that it took me twenty minutes to solve the Rubik’s Cube the first time I touched one; now, my time for the standard cube is around a minute, two minutes if I’m being casual. At the time, I loved word searches, crossword puzzles, and mazes.

So GAMES Magazine brought us together once a month. He had first dibs, of course: He was the father. He was an old-school father, so his house, his magazine, his rules. But I could have it when he was done with it, and eventually I got my own subscription.

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When they introduced cryptic crosswords, with their wordplay-based clues, he poured over them. He taught me how to look for the puns, and how to unravel the parts. While the rest of the magazine had been a Venn diagram of vaguely overlapping worlds, cryptic crosswords were something we could devour together.

Shark-based attraction found in Scandanavia (7)

Response about confusing Ra notice (8)

Metal leash! (4)

Sporting show-off, according to Rev. Spooner, is hoarding the polkas (3, 3)

Memory aid is said to be about breathing (9)

These are Dad Jokes on steroids, and I loved wrestling with them with my father. He had given me my penchant for terrible puns, and now he’d given me a framework for exploring them each month.

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Eventually, I came to surpass him in my puzzling skills. It had started with the Rubik’s Cube: It remained impenetrable to him while it flew into obeisance under my fingers. But as other puzzle types also fell to me, I could tell I was threatening his sense of manhood.

On the one hand, I really regretted that. What had brought us together in my childhood became a wedge in my adulthood. Once, late in his life, I was visiting him at what was to be his retirement home and I noticed a puzzle magazine. It was turned to a puzzle. Halfway done was a Kakuro.

I instantly started scanning it, and began solving the missing parts in my head. I couldn’t control it: That was me.

“Don’t finish that!” he said from the next room. “Don’t even touch it!”

Without seeing me, he knew what I was doing, and what was going through my head, and it threatened him.

On the other hand, I was really frustrated by that. I believe that fathers should be proud when their sons grow wings and fly higher than they did. I want my son to do that. My wings have been clipped, by myself and by the fake limitations placed on me as a child. I want my child to outdo me. In video games, at age nine, he already does, knocking down bosses that I give up on. Good for him.

Is this what the story of Icarus is about, at some level? I’ve usually seen it as a tale of not being too proud in general, but how much of Icarus’s failure is about him flying higher than his father?

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Now I share GAMES Magazine with my own son. He loves the Kid’s Stuff and the Hangman. He and his mother do the word searches, while I wince because they circle entire words. In GAMES, nearly every word search has a hidden message using the unused letters, and those are harder to read when words are circled (rather than individual letters).

And he watches me do the more advanced, grid-based word puzzles, like the variety cryptics and the jigsaws. He asks me to explain, and he looks for the patterns in how I’m entering clues. Soon enough, he’ll ask if he can do one with my help, and then after that, he’ll be on his own.

I’m passing along the baton my father gave to me.

This, for me, is part of fatherhood.

(Cryptic clue answers: Finland, Reaction, Lead, Hot Dog, Pneumonic) 

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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