A daily rite in black and white (full text, without crossword clues)
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They do it on the porch. They do it while masticating their breakfast. And sometimes, they do it while headed to their cabin in far-off oases, encircled by majestic birch trees, with the pitter-patter of a late summer rain hitting the windshield.
Some do it in pen. Others use pencil. “If I’m desperate, I’ll use lipstick,” says Jeni Wykes.
What is this story?
The Free Press published a version of this story with an accompanying crossword puzzle. Readers had to solve the puzzle to find words in the story.
This page provides the complete text of the story without the puzzle elements.
The blank squares mock them. They laugh at them. Ha! Good luck, they shout.
But those empty spaces also invite them. Beckon them. Ask them to stay. To figure them out. To treat them like a mailbox and stuff them with hand-written letters. To set out in the northwest and persevere until there are no more vacancies at the alphabetical hotel.
One big square filled with little ones. A Russian nesting doll of trivia that during the act doesn’t feel at all trivial). Little morsels of semantic information that take up residency inside the brain, proving they were never wasting space. Iotas of knowledge, coming in handy.
A ritual. A rite. A tool. A distraction. A challenge. A tradition. A relief. A diversion.
Arthur Wynne was an editor who had what could be seen as either a problem or a beautiful thing: space to fill.
He worked for the New York World newspaper, and the year was 1913. Christmas was around the corner, and Wynne was stressing over what sounds like it should be an enjoyable task: assembling the newspaper’s fun section. “It was an extra-large holiday edition,” says Adrienne Raphel, author of Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them.
Wynne was at a loss. But then, a revelation. A recently developed technological advance allowed for simple printing of blank grids, and the editor decided to pair empty quadralinear boxes with clues, turning fun-page devotees into verbose detectives. The result was an inky symbiosis between publication and subscriber: the paper printed emptiness, and the reader filled it up.
He called it a Word Cross. It sounded wrong and awkward. And it didn’t take long for colleagues to tell Wynne like it was. Names change all the time: Thailand was once Siam; Norma Jean Baker became Marilyn Monroe ; Tennessee’s Oilers are now the Titans. So the World did a switcheroo. The Word Cross crossed words.
By 1924, the crossword puzzle was a smash, Raphel says. A book-length compendium published by Simon and Schuster sold thousands of copies, and Wynne’s creation spread like the juiciest of rumours through a high school cafeteria. Soon, newspapers across North America, including the Manitoba Free Press, made room in their pages for that little grid.
In the Free Press, they called it the Story Section. There were single-panel cartoons, accompanied by poems, scientific lessons, and tales following a character called the Jungleland Detective. And then there was the crossword, published in the 1920s under the title “Solve Polly Evans’ Cross Word.” But it wasn’t meant for adults: it was designed “for our boys and girls,” and was divided into two categories: across, and up and down. On March 14, 1925, the clue for 1 Across was “Vehicle,” and 2 Down, a two-letter word descending from the middle letter of the first one across, was clued “Like.”
Other clues: To injure. Mexico (abbr.) City in New England. What a house is built on. Short for Emma. Short for Theodore. Short for Dorothy. Short for Benjamin. Three consecutive letters of the alphabet. Three consecutive letters of the alphabet backward. Something in the window (plu.). A river in Italy. An exclamation. Past tense of set. Past tense of sit. Therefore.
Solvers sent in their solutions, with cool prizes at stake). Ten credits were given each week to the fifty neatest and most correct answers to the weekly puzzles, half of the winning entries allotted for children in Winnipeg and the other half in “the country.” “Boys and girls 13 and under may try,” the rules read. “Age as well as neatness will be considered in awarding prizes.”
The crossword was not simply a game. It taught geography. It preached precision. It promoted proper usage, proper grammar and spelling. It was a tabletop educator. A broadsheet worksheet that didn’t feel like school.
The list of winners was published each week, and with their credits, that fortunate club could reap a reward of their choosing.
For 10 credits: a pencil box, a toy pistol*, crayons, agates, marbles, rubber ball*, eraser, sand pail and spade*, bead necklace, novelty brooch, dime bank, magspellnet*, paper dolls, tie clip — every child needs one —tiddlewinks, fairy tale book, dominoes*, spinning tops, toy models, or cut-out postcards. (*Some items were too bulky to deliver to the country.) For 50 credits, they could get a crossword book. Over time, the crossword became less oriented toward children, and adults started to do them in the local paper, too.
But there also existed prizes immaterial, for whoever picked up the pen was participating in a joyful mental exercise, Raphel says. During times of trouble, to solve became a salve. For a few minutes for some, and a few more for others, the only concern was to start and to finish. The crossword drew the curtains to the outside world on its stormiest days. While headlines announced the bombing of Pearl Harbor on a date that would live in infamy, and the unfathomable atrocities of global conflict across the Atlantic Ocean, the crossword was its own Eden.
“It’s a contained ritual in a known space,” Raphel says. “It’s its own oasis in the middle of a jungle.”
Wynne couldn’t have known his brainchild wouldmature something so beloved. That it would become as integral a part of the paper for some readers as the editorial. Not simply a daily activity, but a lifelong obsession. A reason to subscribe. A reason to wake up in the morning.
That’s been the case pretty much every day since 1986 for Roberta Turner.
She remembers how it started. She was running the law centre at the University of Manitoba when a few aspiring barristers and solicitors flipped open this newspaper and clicked their pens. Soon after, she clicked hers.
“My dad used to do them religiously,” Turner says. One could call her a convert, wooed by the thesaurus-thumping proselytizing of the open grid. She starts the puzzle each day after skimming the editorials, the letters to the editor, and the news of the day. “All that doom and gloom,” she says. Diversion is the perfect word for her morning tradition.
She does as much as she can, and if she’s stumped, gets up and walks away. It’s amazing what often happens next: an elusive word, hidden like a pirate’s booty, reveals itself. With patience, solutions unfurl.
The same thing happens for Peter Munn, who has his own approach to the puzzle. “The rule I go on is that if I finish a crossword, it’s based on what’s between my two ears,” the Melbourne-born Winnipegger says. “Rarely now do I look at Google unless it’s for curiosity. I get most of it done, and quite often, I’ll ask my wife to help me.”
He met her in South Africa a long time ago, and together, they hitchhiked through the continent’s southeast. They took a boat to India before heading west through Pakistan and Iran and Turkey before ending up in Winnipeg, where Margaret was born. They do the crosswords and puzzles every morning at their St. Vital kitchen table, over All-Bran and a banana. “It’s a main reason we subscribe,” he says.
Some people like Munn and Turner start their day with the crossword. That’s not always the case for Shirley Lowe, who uses a four-colour pen to fill, and a clock to time herself. If she’s busy during the day — walking the dog around Fort Garry or playing pickleball with friends — she makes time once the sun goes down. The former research technician will sit on the couch with her husband at her side, the television tuned to the 11 o’clock news and her newspaper spread on her lap. Her eyes start to close. Zzzzz. Zzzzz. Zzzzz.
“My husband makes a slight sound,” Shirley Lowe says, and she shakes herself out of it. “I’m not asleep,” she tells him. “I’m just finishing my crossword.” There are worse lies to tell a loved one.
Every person approaches the crossword with their own flair. Some use all capitals while others employ only lower case. They start with the ones they know, or they go in order. At their own risk, they splash esses around where plurals seem destined to nestle. They know some tricks: suffixes in clues matter, same for abbreviation, same for language. If there’s a question mark, the solvers know that things are definitely not what they seem to be.
They learn the common answers, Jeni Wykes says, listing off a few related to cars – GTO, TTOP, EDSEL, BENZ – that frequently fill the crossword’s lanes. Her favourite word – Anaglypta, a textured wallpaper – is not as often stuck in the verbal traffic.
Solvers get better over time, if they don’t give up. They use pen. They use pencil. They use spouses or siblings or parents or children or friends to fill in the gaps in their own knowledge. Many people had a teacher who showed them the way.
Cynthia Kowal was in the passenger seat, window open. William Kowal was focused on the road, but his eyes darted toward his daughter from time to time, scanning quickly to see if there were any answers he could offer while en route to the cottage at Victoria Beach. “You didn’t get that one yet?” he’d ask Cynthia, coasting down the highway. “Don’t tell me,” she’d say back. “I’ll get it.”
The crossword was their shared world. William was a clever man who loved obscure words and facts, and bought his daughter a Scrabble board when she was eight. He rarely played her though: she played for fun, and he wanted to play for real. A creature of habit he did crosswords daily, and rarely if ever changed his approach.
“He would start in the northwest corner,” his daughter says. “He would do the whole puzzle in order of across and down, and me, I would find what I knew first. He challenged himself to do the puzzle in order. The way it was intended.” He encouraged her to try the tougher crosswords, even if the task felt not just improbable, but impossible.
But something clicked for Cynthia Kowal: she paid attention each day, started to learn the tricks, and began finishing the grids, both the ones constructed by the late Free Press puzzlemaker Adrian Powell, and the most difficult Saturday ones from the New York Times, republished in the Free Press.
“The first time I completed one, I brought it to his house to show him,” Cynthia says. “I showed him I could finally do it alone.”
A tradition, for decades. But traditions can change.
Cynthia visited her dad in the hospital every day for two years and two months. What did she bring with her each Saturday? Not scissors. Not rock. Paper.
They’d sit there, and she would read the clues aloud. The two of them would think together. Talk it through. Rule out certain answers before zeroing in on the right one. “We would get into the mind of the puzzlemaker,” she said. Her dad always had his marbles. “Never lost them.”
Now in her 60s, Cynthia Kowal still does the crossword daily. “When I’m doing the puzzles in the newspaper, it’s an out-of-body experience I’m having with myself. A relationship. A companionship, with myself,” she says. “The thing that gives me grounding and stability is doing the puzzles every day.”
But she thinks of her late dad, on the road to Victoria Beach, in his old Chevrolet, riddled with the bulletholes of rust and time. She remembers that first crossword she finished alone. She relives that last one they did together.
“Sometimes, I shake my head and think, ‘You would never have gotten this one, Dad.’” Other times, she’s certain he wouldn’t just have known the answer, but would have smiled or laughed as he pressed his pencil to the page to leave his mark.
“I think of him every puzzle.”
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.