In our 62 years on Earth together, my dad asked me a lot of questions.

Some of these queries were intrusive. Some were compassionate.

Finally, some were just based on curiosity.

“How come you don’t get one of those hair transplants?”

But I have regret for the one question he never asked me: “Can you give me a five-letter word for an Ecuadorian rat?”

Indeed, I am chagrined by my failure to realize that solving crosswords was a real common interest and thus a bonding opportunity lost.

In my pre-tween years, Dad’s favorite crossword-solving spot was on his bed with his tools of the trade: pencil, puzzle books, and Old Gold cigarettes, all within easy reach on the night table.

If I was in the bedroom, then most likely the black-and-white TV was turned on. My seat was on the carpeted floor, peering up at the Motorola. Dad and I usually watched sitcoms like The Phil Silvers Show (a.k.a., Sgt. Bilko) or Westerns like Wagon Train.

We might discuss the TV shows, analyzing what cowboy had the fastest gun, but I never asked about the crossword books. Like the Old Golds, the crosswords were pure adult stuff.

In my early adolescence, Dad’s night-table stash of books attracted my browsing interest. I concluded that Dad was a cheap paperback-mystery reader.

I also riffed through a few diagram-less puzzles where the layout was just a grid. There were no black squares to define word length. Diagram-less puzzles looked like crosswords without the training wheels.

Dad was nonchalant about his tackling diagram-less puzzles, just admitting that yes, they were harder. It occurred to me that he was one of these vocab geniuses under the daily cover of his job as a dentist.

My addiction to crosswords started inauspiciously in the early aughts. There was no thundering voice declaring, “If you solve it, he will come.” I was in a work training class in a downtown Boston hotel. The subject was project-management problem solving.

To warm us up, the instructor wrote out rebus-like puzzles on the board. For instance, the word “head” higher than the word “heels” had a solution of “head over heels.” Most of them were more difficult than “head over heels,” but that was good because when I solved them, it was like getting a quick endorphin spritz.

Once the class was over, I went online and attempted to solve these word-arrangement brainteasers. Soon I realized that crosswords, with their tricky word clues, were not evil stepsisters of brainteasers, but just friendly cousins.

There was a mental-state flow with these puzzles akin to my job coding computer programs, but refreshingly verbal vs. mathematical, so I began my regular appointment with the Boston Sunday Globe crossword.

Over the last 15 years I have improved as a solver. In all honesty, just being more familiar with crossword sensibility helped me a lot. I learned that almost all puzzles have the Mount Etna volcano as an answer to a clue, so when there is a four-letter word with the clue anything like “fiery Sicilian,” the answer is always “Etna.”

I actually had the opportunity to travel to the top of Etna once. I was shocked that at the top it didn’t say, “You have reached apex of the greatest four-letter crossword clue.”

I would bet that my dad followed a similar but more celebrated path as he soared past crosswords into the more rarified air of the diagram-less. Like me, he got hooked on crosswords and found his Mount-Etna-like strategies. We both enjoyed the thousands of hours of crossword practice spent just so we wouldn’t be confounded by New York Times crossword writers.

In Dad’s mid-80s he moved into a unit in a senior living complex. During Dad’s last decade I visited him at Hebrew Senior Life a not-overly-devoted couple of times a month.

Dad and I were both really crossword aficionados at this point. I remember my best birthday-gift find was a Red Sox crossword book. Tackling these Red Sox puzzles with Dad could have been a warmup to a Sunday viewing of a Sox game with Dad.

Yes, from Dad’s exotic adult-world pastime of my childhood, our interest and ability in crosswords had finally crossed paths. But my recognition of this as a bonding activity was obscured, perhaps because pairs-crosswords was just not as obvious a bonding activity as baseball watching, or perhaps just because it was a solitary-dad activity accompanied by Old Golds.

Still, I’m glad that Dad and I shared laughter at Sgt. Bilko and that we both later undoubtedly had the satisfaction of solving the five-letter clue “Phil Silvers role.”


Bill Levine is a retired IT professional and active freelance writer. Bill aspires to be a humorist because it is easier to be pithy than funny. He may be reached at

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