Battles of Wits

“Tonight doesn’t seem to be saying much for your novice group’s intelligence,” I remarked to Fr. Jim, who laughed.

Welcome to Part 20 of a weekly series on the formation journey of Josh, a first-year novice at the Marian House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Watch for a new post every Friday.

Fr. Jim and the four novices (me, David, Michael and Joseph) sat around a table at Cracker Barrel on our way to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It was nighttime. I was sick with a cold. David and Michael were well, but they had just been driving for five hours each and were worn out. None of us looked particularly intelligent that evening. 

Between us was a game called “peg solitaire,” consisting of a triangular block of wood with pegs inserted into holes. The goal of the game was to eliminate all the pegs from the board except one by jumping one peg at a time over an adjacent peg, removing the jumped-over peg. A taunting challenge was scrawled across the surface of the board. 

Michael read it out loud. “Jump each tee and remove it. Leave only one—you’re a genius. Leave two and you’re purty smart. Leave three and you’re just plain dumb. Leave four or mor’n you’re just plain ‘EG-NO-RA-MOOSE!’”

Irresistable draw
We novices looked at one another, smirking, wondering who would be first to succumb to the game’s irresistible draw. One of us poked at the board a bit with his fingers, shifting it about on the table. Nobody dared take the challenge right away. This caution was quite sensible, for our group wasn’t looking very bright – and no one particularly wanted to being labeled an “eg-no-ra-moose” for the rest of novitiate.

Unfortunately, the writing on the game was staring us in the face, hinting that we were a pack of cowardly dummies. Something had to be done. 

I was the first brave soul—and foolish enough—to take up the board’s challenge. 

I grabbed it and started jumping pegs, one after another, trying to whittle them down to one.

“You’re doing well, that’s a good move,” Michael said, encouragingly, as I bounced peg after peg. 

“Oooh,” he said, wincing compassionately as I made a bad move. 

Too many pegs
Too many pegs were now separated from one another without adjacent pieces. I couldn’t get the total down to less than 4. 

The board taunted: “You’re an IGNORAMUS!”

“All right, let me try!” exclaimed Joseph.

He went for it — and wound up with 3 pieces left on the board. The board declared that he was, “just plain dumb.”

Then, Michael tried. And tried, and tried and tried. He was determined to get to 1 piece, but, every time he got down to about five pegs on the board, even though there were more moves that he could make, he could foresee that he wasn’t going to get down to just one, so he kept resetting all the pegs. As it was, Joseph retained the title of the best novice at that brutal board game. 

“Tonight doesn’t seem to be saying much for your novice group’s intelligence,” I remarked to Fr. Jim, who laughed.

Fr. Jim tried the game a few times. The first time, he had 2 pieces left at the end, which gave him the coveted title, “purty smart!” The third time, he got all the way down to one piece left over, which meant he won the highest honor. The game declared him, “genius!”

“Don’t ask me what I did or how I did it!” Fr. Jim exclaimed, at once.

Next, David tried without success at the brutal game. 

I tried a couple more times but still didn’t manage to do better than 4. 

Joseph laughed heartily. He mirthfully pointed out, “It’s sad that I’m apparently the brightest of the novices, and I’m “just plain dumb.’”

Surprisingly, the all-knowing Google deigned to join our lowly mental status as we finished our drive to Stockbridge. 

David and I were in one vehicle, following Fr. Jim, Michael and Joseph in the minivan. David also monitored the route on our house cellphone, and, so far, every turn that Fr. Jim made corresponded to the directions provided by Google Maps. 

Better than Google
Then, Fr. Jim took a side-route.

We followed them as Google Maps sputtered in confusion.

“Ahhh!” David remarked. “Fr. Jim knows a shortcut!”

“Wow, the all-knowing Google is not so all-knowing tonight!” I replied.

David chuckled.

Don’t get me wrong; I love Google Maps, and it far outstrips me for brains. But, it doesn’t outstrip everybody. 

Fr. Jim proved his intelligence admirably that night, outwitting the peg game and even the superior Google! I like to remind Joseph that, according to the vicious board game, he’s “just plain dumb!” And, yet, he was the best of us novices!

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