The Creel Affair

November 5, 2011

Each of us gathers an assortment of knowledge throughout our lives. Some of it was the result of a directed effort, as in school, to attain a specific goal. However, much like that one drawer in our homes that has a wild assortment of odds and ends that were picked up incidentally along the way, so too does our brain have a miscellaneous collection of strange and often useless information.

Useless, that is, unless you play Scrabble.

I think Scrabble is an acquired taste. I say this because those times when it is suggested as an activity, quite a few members of whatever group is present will opt out, often immediately and vehemently.

I happen to like Scrabble. I like the combination of chance (getting good letter tiles and spaces in which to use them) and skill. Most of all, I like the opportunity to dip into that assortment of extraneous knowledge residing in the back corner of my brain.

One such occasion occurred while on a family vacation in the state of Washington. We were staying in the gloriously rustic Timberline Lodge (the hotel in The Shining) on the slope of Mt. Hood. After supper as we relaxed on the balcony overlooking the lobby, someone in the family found Scrabble in the game bin and asked if anyone was interested. I was willing, as was Paula, my sister-in-law, with whom I had played before. We had a bit of a history with this game; she often accused me of making up words when we played (untrue, of course). She, an eminent New York City children’s book publisher, was highly competitive, so the games were usually rather lively. This time proved no exception.

The game was drawing to an end; few letter tiles remained. Paula and I were far in the lead, and our scores were fairly even. Each move would now be critical.

It was my turn. I studied my letters and the spaces available on the  board that would get the highest return. I had my eye on a “double word score” spot. There was a strategically located “c” on which to build. Then I spotted it: the perfect word. I coolly placed the tiles down, reaching the double word score space with the final one.

“Creel?!?” Paula cried out in disbelief. “What kind of word is that? You’re making them up again!”

“No, Paula, it’s a word. It’s a piece of equipment used for fishing.”

“Well, I never heard of it. What the hell is a creel?”

Now had the movie Slum Dog Millionaire been out, it would have been an easy analogy. The accidental, or fateful in the view of some, acquisition of certain random pieces of knowledge is unplanned but can suddenly become useful in ways one would not have predicted. I was never that deeply involved in fishing, but somewhere along the line, I learned about the creel.

“You mean ‘reel,’ don’t you?” Paula continued.

“No, creel. It’s a basket hanging from the shoulder that fishermen use for the fish they catch.”

Normally I would follow this by, “Look it up if you want.” However, as we were tourists in the pre-smart phone era, no dictionary was available, and Paula was not about to take my word for it.

Just at that moment, a gentlemen with camouflage pants and a cap with fishing flies attached — surely an outdoorsman — walked by. Here’s my chance, I thought.

“Excuse me, sir. Do you fish?”

“Yes, I do,” he amiably answered as any fisherman with a prospective audience would do.

Paula stiffened, watching attentively in case an attempt at some conspiratorial clue were to be made.

“Do you know what a creel is?” I asked in my most objective tone, eyes fastened on Paula to show my compliance with her unstated demand.

“Why, sure,” he replied, smiling at such an elementary query. “It’s the basket we use to put our catch in.”

I raised my eyebrows in a gesture asking Paula if this was acceptable evidence. She scowled and conceded with a dismayed, “Oh, all right!” The points I gained turned out to be the game-winning difference.

I haven’t played Scrabble with Paula since. I believe she still harbors suspicion that I somehow set up that encounter with the fisherman. I have never had the occasion to use the word “creel” again, either.

So if you ever worry about the clutter of facts floating around in your noggin for no good reason, don’t fret. One of them may come in handy one of these days. After all, there’s always a Scrabble game somewhere.


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