Kids + cryptography = secret messages

Opinion: Columns

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By John Stanger

DOOPER'S MEMORIES

When I was in eighth grade, George Warren, Art Solomon and I decided we would like to communicate with each other using a cryptogram.

Art had come across this idea when he read The Adventures of the Dancing Men, a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

When Art explained this means of communication to George and me, we were perplexed by the difficulty we would have devising a simple cryptogram that would be easy enough to decipher quickly.

Art told us that the easiest form for us to use would be a substitution cipher where the original text letters would be replaced by cipher symbols arranged in the same order as the original message, and would use a "+" sign to indicate the end of a word.

The cipher symbols we used were numbers and the cryptogram set up was this: 1 = A, 2 = B, 3 = C, 4 = D, etc.

We also used the Armed Forces time where a zero followed by one or two numbers followed by two zeros would be the time indication.

On a Thursday, George gave me the first coded message.

He asked me what time I would meet him on Saturday afternoon.

The coded message I put in his desk on Friday read: 9 12 12 3 15 13 5 2 25 1 20 0 14 0 0 or "I'll come by at 2:00."

Art was a fan of spy stories, so he told us we would have to set up a drop where we could place the messages we sent to each other.

We thought about places where we could set up a drop, but nothing safe came to mind.

George suggested we could leave the messages under a rock that he would place on the northwest corner of the playground, but Art and I told him students and teachers would probably see us hiding the messages and wonder what we were doing.

Art suggested we use the hollow tree stump on the northwest corner of Chicago and Forest for our drop, but George said the messages might be destroyed by the elements if we didn't retrieve them quickly, and he agreed people would probably see us making a drop.

We had reached a deadend until George suggested we could deliver the messages to each other at school while passing in the hallways rather than in our respective classrooms.

This was a good idea because Art was in seventh grade, and there was no way that  George or I could go into Art's classroom and make a drop.

We communicated in this fashion during the school year, but during the summer we set up a drop under a large rock on the Holmes School playground. This worked well.

No one ever saw us that we knew of, nor was any message ever removed.

If a message had been removed, though, the words would have meant nothing to the reader without him or her knowing the cipher.

We took turns every day checking the drop.

Although we had a great time with the cryptogram, we played the game for only one year, and by the time the three of us were in eighth grade and high school, respectively, we had moved on to other pursuits.

John Stanger is a lifelong resident of Oak Park, a 1957 graduate of OPRF High School, married with three grown children and five grandchildren, and a retired English professor  (Elmhurst College). Living two miles from where he grew up, he hasn't gotten far in 78 years.

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