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Fallbrook's puzzle man pieces together life's twists and turns

Tim O'Leary

Special to the Village News

There's a man in Fallbrook who pieces together life's puzzles, one at a time, patiently, painstakingly. He starts at the corners, moves to the edges and then plunges into a core filled with a myriad of colors, shapes and sizes.

Come now, dear reader, as I introduce you to Dan "the Puzzle Man" Klemple. He's my new friend and the mind and hands who assembled a 750-piece picture puzzle for me. It is a photograph of Santorini, a magical, mystical Greek island that I visited twice with my wife of 21 years.

My wife, Margaret, is now in a dementia facility far away. I will likely never again visit that island that stands as nature's enduring testimony to the power of volcanoes, earthquakes and erosion.

But now, thanks to Dan, I have a daily reminder of that special place, my sweet, afflicted wife and our trips there and to countless other destinations distant or domestic. And to think that I did all that for a scant outlay.

I spent $3 on a still-brand-new puzzle that I stumbled across at the Fallbrook Senior Center's thrift shop. Then I paid Dan a small fee for saving me many hours, and sparing me untold frustration, putting the puzzle together for me.

Santorini now lives on a bench in my home. My black cat, whose actual name is "Shadow" but I sometimes call "Tickle Tail," sometimes curls up on a corner of the puzzle. I think that she, too, misses my wife and our life together.

I learned of Dan through Donna Kramer, my friend and confidante. Donna knows everybody in Fallbrook. She knew Dan's wife, Caroline, who worked at Fallbrook's lone hardware store for many years. Donna was Margaret's last caregiver here. Donna sometimes helps me now with house cleaning chores, chicken and goat feeding and other odd jobs around my place.

Dan, 79, has lived in Fallbrook for more than 40 years. He was a heavy equipment operator by trade, and for many years worked for a concrete company that had jobs throughout the region. He is a widower.

Yet this quiet man with rough-hewn hands has an artistic streak. He enjoys drawing and painting in various mediums. He once had a woodworking shop in his home, the same one where he and Caroline raised their three children.

About three years ago, Dan's daughter, Tresa, asked Donna if she had time as a professional errand-doer to help with this or that for her dad. Dan was doing a Disney picture puzzle for his granddaughter when Donna popped over to his place to introduce herself.

Puzzles are now a big part of their friendship and occasional companionship. Donna scoops up puzzles at local thrift shops and the nonprofit resale shop that supports our wonderful library. Friends and relatives give Dan puzzles, and sometimes they stop by to lose themselves in the contemplative activity.

Dan has assembled more than 200 puzzles over the last three years. He's given many puzzles away, sold some and, like mine, assembled them on request. I had put together picture puzzles with my mother at times while I was growing up. It was a soft time for us to swap tales of family, folklore and the foibles of man.

During our recent talk, Dan told me how puzzles helped fill a chasm that opened in his life after his wife died.

"I was just sitting there. I didn't know what to do with my time. I noticed that all the days seemed to be just drooping together," he recalled.

The puzzles seem to give Dan purpose, one by one, challenge by challenge.

"It did something for me, in a way," he said. "How do I explain it? Everything seemed to go a lot better. It's just a joy doing them."

My Santorini puzzle was a challenge, he said, because it is a mélange of white buildings with cerulean blue rooftops framed by the island's spine, the wave-splashed Mediterranean and wispy, white clouds drifting across a clear, blue sky.

Did I mention that Dan is colorblind? He seeks shapes rather than colors, his mind drifting for hours on end in his pleasurable pursuit.

One of his greatest challenges was an offering that the box touted as the "World's Hardest Puzzle." His favorite is a 1,000-piece puzzle of a young girl that seems to have stepped out of the Victorian era.

He has done 3D puzzles, a wooden box puzzle and others of all shapes, colors and content.

As he, Donna and I wrapped up our three-way conversation, I asked Dan if puzzles can be seen as a metaphor for life. Our lives can be filled with various beauties, but they can sometimes be shattered by death, drama and trauma. Then we are all left, in our own times and places, struggling to pick up the pieces.

Puzzles are difficult to toss together. Sometimes they remain in the box or get scooped back into the box if the task seems too daunting. Sometimes puzzles come with pieces missing or the pieces fall off and get batted around by the cat.

"That's the biggest thing – not giving up," Dan mused.

Donna is trying to arrange a small, local exhibit for Dan to show, and possibly sell, many of his completed puzzles. Such an exhibit might also bring Dan some puzzle-making commissions. Donna said she's been turned down by a couple of possible venues thus far.

But don't worry, folks. Donna doesn't give up, and neither does Dan.


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