believe it was Sherlock Holmes who once said, “Why, look,
Watson! It’s a simple English schoolboy’s code! Quick, get
me a simple English schoolboy!” Okay, maybe he didn’t actu-
ally say that.
Puzzles frustrate me. They always have. I have a tendency to
stare at puzzles, cryptograms, and coded writing until beads
ofblood form on my forehead. I would have made a lousy
Batman — I would have let the Riddler flood Gotham City or
rob Fort Knox of its gold, because there was no way I was
about to decipher one of his riddled clues. There I would have
sat in the Bat Cave, with beads of blood forming on my cowl.
Cryptograms and secret codes have existed for centuries —
there is evidence of coded writing dating back to the ancient
Egyptians. Everyone, from kings and generals to criminal
masterminds and 8th-grade study-hall cheaters, have sought
ways to secretly communicate with each other while preventing
spies, eavesdroppers, and biology teachers from discovering
their plans. Wars and civilizations have turned on whether codes
and ciphers were cracked or remained hidden. The outcome of
World War II hinged on the ability of the British intelligence
service to decipher messages sent by Nazi Germany’s famed
“Enigma” machine. The U.S. military used Navajo, Cherokee,
Choctaw, and Comanche “code talkers” during the war to
transmit coded messages that were not based on commonly
known languages and were, therefore, unbreakable.
I hadn’t thought much about coded writing until I became a
Freemason. Because Masons are forbidden to write down their
rituals, frustrated members over the last 300 years have sought
ways to create study guides so they might learn the words with-
out actually breaking the rules. Some have simply written single-
letter ciphers (“AYAM?” would stand for “Are you a Mason?”).
Others got more complex, using symbols and abbreviations
cribbed from old-fashioned shorthand (which is its own kind of
coded writing once known by the most powerful people on
Earth, secretaries and stenographers, and is today mostly a lost
art). Still others came up with a whole series of coded alphabets
that look like an indecipherable collection of right-angle stick

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