This was originally written July 31, 1995
I suppose there are many different kinds of magic, actual and otherwise, and they're to be found in many different places, both real and imagined. I've met a few people I would definitely consider “magical,” although they may have had no involvement whatever with conjuring or legerdemain. Some were artists, one was a teacher, one was girl I knew in high school. They were magical because of their approach to life and how they related to the world around them. They were magical because of the possibilities they made me aware of within myself. I don't think I've met anyone, though, more magical than Harry Eng.
Harry Eng hails from San Diego, and he is something of a legend among magicians. When I first saw him, he appeared beaten down by forces unseen. I thought he looked weathered and tired. I wondered what lay beneath that worn surface. There was, as I was to find out, though, nothing more deceptive about this man. He does very little magic, per se -- at least, not anything some snobbish wizards would consider “magic.” No, his magic comes from an altogether different source. His art is not the art of stage illusion, sleight-of- hand, prop magic, or mentalism. Harry's abiding passion is the art of thinking.
“I love to exercise my brain,” he told me, as he picked up a grocery sack and removed the paper handles. “The power of our lives, the very force by which we live, is in our minds. The healthier we are up there, the better we can use our brains, the better we are.” He disassembled the sack as he spoke and flattened it out, then began folding it in precise manners. In moments, it was no longer a sack, but a baseball cap, perfect in form with a curved bill and exactly fitted for his head. Putting it on, one had to look twice to realize that it was made of paper. Picking up other sacks, he fashioned a sun visor with adjustable headband and later, a wallet. The origami designs are Eng originals and he first began doing them years ago when on an outing with children. It was raining and they had no shoes so, improvising on the moment, he took newspaper and made slippers for all the young ones.
“My name is Harry Eng,” he said to the group of esteemed magicians before him, later that night. “I am Chinese. In Chinese, my name looks like this.” Turning around, he wrote the pictograph characters that represented his name on a large dry marker board. “In English it would look like this.” So saying, he wrote his name in English. “But as you know, in China, from here they all look like they're standing on their heads, so my name would look like this.” Effortlessly, he wrote his name upside down. “Of course, if you're facing the other way, it looks like this.” He wrote his name backwards. “Some people,” he continued, “are left-handed. I'm not, but if I were, my name would look like this.” He wrote his name perfectly with his left hand. “If I was left-handed in China, it might look like this.” Left-handed and upside down. “If there were two of me, you might see this.”
And, taking a pen in each hand, he began to write with both simultaneously, upside-down and backwards and in different directions.
Harry then handed someone a book. Inside, each page was filled with tables of numbers. The numbers, which themselves numbered in the tens of thousands, were different on every page. “Turn to any page,” said Harry, “and read off any five digits in a row from anywhere on that page.” After hearing the five digits, Harry said, “Oh, okay. The next numbers are 3, 5, 8, 6, 9, 7, 2, 5, 6, 8, 7, 1, 3 . . .,” and he proceeded to name a long sequence of numbers, which matched the printed table perfectly. “Not only that,” said Harry, “but you're on page 37.”
Setting a deck of cards before one of his audience members, he asked that it be given a thorough shuffle. After the shuffle was done, he asked that it be given another. Then the deck was cut and a packet of cards removed from the middle. Eng successfully named all the cards in the spectator's hand.
To close his exhibition, he laid out four indicator cards in a row, the ace through four, and then four indicator cards in a column, the ten through king. He then took another deck and distributed the packets in seemingly random order and in random amounts until he formed a grid of four by four. By referring to the coordinates using the indicator cards, he could name any packet. Ace/Ten, for instance, would be the card in the upper left-hand corner. So, handing someone a chess piece -- a castle -- he asked that it be placed on any packet. Turning around, he then asked that the rook be moved a certain number of times. “Okay,” he said, after the piece had been moved, “I know you're not on the ace/queen pile, so take it away.” Time after time, after the rook had been moved, he repeatedly named a pile that it was not sitting on and asked that those cards be removed and placed in a combined pile. At the end, he successfully told them which pile the rook remained on.
He then asked that those cards also be placed with the rest of the deck, and without turning around, he then began calling the names of the cards in the order that they now lay in the deck, without a single mistake. After he had done this with about fifteen cards, he asked someone to name a card that had not been seen yet. Someone called the Seven of Diamonds. “Oh,” said Harry, “that one lies twenty-fifth from the current top of the deck.” They counted down and, unbelievably, the 25th card was the Seven of Diamonds.
“Hey,” said one member, immediately after, “you know we've got a room full of the best magicians in the world here, and we all got our asses kicked by an old man with a paper sack on his head!”
And this man, who loves to think -- what does he do for a living? He teaches logic and critical thinking to gifted students in San Diego. Not finding a niche for this type of work, he devised his own curriculum. In one experiment, he places two bottles, corked, before his students. Both contain balloons that are untied at the neck, yet both balloons remain inflated – an impossible configuration. How? he asks them. They offer various theories. Because of this or because of that, they say. Finally, they arrive at a consensus: The air has no room to move in the corked bottle. So, Harry removes the cork. The balloon remains inflated. Why now? he asks. They offer their theories. Eventually, he tips the bottle to reveal that inside the balloon is another one, tied at the neck. Ah, they say. So what about the other bottle? he asks. Same thing? Yes, they agree.
He tips the bottle so they can see there is not another balloon inside the first. It is inflated, though. So what would happen, he asks, if he removes the cork? It would go limp, say his students. Then . . . he removes the cork. The balloon still remains inflated. Why now? he asks.
In another experiment, he shows a limp balloon and places it in a microwave oven. Turning it on, the students watch through the window as the balloon inflates itself under the radiation. Why? he asks. They offer their theories. Then he gives them some balloons. Try as they may, they cannot get theirs to inflate in the oven. Why not? he asks.
Why not indeed?
He constantly challenges his students to pursue new lines of thought and to not exclude any possibilities. He shows them through practical demonstrations that thinking is a skill that is to be developed and used just like any other skill they may wish to use. He also leads them to appreciate that the insights they gain and the solutions to the mysteries they encounter can be inspirational, exhilarating, and even mystical. In a strange way, he shows them how magical the world can be.
Harry is also an artist. As you might expect, though, his art is like no other. When he suffered a heart attack, doctors told him he had no more than two months to live. So, he started putting things in bottles. Ten years later, he’s still doing it. His bottles have become legendary and in great demand. Placing one on the table before us, we were amazed at the sight of a whiskey flask with a rope extending down the neck. A large knot was tied in both ends of the rope, one outside and one inside the bottle (How did he tie the knot inside the bottle? Don't ask me.). From the knot inside the bottle, a loop hung downward. On this loop, a pack of playing cards still in a card case, with a hole drilled through its center.
Is the bottle altered? No. Cut? No. The neck of the bottle is the only opening and it’s barely an inch across. Yet, a full- sized pack of playing cards hangs within. How did he do it? He smiles and says, “I jump up and down on it. The hard part was getting the drill back out of there.”
Another bottle: this one with a neck narrower than the first. Suspended inside on a similar rope (thick enough that it barely fits through the neck itself): a genuine master lock padlock. Even if it had been disassembled, the pieces wouldn't have fit through the neck. We pass it around in wonder. And wonder.
Although he only brought a few, he shows photos of others he's done over the years: A small bottle with a neck barely large enough to get your pinky finger in and a ping pong ball inside. Another with a Nike tennis shoe within. Ordinary objects juxtaposed in a most unordinary way.
Harry also shows us an optical principle he devised. Handing us a lens he asks us to look through it. Whatever you look at disappears completely, although the background remains intact. I look through it directly at him and I can see the wall and the door behind him, but he is nowhere in the image. Dropping the lens from my eyes, he appears before me, smiling. Later that night, he tells me tales of things that have happened to him and discusses his belief in the guiding force which flows through all our lives.
At every turn, Harry presented us another curiosity, another puzzle, another mystery for us to solve. In between, he assaulted us with puns, quips, quotes, and saws. Numbers and words are living things to him, just like the objects he handles, just like the astounding things he puts in bottles. With a gentle demeanor, he confounded and challenged our basic assumptions and showed us that not everything we believe is necessarily so. Impossibility is a way of life for Harry Eng, impossibility borne of an undying respect and passion for the power of intellect and the capability of the human mind.
Yep. Probably the most magical man I have ever met - Harry Eng.
This is a follow-up to Harry Eng, Part I, and was written July 14, 1996
My next meeting with Harry was exactly one year later, in the very same place as before. At that time I mentioned to him that I was working on a project
and would like to solicit his talent for it - and also that I had written an article about him.
"Oh?" he said, eyebrows raised. Yes, I replied, and promised to send it to him.
Tonight I printed the article and set it aside, planning to send it to him first thing in the morning, just before receiving word by e-mail that Harry Eng was dead.
Well, right now, I'm just devastated. Harry had instantly won my respect and admiration the year before with his charm, talent, and passion for intellect. To me, he represented the actualization of much of our human potential. I don't really know how to deal with it...so, in an effort to do so, I will tell you about my second meeting with Harry Eng.
It was a humid day, as all days seem to be that time of year in St. Louis, and I was leaving my room and walking the long hall toward the main assembly hall where a group was getting ready to meet in a little while. Harry was also just stepping into the hall, and he saw me and waved. He didn't look a second older than the year before.
"Hey, where's your vest?" he asked, referring to my garb of twelve months prior. I grinned and said, "Well, I guess you could say I lost my vested interest." Harry always loved puns, no matter how ill contrived, and a wide smile planted itself on his face.
"Hey," he said again, waving me closer, "do you want to see my bottles?" Harry knew that his bottles amazed me, and in a rare moment put aside his modesty just so he could see my face light up.
On the table in his small room were his prides: bottles of every shape and size. He handed me first a whiskey flask, barely four inches high and three inches from side to side. The neck was narrow; I couldn't even get my finger in it. Yet, inside the bottle, was a perfectly formed playing card case. Not only that, but he had cut windows in the sides of the case so that you could see - it held a full deck. There was barely enough room inside for the card case to wobble back and forth, yet there it sat, an impossibility in the palm of my hand.
And another...a wine bottle with a rope suspended in the neck. At the mouth of the bottle and inside just where the neck begins to expand were two large knots so that the rope cannot be removed. Even more amazing than the fact that he tied the knots at all in those positions was the loop hanging from the bottom knot, and the large padlock linked permanently to it.
And a champagne bottle with two decks of cards inside, joined together by the small arrow that speared each through its center.
And another, and another, and another...each more beautiful, each more amazing and more impossible than the last.
Does he cut the bottles? Never. Are they altered in any way or formed around the objects they contain? No.
"Harry," I said, "you must get challenged all the time by people who want to see you put things in bottles. Ever had one come your way you couldn't do?"
"Only the unreasonable ones," he said, "like putting a piano in a bottle. That's so absurd it's not worth mentioning, but I've never been stumped by a reasonable request."
"Like a light bulb?" I asked with my best sly demeanor.
"Oh, yeah. Done that."
Well, hell. Knowing how secretive he is about his methods, I said I couldn't even begin to imagine how one could put a light bulb in a bottle, and left it at that.
"Oh, it's easy," he said. See, what you do is..."
And as I stood there, mouth open, he told me. I had to admit, the solution was indeed simple. And ingenious.
"But what about this, Harry?" I asked, pointing to a Chinese pictograph on a deck of cards inside one of the bottles. I noted the same design on several pieces. "Is that your name?"
"No, that's the Chinese character for water. It's the embodiment of my philosophy. Nothing gentler than water, nothing more devastating, nothing more resilient, nothing harder. It can replenish life or wash away mountains. It fills any container and adapts itself to any obstacle. And it always seeks its own level. We should be like that, I think. The problem is in knowing when to adopt which quality, you know."
When I asked him how popular his bottles were now, he said, "I don't know how many I make a year. I fill orders and mail them out all the time. Every puzzle convention I go to I sell completely out. In fact, a museum in California recently had an exhibit showing a lot of my bottles, and someone broke in and stole eight of them!
"It's hard to ship them, though...like this one with the lock in it. Put it in the mail and the lock will hit the inside of the bottle and shatter it. A lot of people don't know that a bottle has a lot of resistance to outside force - it's very strong outside - but just tap the inside surface and the whole thing can shatter. So I made this one bottle for a guy – a custom job he’d requested - and didn't know the best way to pack it. Finally, I just filled it with rice. It turned out to be the perfect solution.
"Except when he got it, he tried to take out all the rice, and I got a phone call from him saying he was having to pick out all the grains with long tweezers, because they wouldn’t just pour out. It took him weeks.
"I never understood that, though, because the object inside was just a plastic globe he had given me...so all he had to do was fill the bottle with water and wash the rice out. Go figure."
And in that one sentence, Harry epitomized his main talent: finding simple solutions where more complex ones not only didn't apply well, they often didn't work at all.
"Are you still teaching, Harry?" I asked, remembering that he conducted a course for gifted students, teaching thinking skills and practical logic. "No," he said, "I had to retire. The doctors say that my heart is down to 15% now."
"But you're still doing your memory systems," I said, picking up a thick book with a diagram on the front. "Yeah," he said, pointing to the cover. "My son drew that for me. That sums up my memory system. Here is a row of numbers that is the root of the system, but then you can branch off this way and use colors to take the numbers in this direction...or you can branch off this way and use animals as cues to take the numbers in another direction..."
"Something like a cross-matrix?"
"Exactly. But in more than two or three dimensions. When you take one through ten and go off in this direction, you have a hundred numbers. Then if you go off from there in this direction, you have a thousand numbers. And then you can branch off this way, or this, or this, or this, or this...each [hyperspace adding another dimension to the grid."
"How far have you taken this?"
"Open the book."
Inside I found page after page after page after page of digits, organized in rows and columns, filling each sheet nearly from border to border. Turning the book on its side, I noted that it was nearly three inches thick. "Okay," he said, "now pick a page at random and read me any string of numbers."
I did, and he immediately started reciting the digits both before and after it.
It seemed like a dream magic trick: No duplicate pages, no cue cards, no sleights, no moves, no skill necessary. Just hours and hours and hours of effort and work to train your mind.
"Harry, how many numbers are in this book?"
He smiled. "Over a third of a million," he said.
"And why are the numbers on some of the pages highlighted in yellow?"
He smiled even bigger. "I'm proof-reading it."
Later, I asked Harry if he missed teaching.
"Kids are wonderful," he said, lighting up. "And they can do so much more than we know. I've found that you don't really have to teach them much. All you have to do is give them a good jumping point and some direction and they teach themselves." At this point, he swelled somewhat and sat a little straighter. "I have a granddaughter who's five years old - five! - and I never taught her anything but one or two little things and played games with her. All I did was kick-start that part of the brain we don't use very much, and she did the rest. She's reading on a tenth-grade level. When she goes into school they're going to start her in third grade. Kids do that. If you just get them kick-started, they love to learn on their own."
"Are you worried about her being socially maladjusted?"
"Oh, yeah, but if they taught all kids like that, she wouldn't be." He looked at me then with weariness. "You turn out kid after kid - geniuses by normal standards - and they keep saying they're exceptions rather than a norm that we should strive for. What are you going to do, you know?"
Suddenly he reached into a bag and produced a harmonica. "Ever seen one of these?" he asked. I looked and saw a perfect harmonica, except that it was about an inch long. Pulling it back, he popped the whole thing in his mouth and, without benefit of hands, played an entire rendition of "Oh, Suzanna" without flaw.
That's nearly how I remember him, sitting there with a glint of metal in his mouth, playing a song for me. Except for...just before we left two days later, Harry came up to me in the same hallway and tossed something to me. I caught it before I knew what was happening. "Here," he said, "take that with you."
I looked down and it was a small juice bottle with a cap. Threaded through the top was a segment of rope with Harry's signature knot on both ends. Inside this miniature bottle, two dice. I removed the cap, tipped the bottle over. The dice wouldn't spill; they were simply too large to pass through the neck of the bottle. And that's the last I saw of him.
It sits next to me right now, this bottle. A small mystery, a small reminder of a man I've only met twice, but just as well have met a thousand times. Cursed with the combination of a bad heart and a broad mind, Harry showed me that there is no end, no limit other than what we believe for ourselves. When he laughed, his whole body laughed. When he held out a bottle, he held out a child. His magic was of a different kind altogether, borne of wisdoms and arts gleaned from two worlds, East and West. Perhaps someday his vision will be realized - that children will be educated with their potential in mind and not with the labor involved, that we can all find in ourselves the ability to expand to meet any challenge, that we can all be like water...perhaps someday the world will be full of Harry Engs...striving to think better, working to live better, pushing to make this a better place...
Well. I guess there's nothing left but to say good-bye.
But every once in a while, I pick up the bottle, remove the cap, and turn it over.
And the dice won't spill.