Finding a Piece in the Puzzle of Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Believe It or Not! Californian Charles Lang has completely covered the walls and ceilings of his house with jigsaw puzzle pieces!

At home in Armuchee, Ga., in August, another Charles Lang--Charles Owen Lang--was tuning in for his daily O.J. trial fix when he happened on this rerun of a 1984 Ripley. He recalled his mother seeing the original broadcast and telling him of Charles Oliver Lang's somewhat eccentric hobby.

The Georgia man's interest was more than casual. This jigsaw puzzle freak was the father he hadn't seen or heard from since he was a toddler more than 35 years ago.

A call to the Ripley folks in Orlando, Fla., yielded a number for the older Lang in Carson.

So what did Lang tell this stranger who was asking if he'd reached the right Charles Lang? He just chuckled and said, "I'm not in any trouble, am I?" Typical Charley, always ready with a one-liner.

Some might say he's all of a piece.

Indeed, more than a million pieces. That's how many there are in the 1,170 jigsaw puzzles that cover the walls and ceilings of Lang's home.

"What made me think of doing this, I have no idea," says Lang, a widower of 74. It started in 1979 when a friend gave him about 150 puzzles she'd stashed in a closet. Once he'd put them together, it seemed a sin to hide them away in their boxes.

"Look at that one--all purple," Lang says. He mentions that six people tried to finish "The Purple Dread" before giving up. Lang did it in 40 hours, but decided not to send for the prize offered by the puzzle company. "With my luck, I'd probably get 'The Blue Dread.' "

To stroll from room to room in Lang's house is to tour a world of covered bridges in New England, windmills in Holland, gondolas in Venice, chateaux in France.

His tone becomes almost reverential as we enter his Temple of Puzzles, a hexagonal room, one of two rooms he built when he ran out of wall and ceiling space. Something that sounds like a Gregorian chant is playing. "Are you puzzled?" Lang asks, chuckling.

"A slight case of piece de resistance," he says, admiring his jigsaw King Tut resting in a jeweled glass-topped coffin under an amber spotlight.

"I've got the patience of Job," Lang says. It took him three months to finish Rembrandt's "The Night Watch," working in the early morning after his shift as a bartender. Five thousand pieces. "I looked for one piece for a month."

He's done puzzles with no squared edges, puzzles that have extra pieces just to confuse. He never tries a piece--"a waste of time"--but places it in his head. The only thing that really bugs him is to wind up with pieces missing. This happened with a puzzle depicting 125 owls, all of them brown and white. When he complained, the puzzle maker sent a replacement. "It had the same two pieces missing. I didn't call them again."

Lang could have put up only 1,000-piece puzzles, uniform in size, but "that's too easy." He cuts completed puzzles of different shapes and sizes to fit over every inch of wall and attaches them with Elmer's glue.

Puzzling the ceilings was a Michelangelo-like feat, requiring him to stand on a homemade platform, holding sticky puzzles over his head.

In his bedroom, the windows are jigsaw trompe l'oeil, one covered with a Venetian canal scene, the other a vista of lake and mountains.

A plaque above the door of each room tells the story. Above the bedroom door: 74,763 pieces, 83 puzzles. Above the temple door: 304,438 pieces, 325 puzzles.

The Tower of London disguises the laundry room door. Opening another door, Lang says, "Fooled yah!" The door goes nowhere, but simply opens to a waterfall puzzle.

"Did you ever see a closet puzzled?" he asks. Sure enough, there it is. Even the bottoms of the shelves are covered. "You gotta do it right," he says.

Later, sitting at his kitchen table, lighting cigarette after cigarette, he tells his life story. "Born out of a trunk." Mother was a vaudeville performer in New York. Dad? He doesn't know.

As a 20-year-old Army enlistee, he was sent to Hawaii and was on guard duty at Wheeler Field early on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombs started dropping. Postwar, he did a stint as an armed guard for Railway Express before finding his calling as a bartender for 37 years.

Along the way, he married four times. When he and his second wife, Charles Owen Lang's mother, split, they were living in Florida. He headed for California. In time, she remarried and they lost touch. She died four years ago.

That was that, young Lang thought until four months ago.

Is a reunion planned? Both are apprehensive, wondering if they'd know what to say to each other.

Maybe they could talk about what's to become of the puzzle museum. Charley Lang has thought about that. He's resigned to the idea that new owners of his house might not appreciate his decor. He shrugs. "They can just cover over them. They make great insulation."

Some Santas Wear Lab Coats

Santa had two things to tell Mario Maldonado, 6, as she handed him his toys: "Merry Christmas" and "Don't eat the cars." For Ulysses Aguirre, 6, there was a bright red bicycle and a bicycle helmet--and an admonition to wear that helmet.

Santa doesn't want to see either child in the emergency room at White Memorial Medical Center in East L.A., where she is a staff pediatrician.

One afternoon this week, Dr. Rivera Montes doffed the white lab coat she wore over her red dress, put on a Santa cap with mouse ears and took a breather from the pediatric clinic, where by noon she and five other doctors had seen 150 youngsters, mostly flu cases.

First stop: A little white frame house on Kearney Street, where a wide-eyed Ulysses looked out to see Montes wheeling the bike up to the door. His Christmas wish had come true.

Ulysses, a first-grader at Bridge Street School, is one of 700 children who'll be getting bikes and skates and Barbies and Power Rangers. Many had only dared to hope that Santa might bring them new shoes. They got those too.

The project was started in 1991 by Kathleen Hannah, an Emergency department nurse, to bring a little Christmas joy into the lives of neighborhood children. "In the ER, we see lots of ugliness, horrible things," she says.

Forty hospital departments now pitch in. Teachers at three schools ask their first-graders to write Santa letters and they then choose what Hannah calls "the neediest among the needy" to get toys, food and clothing.

There is one rule: No pets. "These families can't feed themselves, and they can't feed their children," Hannah says. Some Santa letters overreach just a bit--one child asked, "Buy my Daddy a car"--but most are very modest.

One little girl wanted a tutor so she could learn to read, a school uniform and tuition money so her little brother could come to her school. She got her wishes.

A $200 check was delivered to Salesian Boys' and Girls' Club. That means that youngsters who couldn't come up with the $3 annual dues are paid up for another year.

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