01/20/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
LESLIE HAMILTON CAN'T SAY SHE didn't have a clue. She had 284. In November the Palo Alto, Calif., urban planner, 24, was spending her Sunday morning in the usual way, paging through the San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle with her boyfriend, Neil Nathanson, 31, a Stanford University law student. When Nathanson ducked into the kitchen to cook breakfast, Hamilton began working on the crossword in the newspaper's Image magazine.
It puzzled Hamilton that some of the answers were vaguely autobiographical: her place of origin, MONTANA ("State or Quarterback"); her favorite instrument, CELLO ("Sit-down String"); her favorite pet, DACHSHUND ("Adorable Dog"); not to mention her first name ("Actress Caron") and her boyfriend's ("Astronaut Armstrong"). "I just chalked it up to coincidence," she says.
But there was no way of ignoring the puzzle's riot-so-subliminal message, which gradually appeared in special red squares at the center of the puzzle: DEAR LESLIE WILL YOU MARRY ME—NEIL. A stunned Hamilton promptly responded with a three-letter affirmative.
The inspiration for Nathanson's novel proposal struck while he was shopping for an engagement ring last spring. After all, the couple, who met two years ago through mutual friends, had always loved doing crosswords together. "We used to lounge around at my place and work on The New York Times puzzle," he says. "Later we switched to Merl Reagle's puzzle in the Examiner." Nathanson approached Reagle with the idea of creating a special puzzle that he could give to Hamilton, but it was the puzzle-meister's idea to make the proposal a full-fledged Sunday crossword. "I said, 'No, no, no—this is a once-in-a-lifetime deal!' " says Reagle. He and Neil collaborated for four months, with Nathanson providing personal tidbits and Reagle incorporating them into clues.
But what if Hamilton hadn't felt like finishing the puzzle? "I didn't have any backup plan," says Nathanson. "I suppose I would have just proposed in a more traditional fashion."
DOWN on one knee, perhaps, with a hand ACROSS his heart?