I was walking across a deserted stretch of London’s Hyde Park. The sun was close to setting. Ahead of me across the grass I saw a man with a wolfhound. He held a bent stick in his hand clearly to throw for the dog. He reared back and threw it high in the air. Only the stick behaved like no stick I had ever seen in my life. It soared up in a towering spiral and then began to volplane back and forth across the sky. I stood with neck craned to follow its flight. Eventually it tumbled back to earth. But it must have stayed aloft for thirty, forty seconds before gravity claimed it. The man picked up the stick and walked away with the wolfhound pacing behind. I stood rooted. A new horizon had come into view.
The next day I went into a kite store in Covent Garden looking for answers. I emerged with a couple of boomerangs. They didn’t look anything like the man had in the park. But they had a sheet of instructions attached. I returned to Hyde Park and started to teach myself. Good news. It’s not hard. No more difficult than learning how to throw a frisbee properly. And another good thing – you don’t need anyone else.
As I practised, I found myself feverishly buying new models. Because here was a greater truth. Coming as they do in different shapes and sizes, all these devices display distinctive flight patterns. Trial and error unlocked their secrets. Some worked best on a still day and swung round in a simple circle. Some preferred a slight breeze to let them range out and dive back in a long oval ellipse. Others would dip and fly in a series of shrinking circles. Each had its coded flight path – individual as a thumbprint.
In a matter of weeks I was as hooked as any junkie. It was my meditation. Weekend afternoons I would work my way through the boomerang bag. And I learned that the more you set one free along its own path, the more it returns to you.
This next fact I wish I had known sooner in life. The throwing of boomerangs ranks second only to walking a dog as a means of striking up conversations with pretty women. In fact they draw the entire world’s attention. Just like me that first time people would stop and stare. And, when reluctantly, they tore themselves away, they would walk with head turned back to see just one more flight. Paradoxically, it is because they return that boomerangs seem to have a deep will of their own.
There are two parts to the pursuit. The throwing. And the catching. There are two ways to catch a boomerang. One, the safest, is the sandwich trap. As the boomerang swoops back to you, you trap it between your palms. The other method requires a little more skill. As the boomerang hovers in front of you, you reach from above with one hand and snatch at the spinning center. Get it wrong and you have mashed fingers.
There were times when I would experiment wildly. I would hurl three boomerangs at once. Each would immediately peel off onto its own particular flight path. The danger came when they all decided to return from different points and on different planes at the same instant. Often as not I would be trying to catch one and duck away from another when the third would whistle in like a fighter pilot out of the sun and crack me in the shins. Pride kept me from hobbling in public.
I never saw the man with the wolfhound again, though I always kept an eye out for him. He was the guru I sought. There were questions I longed to ask him. Whatever boomerang he had, it looked nothing like any of the ones that I owned. And none of my birds with the best will in the world could stay up longer than twenty seconds. And that indeed would be an exceptional flight. Only achieved by throwing two handed my biggest rang. And yet his bird had stayed aloft for twice the time. This was the holy grail.
One day a friend took me to visit his cousins who lived in a large house in the country. One cousin mentioned that there was a genuine early 19th century aborigine boomerang somewhere in the attic. A search was made and the boomerang found. It was a dark crudely carved object and surprisingly weighty. No colourfully striped balsa wood here. I wondered what flights it had made. Perhaps, in the dreamtime, beating up into the sky a century ago, it had circled over Ayers Rock to greet the dawn. But it wasn’t talking.
I didn’t want to throw the beast. It struck me as far too valuable a curio to risk. I only wanted to examine it. But I was outvoted. The cousins were eager to see this old sleeping relic spring again to life. They brushed aside my doubts and we all trooped out into a cow pasture. The audience retired to the fences as I squinted at the leading edge of the boomerang and realized it was right handed. I am a southpaw. I was going to have to launch it with a backhanded throw.
I threw. It flew. A short distance. Refusing to curve or assume a horizontal plane, it hit the ground and shivered in two. I wrung my hands and babbled inane apologies. Born Japanese, I would probably have committed seppuku on the spot. But the cousins didn’t care in the least, were only disappointed that it hadn’t flown as advertised. They wondered aloud if their great great great grandfather had been sold shoddy goods.
“But it’s not a boomerang,” I said. I had just realized. “It’s a throwing stick.”
“What’s the difference?” One cousin was puzzled. “Didn’t the aborigines use boomerangs to hunt kangeroos with?”
This, for what it’s worth, is the most common error of all about boomerangs. People imagine that the basic idea out in the bush is to hurl your weapon at a fleeing emu and if you miss – no problem – your weapon handily comes back to you. The real truth is as follows. Numbers of tribes around the world use hunting or throwing sticks. A throwing stick pinwheels with whipped up velocity in a straight line at a target. A boomerang doesn’t do anything in a straight line. Part of the confusion arises from the fact that the aborigines would warp their hunting sticks over the campfire to turn them into boomerangs to amuse the kids. And when hunting time came round again, they just warped them right back into business weapons. They were the only ones who had discovered how to do this.
Now I don’t want to say the spirit of that old ebony throwing stick laid a cloud on my soul for having broken it. But somehow there for a while I stumbled on the path to enlightenment. Still searching for the guru. I had lost my way.