Somehow my throwing a boomerang across the Rio Grande seemed to be a sign from the aboriginal gods that I had made sufficient psychic atonement. My education could continue. Or as Confucius informs us – when the pupil is ready, the Master will appear.
It was a weekend in Westwood and my significant other wanted to explore an arts and crafts fair. Booths lined both sides of the boulevard. And she had that gleam in her eye. I wanted to head her off at the pass. But we never got past the first booth. It was I who jerked to a halt. Something had snagged my eye. I gaped. “Those can’t be….”
A carved cheetah was suspended in mid bound across one panel of the booth. On the back wall a six foot lionfish glowed in polychrome hues. Mounted in a glass display case a green boa constrictor let its weighty coils droop over a sheathed samurai sword. Each was a work of art. Some, I later discovered, hung in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian. But it wasn’t that which had caused me to brake to a sudden halt. It was the bizarre fact that each piece seemed to consist of interlaced boomerangs – in an overwhelming variety of shapes and sizes.
A young man sat on a stool beside the booth. He eyed my startled expression with amusement. “You seem to recognize a boomerang when you see one.”
“I thought I did,” I said. “Now I’m not so sure.”
Alan, as he introduced himself, told us that his life since the age of 12 had been devoted to the art of boomerang – and in particular to pushing the envelope of design as far as possible. His creations bore as much resemblance to a traditional boomerang as a Lamborghini does to a Model T Ford. Put simply – where conventional boomerangs have designs painted on them, his boomerangs were what they depicted. The very shape of one tri bladed boomerang was itself arched into the death struggle of a bird and a snake. What was more – oh, sign from heaven – it was left handed. Minutes later I was the proud (if significantly poorer) owner of the carved beauty of “African Secretary Bird fighting a Python.”
I couldn’t wait to get to the neighbourhoood park the next morning. But when I got there, I was seized with doubts. Had I just bought myself an expensive wall ornament? The first throw – and all doubts were answered. Whatever boomerangs I had thrown in my past life, they were not in the same league as this little darling. The flight of it. It darted overhead, skimmed back, made a tight spiral, hovered, side slipped and slammed on the brakes right in front of me. It reared, fluttered and settled right back on my palm. There was real witchcrafte here. I was dazzled.
The following week I drove an hour north of Los Angeles to Alan’s house hidden away on a suburban street of a small farming town. I found him in his garage, a workshop open to the street and a steady passing stream of awed kids. Design sheets of fantastical shapes were pinned everywhere. Boomerangs in various stages of being carved or painted lay on racks of drying trays that slid out of specially designed cabinets. Rows of picture books on birds and other wildlife lined the shelves in witness to his scrupulous research.
I learned a few other facts about him that afternoon. He had defeated world champions in both design and performance categories a few years before. But he had retired from competition. He was on a different track. If you saw the movie BAGDAD CAFE, the man who throws the boomerangs around the water tower, that’s Alan.
The boomerangs were not cheap. The multiple works containing a dozen or more boomerangs went for thousands of dollars. One of the more elaborate single boomerangs could go over two hundred dollars. But when you see the care, the dozen separate slow drying coats of laminate (three months) and the myriad painstaking details that go into their making, you understand why they cost what they did. They were simply unique.
I said, “Aren’t people afraid to throw them?”
Alan grinned. “I make them for people who think art should have a little risk attached. They tend to appreciate them more.”
I told him of my disaster with the old aboriginal throwing stick. He winced in understanding. Then he pulled open a drawer and had me look. There, laid carefully on a towel lining were a handful of antique throwing sticks he had recently bought from another collector. He pointed to a thin stick with dried sinew bindings along its grooved length. “That’s a Hopi Indian throwing stick. It’s at least 750 years old. That one with the paddle wing is interesting. The third one is aborigine.” It was a near twin of the one I had broken.
He shut the drawer and picked up a large leather bag. “Let’s go throw a few.” We closed up the workshop and drove a short distance to a deserted high school playing field and walked out onto the grass. Some dark dots hovered high in the sky. Alan squinted up at them. “California condors.”
So under the gaze of an almost extinct giant bird I got my first real lessons in the art of boomerang. Alan opened the bag and pulled out one shape after another. A toucan. An eagle with a fish in its talons. Wrestling snakes. Longhorn cattle skulls. And the two fighting koi fish that spun through the blue. twirling like a hypnotic eye in the sky. We threw for hours.
Alan showed me how to maintain a plane in my throwing and also how to break it to get a roller coaster effect in the flight pattern. He showed me how to take a Cyalume stick and tape it to the wing so the boomerang flew with flashing lights in the dark. At one point, after looking around cautiously for potential witnesses, he unveiled a prototype of what he expected to be the first 200 yards out and back boomerang. He refused to throw it, said there wasn’t enough room. All I can tell you is that it looked like a cross between a sickle and the stepped inside of a jet engine.
As the sun was sinking and we were packing up, I was reminded of that first sighting. I mentioned it – how that first strange boomerang had flown and how it had stayed up longer than I believed possible. Longer even, it seemed, than any of Alan’s that we had thrown. More a dream than a real memory.
Alan said, “Oh, you mean something like this?” He bent to the bag and rummaged. He produced a long skinny unpainted boomerang. He motioned me back, cocked his arm and snapped it hard. The boomerang climbed, climbed, whistling and thrashing. Arcing to and fro across the sky, whipping at an unseen enemy, summoning the condors to battle.
“What’s the longest a boomerang has stayed up?” I asked.
“Well,” Alan said, “the official record is about three minutes. But last year – and they captured this on video, a guy threw one in freak air current conditions. It stayed up seventeen minutes. And what’s more, he caught it.”
We stood, craning our heads back, gazing up at it as it flailed through the air. My memory had not played me false after all. Some lines of verse came into my head.
The blackbird flies with panic
The swallow goes with light
The finches move like ladies
The owl floats by at night
But the great and flashing magpie
He flies as artists might.