The first open boomerang tournament ever held in the United States took place on the Mall in Washington, D.C. recently under the sponsorship of a group called the Smithsonian Resident Associates. The spirit of the event was captured in a note appended to the competition rules: "Decisions of the judges will be final unless shouted down by a really overwhelming majority of the crowd present."
This is not to imply that the contestants were anything less than dedicated athletes. But when the Smithsonian Institution involves itself in a public event, whether fossil hunt or kite carnival, the activity tends to take on the air of a Fourth of July picnic in Mason City, Iowa. Figuratively, a sign goes up that reads, "Everybody welcome. Elitists need not apply."
The boomerang tournament was no exception. It brought together, on a little-used section of the Mall near the Washington Monument, engineers and computer analysts, lawyers and schoolchildren, generals and carpenters—76 in all, with throwing skills learned over periods of from two weeks to 30 years. (There was even a spectator, Brigadier General Harold R. Jackson, U.S. Army ret., who threw his first boomerang in Danville, Ill. in 1908.) Like golfers, they would toss handfuls of weeds into the air and watch the direction of their fall. Then, like batters approaching the on-deck circle, they would rotate their arms to loosen their shoulders.
"There's a boom in boomeranging," said Ben Ruhe as his head disappeared into the trunk of his car. Ruhe is now a public affairs officer at the National Endowment for the Arts, but for several years he worked at the Smithsonian and while there founded a boomerang workshop and competition as an activity for members of the Smithsonian Associates program.
July 28, 1974
"This is the first year we've thrown it open to the public," said Ruhe, emerging from the trunk with a toy koala bear in each hand. "The Australian Tourist Commission gave us these as prizes."
Ruhe was "vagabonding around the world" when he ran out of money in Australia and found a job as a combination cowboy, or jackeroo, and gardener on a sheep and cattle station in northern New South Wales. There he took his first steps toward becoming a savant of the boomerang. It is Ruhe who can tell you that a man in Texas, John McMahon of Padre Island, claims 155 straight catches; that Joe Timbery of Botany Bay near Sydney catches with his bare feet; and that the carbon-14 dating of the oldest known returning boomerang is 2,400 BP (before present).
One by one the contestants at the Mall stood at the center of two concentric circles, six and 10 yards in diameter respectively, and threw, with a sharp, overhand, whip-cracking motion, a Stone Age toy.
They watched it hurtle forward, spinning end over end and giving off a dangerous sounding sort of whir, to the limit of its range, then gradually tilt toward a horizontal plane as it curved to begin its return. As it drew close they waited, eyes alert and knees bent, ready to spring in any direction as the hovering object, now spinning almost lazily, lurched closer.
If a contestant could throw his boomerang with such precision that upon returning it was close enough for him to grasp and hold onto without moving one foot from the center point of the inner circle, he would score the maximum 10 points. No one did. The wind, although light, time and again took hold of a descending boomerang and whisked it, infuriatingly, just beyond outstretched fingertips. Most points were scored on short dashes here and there and the prizes went to the fleet and the fortunate.
Luckily there were lots of prizes. Larry Fox, a 26-year-old trial lawyer from Bethlehem, Pa. who has been throwing since he was seven, scored 24 points on five throws in the expert division and won a real aboriginal boomerang that had been mounted on a handsome walnut base by a Washington jeweler who is Red Auerbach's brother. The novice trophy went to Bill Brogan, a 13-year-old Washington schoolboy, who accumulated 20 points on three throws.
In addition there was the Polly Ravenscroft Birthday Award, named for a lady from the National Gallery of Art who baked a chocolate cake in the shape of either Australia or a kangaroo—it was hard to tell which—and the Henry Wallace Memorial Award, so called because Wallace was a boomerang fancier who threw in Lafayette Square across the street from the White House when he was Vice-President. Once, Wallace and then Attorney General Robert Jackson were throwing for morning exercise in East Potomac Park, and Wallace hit a photographer named Beano Rollins in the head, causing the Washington Times Herald to headline its account "WHO BEANED BEANO?"
Other prizes included the koalas from the tourist commission, a golden plastic boomerang from the Wham-O Manufacturing Co., and small wooden boomerangs made by one Lorin Hawes, B.Sc., Ph.D., of Mudgeeraba, Queensland. Cornelius Roosevelt, a descendant of Teddy and donor of one of the prizes, suggested that his be named the General Douglas MacArthur I Shall Return Award.
With the prizes given out and the spectators beginning to drift away on foot and bicycle, the boomerangers went back onto the field to throw some more. Larry Fox, the winner, his eyes bright with his enthusiasm, said, "This is the only three-dimensional sport in history. It is the only one where you can come in from behind. For instance, you can have a competition where the idea is to hit a balloon. Well, you can hit it from behind or in front or sideways. It takes a great deal of skill. I like ancient weapons, I fence, I do everything—but this is the only sport that gives you that completely different perspective on everything."
Eric Darnell, who finished second to Fox with 22 points, is a tall, lean, pig-tailed carpenter who got his degree in conservation of natural resources at Berkeley, and for the last year and a half has been living as simply as he can in Sharon, Vt. He plans to make boomerangs out of ash, elm, oak and maple and considers boomeranging "an essential part of my life-style." He says it forces him to think like a bird in terms of wind velocity and direction, humidity and temperature. "I can't jump very high, but I can throw that thing and make it go up quite a ways." Darnell was demonstrating for some awestruck boys that one can throw three boomerangs at the same time and they will return, one by one.
"When you release that thing," said Bob Coakley, a somewhat portly gray-haired computer systems analyst, "you have pre-set into it about five different factors—forward thrust, elevation to the horizon, angle of the rotating plane, the provision you make for the wind and the force you impart to the spinning. So you let go of the damn thing and you stand back and watch it do all these things and you think, my God, did I do that?"