I’m tempted to blame cartoons and the Encyclopædia Britannica for this adventure. In grammar school, I did most of my fun idea research via diligent use of Saturday morning cartoons and when an idea required more detail, my mom directed me to the family book cabinet where our Encyclopædia Britannica always stood ready. But in this case, my enthusiasm for getting a boomerang airborne pretty much truncated what could have been the due diligence of a thorough research. I’d seen how they work in cartoons and validated the general idea in our bound database of knowledge, so it was time to move into production. I had what I needed for a prototype so it was time to hit the shop.
When I was in grammar school, I thought my dad had the best job because, as a freight truck driver, he often had weird leftovers that he brought home for us. Once, he brought home several large sheets of orange, semi-transparent 1/4 inch sheets of Plexiglas. Surely I could figure out something neat do with it.
Dad had lots of power tools but the best tool he had was this monster do-all thing called a “Shop Smith”. In short, it had a huge motor with dozens of attachments. So while my friends were weaning themselves from Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs, I was drilling holes, jig-sawing and using a giant disk sander to make gobs of orange plastic sawdust. I loved that old Shop Smith. Where else could a kid learn that plastic does not jig-saw as cleanly as wood because it melts itself back together if you don’t do it right. That Shop Smith kept me out of mom’s hair for hours.
So, what to make? Just a few weeks earlier, my friends and I discovered that if you threw the drafting triangles from our shop class, they flew really cool spiral trajectories.
Later, with the inspiration of an always-technically-correct cartoon, validated with our Encyclopædia Britannica, the idea of making my own boomerang was born, and according to the cartoon, a boomerang would even fly back to me. This would be sooo cool!
I hand-sketched the basic shape from a picture in the encyclopedia because the internet was down that day. I cut it out with the jig saw, sanded the edges into a nice aerodynamic bevel with the disk sander and polished the result with the buffing wheel.
After several hours of experimenting on that Plexiglas, I had my first boomerang.
I was really anxious to run over to the school yard to give it a try, wondering as I went, exactly how could an object thrown in one direction, suddenly turn around and return to the thrower? Did this not violate normal laws of physics? Whenever I threw a rock, a ball or my sister, they never returned for another go at me. Well, sometimes my sister was mad enough to come back for more but she’s always been a special case. How exactly could a boomerang return? Could the cartoons possibly have lied? Say it ain’t so.
I recalled how the triangle would weave itself in interesting arcs when thrown so perhaps boomerangs were somehow better at turning around, still I could not imagine it working. The Encyclopædia Britannica said it worked so maybe I could trust the good old EB more than the cartoons.
With a buddy nearby to witness the great experiment I stood in the middle of the large open field at Grant Elementary. I held the boomerang by one end and wondered – how was I supposed to hold and throw it Was there some secret trick? No real clue was obvious – so I steeled myself for a lengthy trial and error, almost scientific, approach. We would hang in there until we figured it out – even if it took until the invention of the internet so we could watch a video on it.
I leaned back and threw it as hard as I could – and away it went -spinning like mad, straight in the direction it started, then…
Then, it dipped slightly, and was going much further than I expected – much better than a baseball or even a sister.
Wow! I hope those little girls over on the playground are paying attention.
Suddenly, it pitched up and shot almost straight up like a rocket. Whoa!
My buddy shouted, “Holy Molly!” Okay, he didn’t really say “Molly”. You’ll just have to imagine what he really shouted.
The boomerang just kept climbing, until physics cut in and the boomerang slowed to an eerie hover then slowly slipped back to fall in the direction it came. Now, with plenty of spin left and a gravity assist, it accelerated with a passion – right back at us – Gulp!.
“So,” I thought. “Gravity is how it works.”
“Hey – it’s coming back!” my friend yelled, “You have to catch it.”
I watched amazed, and noted how fast it was coming and answered, “No – I don’t. Run!” We scattered – trying to put as much distance between us and ground zero as we could. Thump! The boomerang landed and we stopped running. We raced back to check it out. It landed in the soft grass about 6 feet from where we’d been standing. And – it had scared the daylights out of us. “Not bad for a first attempt. That was downright dangerous and so cool!”
We took turns chucking that boomerang straight out and each time it did the same trick, dip slightly then pitch up and high, followed by a sharp drop back down at us causing us to scatter and give it all the room it needed to land. Somewhere around our 5th turns, the boomerang landed on drier soil and snapped in half. Nuts. But no worries, tomorrow is Saturday and I had lots more Plexiglas at home.
Early the next morning a larger team of buddies were on hand to learn how to build their own boomerang. We were in Shop Smith heaven, with melted Plexiglas sawdust everywhere (no dust masks anywhere in insight) and when all that dust had settled, we had 4 brand version 2 boomerangs – which were a tad wider where version 1 broke.
Back to the school yard we went; ready to enjoy the new boomerangs. I had an idea to throw it differently so maybe it would come back, but not from so high and deadly a trajectory. So, after getting the guys up to speed on the level throw as we had perfected yesterday, I had them stand back and watch the next phase of discovery. This time: I threw with a slight tilt to the left that caused the boomerang to veer to the left; climb some then level out; and slowly turned – really – the thing just plain turned – and cruised around us about 60 feet away in a wide loop.
It went well past the scrimmage line of where I threw it from and kept going back and around us.
The crowd of boys went wild!
It was like the boomerang had its own mind of what to do. It was much better than all those academic cartoons I studied.
When it was approximately directly behind us, it sharpened its turn to a much shorter radius and began a mellow spiral descent, and dropped softly down onto the grass after completing a full 180 degree loop back around us.
The crowd of boys went even wilder! Version 2 was a huge hit. Other kids nearby were attracted and come near to watch and scream with us. Even some girls, who were gross just last year were taking interest leaving us boys weirdly anxious to give them a good show.
In mere moments, the sky above our school yard was full of bright orange boomerangs spinning through these two tricks. As it turns out, it was not hard to make the boomerang do either of these two stunts, it was hard to make them do anything else – but we kept trying – until they started breaking again.
No matter. There is still more Plexiglas where those had come from.
Well, when I told my Dad of our success, he had to try. By the next weekend, version 3 was ready to do its magic. When we got back to the school yard, once again there were neighborhood kids running around and, shockingly, Dad wanted to avoid hitting any of them, so he insisted we move over the fence to the large field with tall grass. I told him how to do each trick and stood back. He gave the boomerang a great heave and away it went – carving its way through the high grass like a mach 2 lawn mower before climbing and settling into a standard return pattern that sent us both laughing and scrambling through the tall grass to get to safety.
Version 3 sliced through the air above us and drove straight into tall grass, landed almost silently – and was gone – never to be seen again after only 1 flight.
We never found version 3. I was not pleased. New User Note: boomerangs and tall grass do not play well together.
So, back to the Shop Smith and version 4 was soon ready. The design change for version 4 was to sharpen the leading edges of each end of the boomerang. Surely this would improve how high and far the boomerang would go, not to mention making it cut grass much better. I stood there with Dad but the school yard was clear this time and so no need to feed another boomerang to the tall grass field.
I insisted on throwing first and gave it a mighty heave – and, “wow!” The extra sharp edges really made a difference, but as I watched it begin the familiar loop back pattern, my hand started to itch. I ignored it – until my hand began to feel wet and sticky. The maiden flight of version 4 was still unfolding when I glanced down to see what itched so badly – and “uh-oh,” my hand from palm to just between the first finger and thumb was sliced wide open – and bleeding freely. Dad proclaimed the test over and took me home to wrap up that hand while thinking out loud if there was a way we could get out of telling mom. There was no way to hide the bandage and fact thatI was grounded for about a week to let that hand heal.
I modified version 4 by sanding those sharp edges down to something less than razor-sharp because I didn’t want to have to use a leather glove to throw it. That would just not be cool.
Version 4 survived for several months and gave me hours of fun at the school yard, always mystifying and entertaining anyone nearby. Then one day, Dad took me to the old D-street shooting range, just outside of town. After running out of ammo, I retrieved my boomerang thinking it would be neat to have it perform a few circles around the range.
I gave it a well-practiced throw and it began its normal trajectory, smoothly flying into a loop right over the shotgun range. I expected everyone to “ooo” and “ahhh” and some did, but there was one guy who could not bear the temptation and raised his shotgun and fired.
Version 4 exploded into an orange cloud of plastic dust and shards.
“Are you kidding me!? What kind of jerk shoots down a kid’s boomerang!?”
I was crushed. Dad was sympathetic, but explained that I had thrown it into a live range. What did I expect to happen?
I thought, but did not say, Well, it would be nice if my dad, who still had ammo, would have returned fire.
And that was the last boomerang I ever made. Enough was enough. It was time to move on to other adventures.