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Skimming Stones And Finding An Elusive 'Now' Moment

One of Maine's many rocky beaches.
Max Pixels Contributors
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Creative Commons
Stones on one of Maine's many rocky beaches. Commentator Robert Chipkin says it took a summer trip to the rocky coast of Maine to unearth a childhood memory he thought had long slipped away.

Skimming — or skipping — stones (poetically called "jumping frogs" in Africa; "waddling ducks" in Hungary or "bouncing fish" in Norway) has a long and glorious history among the under-12 set who seem to know almost by instinct the sheer joy that comes from watching a smooth stone jump across flat water until it sinks like, well, a stone.

These days I’m more of a sand-beach man, building castles with grandchildren and offering instruction in bodysurfing while I still can and they will still listen. But as a child I seldom missed an opportunity to stand by the edge of a quiet lake, search for the perfect stone, wind up and count one, two, three, four, five — as the stone seemingly defies gravity until it disappears from view.

Although stone skimming can be played competitively, preferably alongside a younger brother with a weaker arm, the true satisfaction comes from keeping one’s own score.

As every skimmer knows, the key to skimming lies not only in technique, but in choosing just the right stone and finding just the right water. A stone too heavy or a lake too choppy can sink a would-be champion throw. Nor, as my broker would say, does past performance indicate future results. Each throw is a moment to itself, a rare glimpse of the “now” that grown-ups so often yearn for, yet so seldom achieve.

I've since learned that the optimum skimming angle between stone and water is 20 degrees and that the modern record for stone skimming is 88. One physicist predicted there was no reason why a stone couldn’t be skimmed more than 300 times before the laws of nature take over.

These days I live only by the laws of memory. So sometime in the dead of winter, in the midst of an over-bearing present, I can time travel to a late summer afternoon on a rocky Maine beach. There, an ex-11-year-old boy with a flat rock in hand can look over a quiet bay and cast his chosen stone onto the water, measuring success only by how long it takes to elude the inevitable.

Robert Chipkin writes and lives in Springfield. He recently published a collection of columns he wrote for the Springfield Republican titled "Paws to Remember."

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