When we were very young, my father taught us that you could skip any rock you could pick up, if it had one flat surface. He backed up his belief by hefting a chunk of concrete and hurling it sidearm at the river. He got two skips out of the chunk before it plowed into the water, dragging a column of air down with it. The water rushed back in with an echo-y kerplunk like the sinking of the battleship Bismarck. My father was very strong, and he could make a rock fly, skipping it dozens of times. If anyone could sink the Bismarck with a chunk of concrete, it was Dad.
On summer Sunday afternoons, Dad often took the three of us to play ball on one of the playfields in our little Massachusetts town, but sometimes he drove us way out into the country to an informal boat launch on the river. It was a patch of space that had been cleared by generations of men backing their boat trailers down the gentle slope and trampling the marsh grass. They had dumped layers of gravel over the mud. The launch fed into a bend of quiet before the steady surge of the main channel.
Dad backed our white station wagon down the slope. We rode in the back, not the rear passenger seat but in the storage area, the “very back,” which was located approximately 20 feet behind the driver in our 1965 Ford Country Sedan. When Dad opened the tailgate, we jumped down onto an almost flat shelf of skippable stones. The river lazed past, about a hundred yards across at this point and so dappled with sun pennies it looked like snow. Dad usually brought a length of wood that he underhanded out to sea for us to use as a target. Dad and my brother and I tried to hit it square, but my preschool sister, who grew up to be a mathematician, had already figured out that if she flung a handful of pebbles instead of trying to make contact with one heavy rock she was more likely to score a hit. (She was right.)
When the enemy navy had sailed out of range, Dad began skipping his stones. My brother and I tried to imitate him. I’ve been skipping stones ever since. I’m good at it. (If only I could include this on my résumé! “Implemented stone-skipping initiatives that increased profitability by 200%.”) I’m sometimes asked how I do it. This is about like explaining how I breathe. The best answer I can manage is, find a reasonably flat rock that fits in your palm. Find a flat surface from which to skip it. Think of your arm as a snake. Crouch and throw your pitch sidearm, releasing the rock as close to the water as you can. The rock is a surf board. It has to fly on the parallel and hit on the horizontal.
When my wife introduced me to hiking, I discovered that the absolute best place to skip stones is on an alpine lake under a blazing summer sun, when the surface is broken only by the circular intersection of hungry fish and unsuspecting bug. The icy water is so clear that when my rock has completed its journey and slipped beneath the surface, I can follow its trajectory through the wavery sunlight to the sand beneath. (No matter how much force they exhibit as they skim the surface, a skipped stone that has recorded its last skip always drifts straight down.)
The problem with skipping stones on alpine lakes is that you rarely find useable stones at that altitude. The best skipping stones are convex ovals that are smooth from rolling around underwater with the rest of the rock family. (Completely flat rocks are usually too light. The wind turns them on edge and they enter the water like pizza slicers.) So I began to collect rocks at sea level, on ocean beaches, by rushing streams, or wherever I spot them. I keep them in a couple of empty peanut butter jars in my garage. When I know I’m going to visit a body of water, I pocket a few.
We recently attended a memorial service at another boat launch, this one off a large bay. Jack was for me a combination of second father and frat brother. At this stage of my life I don’t expect to replace him. It was a dull, drizzly day, typical of the Pacific Northwest in March and a good match for how I felt. But when we needed it, the rain stopped and the sun grudgingly appeared. I had brought some of my rocks to skip. Jack didn’t skip rocks; he flew kites. But I skip rocks. I skipped a few, and I passed out some of the skippers I’d brought, but conditions were poor. There were strong sideways gusts and too much chop in the water. Our stones tended to blast through the first wave and vanish into the second or third.
There was a little stream pouring across some wide blocks of broken concrete, over the sand and into the bay. This is where we launched Jack’s ashes into the universe. When we broke from our silence, I walked over to the water to skip my last stone. It was an uncommon type that I think of as an ultra-light. Ultra-lights are flat but not smooth; they look like deflated pancakes. This one had a wingspan close to 3 inches, but the others I’ve seen are smaller. I don’t remember where I found them. I wish they’d turn up on eBay because I don’t have many left.
The sun was still out, the wind had lessened, the water was calmer. I went into my crouch and wind-up and let go, one more throw in a lifetime of throws, this one for the friend of a lifetime. After four or five skips, the rushing air got under that thin wing and its irregular surface and the principle of lift and Newton’s Third Law of Motion took over. My stone was no longer skipping. It was flying. It flew about 10 feet, then dropped perfectly on the surface and skipped another four or five times before disappearing.
I’ve skipped a lot of stones, but that was the first stone I ever flew. I felt a spark of joy, a sense of gratitude, and for a moment on that gray day I was back beside a slow river dappled with sun pennies, wet rocks gripped in our little hands, and Dad showing us how to make a stone fly. What’s the big deal? Just pick it up and skip it.