Secret Handshakes

Stone skipping on lake

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My grandad Bill was a master stone skipper. He could make round stones bounce off the ocean five or six times, and when he got ahold of a decent flat one you’d lose track of the skips as their repercussions entered the mid-teens, and tapered off into a line of tight circles on the water, like the passing pattern a canoe paddle leaves as you reach for a new stroke. I remember counting 21 rings left on the water once, and shouting this out excitedly on a British Columbia beach under low, flat clouds. Bill – maybe 70 at the time, grey hair tidily trimmed beneath a flat cap, collar up on his beige car jacket – just nodded with a little smile, like a guy who already has a statue in the Cooperstown of stone-skipping might.

He’d taught my dad the trick years earlier. A funny thing to teach; stone skipping. While it’s all physics, of course, the process of passing it along as a skill generally comes down to demonstration, and remonstration. It’s much more like teaching someone a dance move, or a secret handshake, than a technical skill. At a certain point, you just have to feel it. And some get it more quickly than others.  

 By the time I walked on the beaches of B.C. – a kid from the suburbs of Toronto wondering why everyone in the world doesn’t live in an apartment with a view of the ocean, and a pair of binoculars with which to watch the cargo ships and ferries come and go – it was time for Bill to stand aside as dad taught me.

 There was a lot of frustration, even more encouragement, and a total lack of success. I didn’t get it for ages. Ineffectual splash after ineffectual splash landed in the margins of the Juan De Fuca, the seagulls screaming with laughter. I gave up. Dad took a turn, landing seven or eight splashes on each try; his motion easy, like he was dealing cards. I expressed admiration. And that was when dad gave a flat stone to Bill, like a middle reliever handing the game ball to the closer.

Bill tossed it in the air a couple of times. He hiked the shoulder of his jacket up on his throwing arm, and gave that limb a couple of lazy spins; the way old guys do before they bowl, or while telling a story about the scraps they got into as younger men. Then he planted his feet in the pebbles and pulled his arm back.

 For a brief moment the affable ease with which he did all this was replaced by a serious expression, as he sized up the distance to the water, and required angle of attack. Then, as his arm began its swing, his geniality returned, and he let fly. The stone sailed through the air. I counted skips. There were 21. A ferry passed slowly in the distance. Dad let out a low sound of approval.

I’ve never passed up a flat stone by the water’s edge since.


The last word of this post links to another, that is different. 

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