Great Barrington man masters the zen of boomerang
Standing under the Brooklyn Bridge, Harvey Keitel throws a boomerang out over the East River. It arcs gracefully over the water, with the lower Manhattan skyline as a backdrop. He pulls French femme fatale, Emmanuelle Béart, in for a kiss, forgetting all about the boomerang, which then crashes into his cab.
The scene from the 2006 noir thriller, "A Crime," which also stars Norman Reedus of "The Walking Dead" television series, owes much to Great Barrington resident, John Anthony, who was the film's official boomerang consultant and Keitel's boomerang trainer.
As such, the local made all of the boomerangs used in the movie, and coached Keitel on how to throw them convincingly, though all of the boomerangs in flight, depicted on screen, were actually thrown by Anthony himself.
Rest assured, if he'd been the one in the scene instead of Keitel, it probably would have required multiple takes since Anthony wouldn't have been able to keep himself from catching the boomerang no matter what the script said, or how good a kisser Béart was.
As a former world record holder, member of two world championship boomerang teams and eight U.S. national teams overall, that's just what he does -- catches the boomerang.
While boomerangs may play a supporting role in the film, they have played a leading one in the 51-year-old's life and, in turn, have made him a star in the world of competitive boomeranging.
He's come a long way since he saw his first boomerang, a red plastic Wham-O, stuck in a tree when he was 12 years old, playing right field in Las Vegas, where he grew up. Anthony climbed the tree after the game, took it to a desert lot, hit a rock and broke it in three places before it even made its first turn. It would be 10 years before he picked up a boomerang again, when he approached a guy he saw throwing one in a park in Berkeley, Calif., where he was living at the time.
It came back to Anthony on his very first try -- a rare feat for a beginner -- and he says he was "hooked" from that first throw.
From there, he started competing in regional tournaments with the guy from the park, Mike Gel, and a group of Bay Area based punk boomerangers. In the mid-1980s, Anthony was known more for his appearance than his skills. Nicknamed "Moleman" for the moles on his body, including his shaved head, Anthony also sported a long goatee and three fishing swivels in his left ear.
"I did it to call attention to myself, and get noticed," he says. But it wasn't long until his throwing would do that for him. A top 10 finish at a regional meet spurred him and Gel to train and make the U.S. national team, which they did in 1988. Two years later, they were on the U.S. World Team Cup championship team, a feat they repeated in 1992. According to Anthony, that victory changed the entire sport.
"We were the first team to ever bring a coach," he says, to keep track of other teams' distances and times, so the U.S. team would know just what they needed to do each round without wasting any effort.
"Now everyone does it," he adds with pride.
Twenty-two countries currently have national boomerang organizations, according to the United States Boomerang Association website. They compete against each other as teams and individually every two years at the World Boomerang Championships. For a sport so closely associated with Australia -- where it's been practiced for more than 15,000 years -- some might be surprised to learn that the U.S. is a boomerang superpower, having won 10 of the last 14 world team championships since international competition began in 1981.
There are hundreds of thousands of recreational boomerang throwers in the US, according to the USBA website.
Aside from the U.S., Germany is also a boomeranging powerhouse. Anthony remembers getting beaten there by a 10-year-old named Adam Ruhf in Fast Catch, a boomerang event in which competitors throw and catch the same boomerang five times, as quickly as possible, after it travels at least 20 meters.
"Little did I know he would go on to set the world record," Anthony says, laughing. Ruhf is still the only person to ever throw and catch the same boomerang five times in under 15 seconds, according to Anthony.
Anthony is a former world record holder in Australian Round, when the boomerang must travel at least 50 meters, from the center of a bullseye and, ideally, return right back to where it was thrown from. Points are awarded for each of five throws based on accuracy and catching, with points deducted for each concentric ring further away from the center that the boomerang is caught in. One hundred is a perfect score. Anthony's record of 95 stood from 1995 to 2005.
While he is pretty much retired from major international competition now, Anthony is still involved in another one-armed sport that involves throwing something that comes back to you -- he's a Bronze Level Bowling Coach and the Owner of J.A.'s Cove Pro Shop at Cove Lanes and Entertainment in Great Barrington.
"You can compete against yourself while competing against others, just like in boomerang," he says.
Anthony still does just that in regional tournaments when he can, and locally, in good weather, you can find him a couple of times a month throwing for shorter distances at the skateboard park in Memorial Field on Bridge Street in Great Barrington. When he wants to throw for distance, he'll head out to Mount Everett Regional High School in Sheffield.
For a little competition and camaraderie, he'll often meet a couple of his boomerang buddies and protégés, Pat Surdam and Ty Beaujon from northwest Connecticut.
Surdam credits Moleman for introducing him to the sport, and he, in turn, introduced it to his long-time friend and bandmate, Beaujon. With Anthony's help, it wasn't long before the pair followed Anthony's trajectory to the top of the sport, culminating in their competing on the U.S. team at the 2010 world championships in Rome.
"He's a great teacher," Surdam said.
"A legend," added Beaujon.
When Anthony, Surdam and Beaujon get together, they use different boomerangs for long and short distance. When they throw for distance -- time really -- as in the Maximum Time Aloft event, they go with a more traditional two bladed boomerang. These are typically made of 1/8 of an inch or less of thick dense plywood, or the same super-lightweight carbon fiber used to make airplanes. According to Anthony, the best MTA boomerangs are made of a combination of carbon and Kevlar infused with micro balloons. At $80 to $100 apiece, they're also among the most expensive, which makes it hurt that much more when you lose one, which Anthony says happens to everyone sooner or later.
"You're at the mercy of the wind," he says.
He's seen more than his share of booms carried upward in thermal vents never to be seen again. To minimize the chances, a good boomer relies on throwing technique, which varies depending on the event and the boom. Anthony likens the standard throwing technique to that of a fastball pitcher, a straight overhand delivery with the boom pinched between thumb and index finger perpendicular to the horizon.
Anthony's record setting two-bladed Aussie Round boomerang, and the short distance ones used for Fast Catch are about 3/16 of an inch thick, and made of a synthetic resin bonded paper called Paxolin, which is the same stuff computer circuit boards are made of.
"Thin and stiff cuts through wind better," Anthony says and, therefore, makes for a much faster boomerang. How fast? Try 70-90 miles per hour. At that speed, you'd think it would cut through fingers, as well as the wind, but Anthony says it doesn't hurt as long as you catch it right -- employing a two-handed technique in which you sandwich the boom between your palms.
Returning boomerangs are not used for hunting. According to the USBA website, they couldn't kill anything bigger than a large insect. It goes on to speculate that they may have been used as decoys to trick flocks of birds into thinking it was a bird of prey, and scare them into waiting nets.
In a way, Keitel's character's boomerang throwing in "A Crime" has the same effect on his co-star, Béart or, at least, so he thinks.
Anthony recounts a heated argument between Keitel and Director, Manuel Pradal, over whether Keitel should reveal his passion for boomerangs to her early in the film and in their relationship -- as Keitel wanted -- or not. Keitel lost the argument and got so angry he snapped one of the 60 boomerangs Anthony had made for the film over his knee. Making matters worse, it wasn't just any boomerang; it was the "hero boomerang," as Anthony puts it -- the main one, Keitel's character's favorite. Anthony, who is also a master carpenter, had to make a new one. He was able to salvage the broken one, and got Keitel and Pradal to sign the respective halves. It is now mounted on a wall in his home, enjoying pride of place among a collection of more than 70 other boomerangs.
It's not about the quantity, though, for Anthony. It's about quality, both in terms of the craftsmanship of the booms, and of the throwing experience itself.
The zen of boomerang, if you will.
He quotes Gel, who first introduced him to the sport,"We paint beautiful circles in the sky."
His final words, though, wing back to those of Keitel in the film.
"I like what gives and gives back. That's what the boomerang's about."
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