Matthew And The Magic Rock

How the discovery of an ancient fossil changed the life of a modern boy

March 08, 2001|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

Far from the city and deep in the mountains, in a town called Flintstone, there once was a boy who didn't fit in.

He hated school. The other children had learned to read, but words did not come easily to him.

He didn't like riding the bus. It was a long lonely trip over narrow curvy roads, and he told his mom he had no friends.

At home, the boy got into trouble for being hyper. This explains how he broke his tooth on the bathtub and how the car antenna popped him in the eye.

Matthew, stop it.

Matthew, settle down.

Matthew, how many times do I have to tell you ...

Then one day 6-year-old Matthew Stevey was canoeing with his mom and dad and his little brother Zachary.

In warm weather they float down the Potomac River every chance they get, whenever his dad gets a day off from his job at the cheese factory.

Usually, theirs is a smooth, uneventful ride.

Matthew, stop dragging your hands in the water.

But on this particular day two summers ago, they were three miles downstream from Bond's Landing when the oar struck something hard.

Matthew looked into the glassy water to see what it was, and looking back was a skinny boy with cautious eyes and a few freckles beginning to darken his nose. It was a face that didn't smile often, but when it did it was like a jack-o-lantern: lit up and missing a tooth.

The canoe had come to rest in shallow water at the edge of an island. It was his dad's favorite place to stop and eat the peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and Little Debbie Snack Cakes they packed for lunch.

The river bank was smooth, and the trees overhead had grown together, so sitting there was sort of like sitting on a porch. The ground felt cool and dark, and because the island was surrounded by the rugged mountains of Western Maryland, his dad said the place looked "prehistoric."

The water there was clear, and when Matthew looked in, he could see the oar had struck a rock that was partially buried in mud.

He pulled, Zack tugged, and what they hoisted from the water was almost as long as Matthew's forearm, about the same width, as smooth as bed sheets, the color of wet leaves, and not so heavy that Zack couldn't hold it by himself.

They showed their dad.

Richard Stevey hunted and fished and spent considerable time in the woods, but he had never seen anything like this.

"Looks like a petrified deer leg," he told the boys. Matthew thought he was right until he rolled the rock over and saw something strange. Circles. And inside each, perfect little stars.

Wading off in search of other treasures, the boy tossed the stone into the canoe. There it lay, older than he could imagine and far more important than he knew.

If one thing irritates Matthew's dad, it is stubbing his toes on rocks.

He finds them all over their house: heavy rocks of mysterious weight, light rocks that remind him of asteroids, smooth rocks rounded by the river's ancient current. After Zack's 6th birthday last November, fancier rocks - quartz, geodes, a tiger's eye - wound up in his path.

Most of the rocks belong to Zack. He was more interested in them than Matthew, at first.

If Matthew had his way, he would sit all day in front of the Cartoon Network and watch "Courage the Cowardly Dog" and "Ed, Ed & Eddie." He would eat frozen waffles, drink Diet Pepsi and amuse himself by burping.

In many ways, Matthew is no different from other boys. Except in first grade he was placed in special education classes. In second grade, Ritalin was prescribed for his hyperactivity. In third grade, he changed schools.

His new teacher soon saw that Matthew didn't have many friends. While other boys fell into cliques, this 8-year-old sat at his desk and drew monster trucks.

Then one day, while studying Native Americans, a girl in Matthew's class brought an arrowhead to school. All the boys and girls wanted to touch it, and the swarm around the girl gave Matthew an idea.

He thought of the old rock.

At first, he had put it somewhere Zack couldn't reach. Then he had taken it outside and swung it like a bat against a tree. He had used it like a mallet on a pile of smaller rocks. But that was two summers ago. Where was the old rock now?

What Matthew didn't know was his dad had come across it in the grass and for some reason, and this is the really strange part, instead of tossing it out of his way, Matthew's dad had carried the strange old rock safely back inside.

Matthew, mind if I borrow this?

In 18 years of teaching school, Paula Duckworth has seen students bring many things to class: musket balls, arrowheads, fossils of every ilk. But never a thing like this rock.

The circles and stars made her think of stamps imprinted on leather, and she wondered if this were an early tool. None of the other teachers knew what it was, so soon after Christmas break, the rock landed in the hands of Dr. Robert Pyle, a West Virginia archaeologist and geologist.

He recognized the impressions instantly.

Mrs. Duckworth read the e-mail while Matthew and the other children looked over her shoulder.

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