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Fly a Kite

March 23, 2014

Last week Clare and I were at the coast of South Carolina. Good friends allowed us to use their place at the beach for a time of uninterrupted writing. It was a pleasant and productive retreat for us. The weather was exceptionally warm for late winter as the bright sun pushed March temperatures close to seventy each day.

In any season beautiful weather brings much activity to the sandy shore. I am sure that it must have been spring break week for some. Families with children built sandcastles fit for little princesses and princes. College boys pitched baseballs, tossed Frisbees, and threw footballs while stealing glances at college girls strategically sunbathing close by. Even a few daredevils – probably folks who had enjoyed a few too many beverages or those crazy Canadians who think that fifty degrees is as warm as water ever gets – swam in the cold Atlantic.

From my perch inside the house, the activity that caught my eye was kite flying. March is the perfect kite-flying time, and the beach is the perfect kite-flying location. Soaring above the dunes were delta and diamond-shaped kites of various shapes and colors. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, each tethered with string, patrolled the skies as if attending to Curious George and Elmo. Flyers with ground control systems created the most fascinating display of aerobatics. The tricks, flips, and turns were amazing. One man’s kite – a five delta-winged multicolored ace – would take a kamikaze dive, swooping close to the sand.  Then at the last breath-taking moment, it would soar high above the waves. A black Labrador retriever – no doubt belonging to one of the crazy Canadians – was determined to seize the kite when it came close to the ground.  Seagulls dodged the unauthorized intruder when it ventured into their air space.   

Watching these antics brought back memories of making my first kite when I was a Cub Scout.  It was crafted with newspaper, string, Elmer’s glue, and thin wood trimming gathered from sawdust piles near the table saw at the lumberyard. My diamond-shaped kite, which featured a picture of Stan “The Man” Musial – number six for the St. Louis Cardinals – flew well once I tied on a tail of scrap cloth.

The Chinese, said to have invented kites in the fifth century B.C., had materials ideal for kite building: silk fabric for sail material, high-tensile-strength silk for line, and bamboo for the strong, lightweight framework.

Legend has it that Benjamin Franklin flew a kite in a thunderstorm as an experiment to prove that electricity caused lightning.  I doubt that Ben would have been foolish enough to try such a test. In 1750 he did, however, publish a proposal for the experiment.

Orville and Wilbur Wright used kites when developing the first airplane in the late 1800s. Through the years kites have been used for military messaging and surveillance, science, meteorology, and photography.  They have also been used for lifting radio antennas, generating power, and conducting experiments with aerodynamics.

Now, kites are used almost exclusively for recreation. Kite boating and kite surfing are popular among the beach crowd. Of course, hang gliding and parasailing are extreme forms of kite flying. Kite ice skating and kite snowboarding may someday be events in the Winter Olympics.

A friend of mine fishes for red drum off the Outer Banks each October. Fishermen there deploy a kite to take their bait well beyond the rough surf by attaching the fishing line to the kite string with a clothespin. When the distance is right a simple snap of the wrist drops the bait to the ocean bottom.

One rainy day in March years ago my dad suggested that we build a kite. “It won’t rain forever,” he said. “There’ll be a sunny, windy day before long. We can have a kite ready when the time comes.”

Dad, who had made a box kite when he was a boy, knew he could do it again. So, with thin dowel rods, butcher paper, and sturdy string, we built the contraption, which appeared much too heavy to fly.

On the first sunny afternoon I was ready to launch.

“Not enough wind,” Dad explained, “but you can try if you want to.”

Together we tried but; alas, the kite never got off the ground.

Two days later the wind was blowing, really blowing.

“Maybe too much wind,” Dad warned, “but you can try if you want to.”

We carried the cumbersome box kite to the backyard. I held the string while Dad tossed it into the wind. The kite took off, nearly pulling me off the ground as it soared higher and higher and further and further away. Dad was thrilled. I was delighted.

Then the wind died, forcing the kite into a sudden descent.  I lost control and watched helplessly as it crashed into a telephone line. At that very moment the wind gusted again, causing the kite to make several flips around the wire. When Dad and I both tried to pull the kite loose, the string snapped, leaving it tightly wound around the telephone wire. Over the next several weeks I watched the slow demise of my stranded box kite until it finally disintegrated during a hard spring rain.

Flying a kite is not always successful, but it always fun.  Flying a kite is not a strenuous activity, but is a healthy pastime. I recently saw two families flying kites near the Milliken headquarters. The adults launched the simple kites and then handed the strings to the children at their side. The image brought to mind the words of a song from the Walt Disney movie Mary Poppins.

With tuppence for paper and strings
You can have your own set of wings
With your feet on the ground
You’re a bird in a flight
With your fist holding tight
To the string of your kite
When you send it flying up there
All at once you’re lighter than air
You can dance on the breeze
Over houses and trees
With your fist holding tight
To the string of your kite
Oh, oh, oh!
Let’s go fly a kite
Up to the highest height!
Let’s go fly a kite and send it soaring
Up through the atmosphere
Up where the air is clear
Oh, let’s go fly a kite!

Chuck Holmes, a Spartanburg resident and kite enthusiast, has an extensive kite collection, accumulated over a lifetime. Chuck’s kites are on display at the Chapman Cultural Center through April 30, 2014.

The First Annual International Kite Festival, to be held March 29, 2014, will include kite flying, kite making, music, food, and a celebration of everything that is good about Spartanburg. The festival will bring together people from diverse ethnicities, backgrounds, and cultures for an international experience. Plan to visit the Chapman Center from 12 noon until 4:00 P.M. this Saturday.

Let’s go fly a kite!

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2014

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