I loved being a Cub Scout. When I joined in the fall of 1962 membership in Cub Scouts was the studliest thing a nine year old boy could do, and while wearing the uniform added a certain savoir faire to my game, it was the activities in our weekly den meetings that were the real attraction. I liked learning field craft; I liked learning to whittle. I liked making things with papier mache and I liked making costumes and performing in skits. In short I liked – no, I loved the entire program
…except for kites.
I went through most of the Cub Scout rank and arrow-head requirements like a freight-train until I hit the requirement to make and fly a kite, at which point the aforementioned freight train became completely derailed. While the handbooks had nice diagrams of both traditional diamond and box kites accompanied by precise measurements and suggested materials, every attempt I made at kite construction failed. No matter how hard I tried, my kites looked nothing like the graceful soaring creations depicted on each page. No, my kits always ended up a tangle of sticks, paper and string that looked less like a graceful soaring eagle than something an eagle would upchuck after a week-old road kill feast. The kite failure was the only blot in my Cub Scout copy book and it drove me crazy. You know that closing scene of Mary Poppins were everyone is happy and singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”? My reaction brought about ejection from the Fourth Avenue Theater when I threw my Seven-up at the screen in frustration.
To be honest it wasn’t like I had any talent for creating effective instruments of flight to begin with. I was an instant bolo from the moment I first discovered flying toys and models at the age of six. No kid ever wanted to make something fly more than I did – and no kid was ever more luckless in the attempt – I loved airplanes and the idea of flight but I couldn’t keep anything in the air. It was bad enough that I failed with store-bought kites just as badly as I did with my Cub Scout project kites, but unfortunately the Icarian curse didn’t involve just kites – every paper airplane I ever folded immediately augered into the ground and there wasn’t a balsa glider made that wouldn’t split into slivers during my ham-handed attempts at assembly. No, I had to be content with assembling scale model plastic kits and wistfully watching floatplanes fly over our house enroute to the Lake Hood seaplane base.
<Fast-forward to 1970>
I think of my junior year as being my “lost year” of high school. I lacked the large group of buddies that I had the year before and the academic schedule itself held no events major enough to be considered a milestone of any sort. Most of the year involved marking time while I slowly approached my senior year and those unavoidable decisions that definitely would shape the rest of my life. Even popular entertainment seemed to be a washout with little in the way of music or television shows holding any interest for me. My only escape from total boredom was Donny.
Donny and I had first become friends six years earlier when my family moved to the Peninsula, but the two year gap in our ages put us worlds apart once I hit puberty. By the time of this story we were both in high school which held enough in common (marathon “Risk” games and girls) to sustain a renewed friendship, and as time went by a very similar sense of humor and wicked parody provided additional fuel for our relationship as well – but it wasn’t until a third ingredient was added that our buddy-ship was clinched.
It was the last fifteen minutes of church one Sunday during break-up and I was looking out the window and scowling at the typical March weather of south-central Alaska: Wind and rain gusting off the mountains to the east. I was muttering about the wind eliminating any chance for doing something interesting later on when Donny whispered “great day for kites”.
I made a face and mumbled a snarky comeback but Donny cut me off: “no – I’m not talking about those crappy newspaper things in Cubs. There are these new kinds of kites that look like birds and don’t need tails. They launch straight up and fly great.” Hmmm. I figured nothing ventured – nothing gained so we cleared a sleep-over with our respective sets of parents as we usually did on just about every other Sunday, but this time a kite and string accompanied the Risk game in Donny’s baggage.
I wasn’t totally sold on the kite idea as we walked out to the north pasture after dinner, but I figured that if nothing else it would be nice to get outside for at least a couple of hours of daylight, especially as the rain had tapered off. . Donny was of a different mind completely – he was bouncing from foot to foot with excitement as he assembled his kite and connected it with the string on his reel. I was immediately taken with the design; it was a delta-shaped airfoil made of polyethylene that in early 1970 Alaska was very unique. As it rustled and popped in the wind I started to get excited as well – and by the time I took my position about ten yards away I was bouncing on my toes as well. Ever the showman, Donny grew quiet then momentarily balanced the kite’s wooden keel on the tips of his fingers before suddenly snapping his arm up and sending the kite in the air.
As I tried to track the kite’s path skyward my head snapped up and back so hard that the momentum made me fall backwards into the slush. I had never seen anything shoot so far or so fast and I was so delighted that Donny’s typical mocking laughter bounced right off my emotional hide. My whole world had just changed.
Donny and I spent the next dozen Sunday afternoons flying kites under the most perfect kite-flying weather ever. At the time we were only 13 years out of a massive forest fire that had burned away the heart of the Kenai Peninsula so the winds off the Chugach Mountains to the east had little to slow them down. We were also blessed in that the surrounding trees were either burned-out snags or short(er) post-fire new growth which offered little obstruction to kites or the strings, but to stay on the safe side we started using the flat roof of one of the sheds for a launching area as it gave us an additional ten feet clearance over close-in obstructions.
That rooftop was the site of one of our crowning achievements a month later when we were able to get a thousand feet of string out on one of our kites. It had already been a memorable afternoon; that prevailing wind was still quite chilly as it blew off the mountains but we were finally getting enough sunlight each day to get you warmed up a bit if you were able to get out of the wind. The breeze changed several times between northwest and southwest and it seemed like every time the wind moved us towards the setting sun we’d let out more string to clear obstacles we couldn’t quite see. By this time my younger sisters had climbed up to cheer us on but after the fourth time we pivoted to follow the breeze they all stopped talking. Moments later one of them quietly asked “Gussie, how much string are you using”? I glanced over to see that she was holding four wrappers discarded during our frantic “string reloads.”
Handing the reel to Donny I took the wrappers and read the labels: each individual roll held 300 feet of string. We’d started with a half-reel ( 100 feet?) so with the four we’d added there had to be between 1000 and 1200 feet of string separating us from the kite. I looked up – there was no way that kite was a thousand feet up in the air, but when I started checking out chimneys, power poles and other landmarks to the left and right it was obvious that my rough calculations were correct, we had over a thousand feet out on that kite, though the distance was almost as much lateral as it was vertical.
It was a glorious achievement nonetheless and was a record we never surpassed. It never bothered me though because records and markers weren’t the reason I had grown to love my kites. Kites entranced me for the same reason that I preferred cross-country skiing to driving snow machines, or why motorcycles never held the same appeal to me that bicycles did. It was that Zen quality of the moment when everything came down to me, the kite and the wind. No break-neck bouncing and whirling. No sputtering four-stroke internal combustion engines – just the thrum of the kite string and slow dance that comes from manipulating the string to gain altitude or change direction.
It’s not a hobby that everyone enjoys – a lot of people love recreation that consists mostly of the elements I seek to avoid. I’ve never been able to explain the appeal or describe how it feels when I’m flying a kite. At best it is kind of close to what I thought flying an airplane would be – before I found out how structured civil aviation is and how much hard work controlling an aircraft really entailed. The best insight I can give is tell you to listen to “Sailin’ the Wind” a song on the “Full Sail” album released in 1973 by folk/rock duo Loggins and Messina – that song comes closest to describing the whole kite experience.
As the years have gone my involvement with “sailing the wind” has waxed and waned like those winds off the mountains, reaching a peak in the late 1980’s when my young family and I went back to Sterling to house-sit for my parents while they served as missionaries on Prince Edward Island. That time I was equipped much better than I had been in 1970; top of the line nylon kites, high test line and a special reel that made it much easier to take up line quickly when the wind dropped. I even got a small parafoil kite that I kept tucked away in whatever shoulder bag or tote that happened to be using at the time so that whenever I would encounter a decent breeze and an open area I could have a kite launched and soaring at altitude within minutes.
…but it wasn’t the same. For one thing the intervening seventeen winters had been fairly mellow which meant the trees on the homestead could quickly grow much taller and closer together than they had before. I was also flying alone – though Donny and I spent the early part of every summer from 1970 to 1974 “launching fabric “, by 1987 he was no longer Donny – he was Donald, a high-powered attorney with much more important things to do with his time than fly kites.
I was different as well. While I freely maintain that no amount of money in the world could ever coax me into reliving my teen-age years, there was a mental freedom that I had at the time that I really miss. At seventeen I could lose myself completely in whatever I was doing at the time; whether I was drawing, assembling a model, working in wood or tossing around a ball, I was totally focused on the matter at hand and could forget that the rest of the world existed.
It’s just the opposite now. At any given moment I have numberless major concerns that fight for my attention, including:
- How can I make our household budget balance out?
- What’s going to happen at my doctor’s appointment on Monday?
- How long can I hold off getting that cracked molar fixed?
- How long can I keep putting off getting the brakes relined on my VW?
- Are my students fully grasping the point of my lectures?
- Will I be able to walk when I wake up tomorrow morning?
- Will mean Mr. Asthma finally get that choke-hold on me before I can even try to walk?
No, I’d never want to be a teenager again, but I would give you everything I own to ditch that list above and spend an hour with nothing weightier on my mind than getting another hundred feet out on a kite string.