I just found out when I was researching this post (I actually do research, contrary to what you might believe) that the Smithsonian Institute, which sponsored a kite festival on the Mall for forty-four years, has transferred sponsorship to the Cherry Blossom Festival. That’s fine with me and quite appropriate, but I kind of had a soft spot for the Smithsonian festival because it used to be the only time you could fly kites on the Mall. I never heard about this festival, which put dozens of beautiful and unusual kites into the air, without thinking of how much I loved to fly kites growing up and also about my friend John from college. He was actually arrested for flying a kite on the Mall. No kidding. There used to be a law against that in Washington. And so John broke the law and was arrested. But that’s another story. He was also arrested for jaywalking in D.C. . That’s yet another story. Actually, John was arrested a lot for minor things because he considered himself a latter-day Thoreau. We got tired of bailing him out and so did his parents after a while. I’ll have to tell his story another time.
When I was much younger, I was fascinated by anything that flew—birds, baseballs, airplanes, bricks, myself…Superman was my favorite superhero since he could, of course, fly. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that his ability to fly came from his cape. If I had one like it I could fly, too. I think this stage of development among children is called magical thinking. Except I was about ten years old.
Anyhow, I saw one day on the back of a bag of carrots of all places an ad for a Superman magic flying cape. And only 25 cents! Well, that was for me. I ignored the fine print at the bottom of the bag: “Cape does not enable user to fly.” I collected a quarter and sent it off. In about three weeks my cape came in the mail. It was, in truth, a disappointment. Instead of the rich red of Superman’s cape, this one was a washed out pinkish color. And it was about the thickness of the bag the carrots came in. Nonetheless, I was game. I spent the next couple of week with the cape around my neck leaping into the air shouting “Up, up and away!” which were of course Superman’s signature words on taking flight. It was patently obvious to anyone watching that he was going up and away, but it was a cool call nonetheless.
Even with my carrot bag cape I didn’t fly an inch. I concluded I needed a small assist so I jumped off our front porch which was about three feet above the ground and landed in the bushes. Ouch. I thought I needed more height so I climbed to the top of the flat shed roof that adjoined the garage which was about ten feet off the ground. I jumped off several times but got nothing but sore feet from landing on the ground for my pains. Clearly, the magic cape wasn’t going to work.
It was about this time that I became interested in kites. I read all about them, about their invention by the Chinese and their use in signaling and carrying bombs and even people. That was a concept, but first I would have to master the ancient art of kite flying. I hied myself to the local drug store where I purchased for one thin dime a High Flier classic diamond-shaped kite which came rolled up and ready to assemble. Looking back on it now, I didn’t notice that the wood and paper were on the hefty side, which made the kite difficult to fly and even more difficult to control. Winds where we lived were intermittent and so I spent hours trying to get the kite up. It probably would have taken gale force winds to make it fly, so I decided to build my own. Of course the wood I used and the covering were even heavier than the store-bought variety (I wasn’t much for details then) so the home-made kite was even worse as a flyer. I made a brief foray into the area of exotic kites, even building a small box kite out of soda straws. It didn’t fly any better than any of the others.
Eventually, using some lighter wood and a thinner covering, I did build several kites which flew well, even in light breezes. Naturally inclined to laziness, I tired of winding the string by hand and hit upon using one of my father’s rods reels for the string, which also made the kite easier to control. I had seen in magazine that truly serious kite flyers used motorized string reels which worked with the starter motor from a car and a 12-volt battery. I was certain my family would miss both if I borrowed them from the car so I was out of luck.
It was about at this time my interest in kite flying tapered off, when I became interested in cars and women, but I still think of kites when I hear see television coverage of a kite festival or pass by a field and see one in the air.It’s like I’m up there with it, and I can fly.