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To fly a kite

Food For Thought

March is supposedly a good time to fly kites. Tradition tells us, since March days are often too windy, too cold, too wet and too short for most of the other outdoor recreational options of spring, it is the perfect time for kite-flying. In a way, that’s probably so– at least it used to be– because a great deal of kite time was spent indoors constructing and repairing the kites, and a relatively short time actually spent outdoors engaging in the business of flying them.
It was inevitable, when I was a kid, on any given March Saturday, Mother would say, “Girls, it’s a perfect day for flying kites. You should get out there and get some fresh air and exercise.”
What she really meant, though, was we should get out of the house so she could get some housework done and get ready for the relatives who were coming for Sunday dinner.
We never had kites on hand, waiting for the perfect kite-flying day, of course, so the first thing was to get busy and build some kites. Sometimes, we would each be given a quarter and we would troop downtown, to the dime store, to select our kits of thin wood strips and brightly colored paper (15¢) and a ball of special kite string (10¢). The dime store kite was pretty much already made, with the strings encased around the edges so all we really had to do was insert the sticks between the appropriate loops of string and attach the lead string and a tail made of torn rags.
More often, we spent an hour or so assembling our kites from a selection of used parts Mother saved from previous years. The brightly colored paper, of course, had not survived and was replaced by plain brown or pinkish-tan paper originally wrapped around hamburger or lunch meat from the grocery store. Often the supply of proper-sized sticks was inadequate and we would fill the gap with pieces of screen-stripping, whips from the willow tree, or some other thing certain to fail as the bones of a kite. We were ever optimistic, though, and convinced ourselves if it looked like a kite, it was a kite and would fly like a kite.
I never quite understood the aerodynamics of the kite tail. I knew it had to do with balance, preventing the kite from performing those unexpected and disastrous tailspins that brought it crashing to the ground, but I never understood how much, how heavy or how long a tail was needed and, apparently, never got it right.
Of prime importance was the kite string. One had to have string strong enough it couldn’t be broken by the tug of a wind-driven kite, and there must be enough of it that, once the kite was successfully launched, it could be let out to allow the kite to rise to an enviable height over the neighborhood. New string came in a ball too difficult to hold onto and unwind at the same time, so it had to be rewound onto a smooth stick. The smooth stick almost always turned out to be one of Mother’s newer round clothespins from her laundry basket and, after the kite-flying was done, she wanted her clothespins back, so she usually ended up with the string as well.
She would add the string to a ball she kept in a kitchen drawer. adding to it by tying on the strings that came tied around those packages of hamburger and lunch meat, and the strings that unraveled from the openings of the cloth bags sugar and several other things came in at the time.
We could save 10¢ of our kite money by bypassing the new ball of kite string and settle for a long length from Mother’s big ball of knotted string. Adding a tail of arbitrary length, we ran outdoors to launch our kites.
I admit right here, I never once managed to fly a kite; to stand and watch it ride the breeze for more than a few seconds. My kites, if I managed to get them higher than my head, usually did a drunken spin and dove to the ground. I had two strategies for launching. The first was to hold the kite up and run with it into the wind, letting the string slide through my fingers until I let it out about 2 yards. At this point, I would stop running, turn around and, if the kite hadn’t already begun it’s death dance, I’d cautiously let out a little more string, then a little more, until I felt a strong tug. At which point, I began to feel twinges of success and let out a lot more string. My other method was to stand with my kite on the highest ground around and wait for a strong breeze to pick it up and carry it skyward. Both methods achieved the same result. After that first hopeful tug on the string, my kite would immediately go into a drunken zigzag and nosedive into the grass.