Of course, like probably every middle class boy in America in the 1960s, I had my experiences with those cheap paper kites. You know the ones: diamond-shaped with fragile wooden cross-supports. Charlie Brown kites.
I had about as much luck with mine as Charlie Brown did with his. Sometimes my Dad would take my sisters and me out to fly one. And, of course, we all wanted to hold the spool of string. And squabbled with each other over who would do so first or longest. And one of us would always lose the string. Or allow the kite to crash into a tree. And Dad would be frustrated, while all the siblings would be angry with the offender.
It was years later that I met Anna. We were students at Christopher Newport College (now University) in Newport News, Virginia. A mutual friend had cast her in a one-act play for his Directing Class. I was his stage manager. So Anna and I spent a great deal of time together. We soon began spending time together away from the set.
Anna owned a magnificent cloth kite. It was a work of art. The kite was green with a white dove stitched overlapping a red sun. Anna said the dove represented the Holy Spirit.
One weekend we took it to Virginia Beach to fly it. We went with our friends Mickey Conway and William Curby from the Theatre Department. Mickey and Bill and I were all cast in the spring production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party.
I think Bill probably drove. He was the youngest among us, but the only one with a functioning automobile. And Anna could be persuasive when she wanted something. Though what she did was infect you with her enthusiasm and make you believe your contribution to the project was your idea.
One of the few other visitors to the sea that day was an older gentleman, a local taking his exercise in a leisurely walk. I remember studying him as he strode down the boardwalk.
The old man moved steadily, with a marked snapping forward from the knee of his lower leg with each step. Snap, step. Snap, step. I later practiced replicating that gait. I was playing Petey in the play, an elderly proprietor of a boarding house on the North Sea.
At rehearsal one night, subsequent to our Beach trip, I incorporated the walk into my portrayal of Petey. Mickey noticed right away. “I see you’ve been practicing your walk!” He was always the consummate technician onstage. (By which I mean he displayed mastery of technique.)
Back on the Atlantic Ocean, it was either late winter or early spring, not yet tourist season, so the beach was mostly deserted. The sky was gray, the water choppy. A brisk wind blew that lifted our kite aloft and set it dancing to a silent melody.
We walked barefoot in the cold sand and took turns holding the string spool. There was nary an argument about it!
While Bill was handling the kite it somehow got away from him. He was a picture of consternation! The kite drifted down the shoreline until it came to rest behind a hotel.
We four chased it down, found it on the hotel grounds, and retrieved it. Then we packed it in for the day.
There were a couple more occasions Anna and I flew the kite after that. Over the summer we took it with us to Front Royal, Virginia, where we attended a Contemporary Christian Music festival called Fishnet ’79. But mostly the kite decorated walls in various apartments where we lived. Still, I was infected with kite-itis.
There is a kite shop—or was, it’s been decades since I was there—in the Waterside Festival Marketplace in Norfolk, Virginia. I stumbled across this shop one afternoon when I was out photographing the neighborhood with my friend Matt Riebe. Matt was a coworker—my lead, in fact—at the landscaping company where I worked. Matt was the friend who had cast Anna in the show where we met.
I didn’t hold that against him.
Anna and I were in the midst of a long separation which culminated in our divorce. She had kept her kite. So I bought one for myself.
Sometimes I am an impulsive purchaser. Sometimes I “fix” on purchases. (“Fix” as in “score a hit of dope”—the drug, in this case, being a new toy, which is good for a temporary burst of endorphins that fade nearly as quickly as they manifested. Usually I buy either books or music. But anything new that I want will work as well. At least I’m aware of the problem. They say that’s half of the solution.)
Most of the things I buy from that mindset get used once or twice, then find their way to a shelf or box.
I did fly my new kite a couple times. It, like Anna’s, was colorful cloth, though it had no cool designs on it. A simple kite for a simple man. (Some might say a simple mind.)
I took it to some local parks. I flew it at Huntington Park in Newport News, overlooking the James River Bridge. I flew it in Gosnold Hope Park in Hampton. I flew it over Buckroe Beach.
Once, when I was married to Marjorie, we took Dean, her toddler grandson, to Gosnold to fly the kite. It delighted him until—and you knew this would happen—the string broke and the kite drifted over the treetops, and over the housetops of an adjacent housing development. Gauging where it was headed we scurried to our car and drove to the little neighborhood. We were fortunate to find the kite lying in the street. It was a quiet, suburban neighborhood with little traffic. The kite was unharmed. We packed it up and made our way home.
A couple of times over the next few months Dean asked about flying the kite. I wish we had. But one thing or another stood in our way and eventually Marji and I went our separate ways.
I managed to keep the kite.
I carried it with me through four moves in the next 18 months, finally losing track of it, as I do so much of my life’s ephemera.
Several years and 1000 miles later I found myself looking wistfully at a collection of kites displayed in as aisle at a Costco in Independence, Missouri. I was facing another disintegrating relationship. Flying a kite might sure have lifted my spirits. On impulse I chose one shaped like a butterfly.
It was a beauty, simple to assemble, with a wingspan nearly 5′ across. I flew this kite a lot.
There is a cemetery near my home. The cemetery is atop a gentle hill that slopes down toward 40 Highway as it cuts through Blue Springs. The space is largely clear of utility lines or trees, and the hilltop is a terrific place to catch a breeze.
I got to where I could launch the kite by myself, rolling off some string, grabbing the kite near where the string attaches to its body, and holding it aloft until the wind sweeps under the wings and carries it skyward. As quickly as I can I roll out the entire 170′ of string.
Like a sailor I tug the string first to the right, then to the left, tacking the wings as sails into the wind, manipulating the air to keep the kite flying as long as I can. Some days it is a challenge, and I find myself relaunching it several times before Zephyr finally decides to play, and I fight it as an angler with a sailfish. Other days it is simplicity itself, practically leaping from my fingers and soaring overhead in long loops and arches.
It is pure joy.
At times it seems so obvious that the Chinese should have perfected the craft, for when the kite drifts lazily above my mind drifts up beside it and float plumose beneath the clouds. It is close to zen.
I enjoyed the butterfly throughout the summer of 2011.
Last spring I brought it out from storage. Amid some agitation of life’s circumstances I took it out on a much-too windy day. It got caught in a tree.
Working too hastily I got it out of the tree, but damaged it in the process. It lost its streamers. And the body ripped a bit. All through the year I intended to repair it, but never got around to it.
So this year, I bought a new one.
Initially I was going to replace it with an identical butterfly. But, at the last minute, I chose a dragon, instead. It has a 6′ wingspan. It is beautiful.
Yesterday, I gave it a proper launch. It was just a tad too cold and windy. Nevertheless, I managed to put it in the air and keep it flying for the better part of an hour as I sang Moonshadow and Let’s Go Fly a Kite.
I shall get many hours of pleasure from this kite!