Big Kite

Eastridge Street, Cedar Hills, Oregon, 1954.

It was early spring, a gusty Sunday afternoon, and Dad wanted to dooo something, as Mom would say with emphasis: elongated and raised in pitch. He was in his early thirties and had a touch of cabin fever, after being inside, doing his taxes most of rainy yesterday and facilitating the Unitarian Fellowship meeting this morning.

I was six, outside in my jacket after lunch, flopped down on a green grassy rise a few hundred yards south of our apartment, gazing at the shifting shapes in the sky, brilliant blue patches between white billowy cumulous clouds that moved along at a good clip. Mostly I saw giant faces, animals, gods and abstract designs – I was always finding patterns and satisfying symmetries … or disturbing broken symmetries.

Suddenly I heard Dad’s distinctive bob white whistle (his words), produced to carry a long distance by means of the index finger and pinky of his right hand poked between his tightly puckered lips, with lots of tongue and lung pressure behind it. (Actually, the first note was a huge downward swoop, followed by a quick upward one, a caricature of the bird’s version.) Tom and I knew what it meant: drop what you’re doing and come home on the double.

(Aside: I learned to whistle melodies from Dad, breathing both out and in, practicing and evolving from a shaky peep to a reliable instrument. But all my attempts to mimic his bob white shriek accomplished nothing as a starting point for improvement, so I gave up … until Now. Lo these many years later, I just stuck my fingers between my lips and blew. Behold, a big happy noise! I write this in near disbelief at today’s great discovery. Dad, if only you had lived another 22 years, until you were 101, we could have shot bob white calls across the valley below The Point!)

But returning to the story … I jogged back to the house, where Dad greeted me on the porch with a facial expression of big doings. “How would you like to help me build a kite? We have a good wind for it today.” No salesmanship needed; I was all in.

Dad got pencil and paper, sat down at the Formica kitchen table and drew a cross almost as big as the paper. He should have been an engineer. A simple line was rarely good enough; he would go over it with many strokes to make it look straighter or bolder or with a better shaped curve. I realize now, he was a revisionist. Me too!

“Here is the wooden structure that will hold the airfoil outstretched to catch the wind.” I nodded my understanding. Then he sketched the surface that would be attached the frame. “Charlotte, would you like to join us in here?” he called to her in the other room. She soon appeared with two-year-old Tommy, who beamed into the almost conspiratorial fun, with heads physically crowded around the drawing and thinking along similar lines. “Honey, do we have a big old bed sheet that can be repurposed for the diamond kite we are making?”

“I think so. I’ll look in the rag bag,” she said and went the see, leaving the three of us “men” to continue the design.

Dad went into a little lecture about the importance of stressing the horizontal strut by bending it to give it stiffness against the force of the wind, curved like a wing to increase the flying stability.

Mom returned with a big sheet, and Dad said, “This will be just the ticket!” as his mother used to say. “Now, how would you like to cut it – I’ll give you the dimensions – and sew a hem all around for the twine? You can sew the twine into the hem, or we can let the kids feed the twine through the hemmed edges with a fishing pole.” She went to set up the sewing machine, a simple electric Singer, no fancy bells or whistles. Dad measured the dimensions of the sheet and discovered that it was almost seven feet long. Forever more we called it “the seven-foot kite.”

He led Tommy and me downstairs to the basement and unlocked our locker, about 10 by 12 feet, where he rummaged through odds and ends of wood until he found a couple of long narrow pieces that were straight and that passed muster when he flexed them to test their strength. He handed me a fine-tooth hack saw, handed Tommy a big ball of twine, and we all traipsed back upstairs.

Dad decided on a ten-by-nine aspect ratio, height to width, and gave Mom a dimensioned sketch of the how the cloth should come out after cutting and hemming. Then he set me up on the porch to cut the two pieces of wood to his pencil marks, reiterating prior instructions on how to hold the work piece securely with my shoe, keep my left hand out of the way, keep the saw blade going in a straight line, and let the saw do the work by not pushing too hard. Come to think of it for the first time, learning to manipulate a hand saw was the prototype skill to my learning how to bow the cello about five years later, in the same way that my son Gabriel’s learning hand-eye video games at home and typing in school served as prototype skills to his learning the piano about 10 years later. But I digress. Again.

The kite came together within about an hour, and we all put on jackets for the adventure while some sun and blue were still peeking through the afternoon clouds. Tommy carried the big ball of twine. Mom carried the 8mm movie camera and the pieces of cloth that would become the kite’s knotted tail. I carried the funky windless that Dad had assembled uncharacteristically quickly. (Was he impatient or just keyed up?) And of course, Dad carried the kite. We went back to the little hill where I had been watching the clouds a couple of hours before, and executed the final assembly steps: attaching a first-draft tail to the tail end, and tying the flying twine to the bridle loop that was already tied through little holes to the vertical strut. Dad wound the camera and refreshed Mom on how to hold and activate it, she having done so before. Then he led the way to the far windward side of the knoll and held the kite up above his head to get a sense of its aeronautical responses. Wind gusts alternately yanked and relaxed in Dad’s grip; this was going to be a challenge.

The wind was too variable to expect a gust to propel a successful launch. So he walked back downwind to the middle of the summit meadow, waited for a lull, then threw the heavy kite into the air as he ran upwind. It seemed to rise nicely at first. Then it was diving back and forth, losing altitude, and crashing with a sad tumble. Yet it survived, having been strongly built. As a seasoned kite flier in his youth, he knew what to do: move the tie point of the flying twine up the bridle to reduce the kite’s angle of attack, for a more level flight. And increase both the weight and the wind-drag of the tail.

He repeated the previous launch attempt during a lull in the wind, and this time the kite rose more slowly as he ran, but with much more stability. And just in time, as he ran out of running room, a gust came along and boosted the kite many yards higher in just a few seconds. The next lull was short lived and followed by a sustained breeze that was just what Dad needed for letting out more twine, enabling higher altitude. Mom was already filming as Dad beckoned me over to feel the tension on the twine. I was amazed at the force I had to exert to keep my footing as he gradually began turning the job over to me. The wind was more consistent higher up, and Dad helped me play out many yards of twine until he could grab the end and tie it onto the windless. With something more substantial to hold onto, he let me manage it entirely on my own, leaning way back to balance the forces. I felt as if I were flying way high, out there myself, almost in the clouds.

Eventually an extended lull came and the kite began to drop. Dad said, “Reel it in!” So I cranked the windless faster and watched the kite rise again as it got closer. But the late afternoon weather pattern was changing; we were losing the wind. I cranked away until my arm ached and the kite got so low that Dad took over and brought it in for a pretty smooth landing.

That was about 66 years ago, and I seem to have a vivid memory of the day, the exhilaration, the fun, and my appreciation of Dad, who put the memory on the map for me with his time, patience and a young father’s joy. One of these bright days (as he liked to say) I’ll see if I can find a way to look at the old silent movie Mom took and compare how that 8 millimeter version of flying the kite differs from my multi-sensory memory of it, which, of course, I will still prefer, with its windy sound track, chill in the air, glare of the sun, and living tug on the twine.

~ Tim

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