Kites and the Age of Wonder

IT is the afternoon of my birthday, which coincides with the vernal equinox. The line storm spent the forenoon petering out into a succession of rainless black squalls from the north-northwest — the clearest, most cogent invitation for me to spend it flying a kite.

It is not without a pretext that I indulge myself in this archaic springtime diversion. The pretext has blue eyes, and her name is Jane. She is exactly half as old in months as I am in years. Companioned by this mite, I, at a time of life between the gray and the bald, can traipse the stubble fields at the end of half a mile of kite line and yet be thought no worse than an amiable eccentric by my excellent adult neighbors. Thus, Jane is a social asset — a savior of self-consciousness and a sort of chaperon.

Nevertheless I cheerfully grant that I should have made and flown the kite whether or no. From an age that I scarcely remember I have counted that March lost, or at any rate misspent and marred, that did not find me whittling out a kite frame, setting the gluepot on the stove, posting to the store for the five-hundred-foot balls of manila line, tearing old sheets or shirts into lengths for tail, and presently feeling the tug and strain of my kite three thousand feet away.

Why has kite-flying so fallen into decadence among the American young of this clime, the forties north? Every March I fall to wondering, and every March I decide anew that something must have gone wrong with the grandfathers. Maybe American life no longer has the continuity, moral or physical, to provide the average boy with a steadily available grandfather or two. Forty years ago in such a neighborhood as ours — the outskirts of a New England manufacturing town, where the houses scatter and give way to broad fields with woods beyond — the boy who did not have a companionable grandfather seemed more destitute than an orphan. And your grandfather was, by definition, he who every spring showed you how to make wallow whistles various in timbre and pitch; who revealed the possibilities of toy boats with stern-wheel propellers operated by rubber bands; who, above all, initiated you into the science-cumart-cum-strategy of the kite. And he did not forget, either, to see that you were kept supplied with all the line your young hands would care to wind in, or neglect to teach you the proper trick of winding it, together with a sound working assortment of knots, hitches, and bends.

To-day, when I see a kite hereabout, I see a ready-made one — a diamond-shaped kite from the ten-cent store, with a flimsy and brittle softwood frame under crackling glazed paper. Mostly I see it in the past tense, as tatters festooned over a telegraph wire or skewered in the branches of an elm. If I catch it in action, it is plunging and waggling crazily at the end of a few pitiful yards of white twine, with not a fifth of the tail needed to steady it. At the other end of the outfit is a boy running, desperately running. While he runs it flies — until there is a gust, and then it veers and dives, and that is the end.

Now, our kites — I mean our grandfathers’ kites — were not like that at all. Our perennial stand-by was the kite made in the image of a fully drawn bow with a bowstring of exaggerated length. Its upright, corresponding to the arrow, was of seasoned, springy hardwood, every dispensable ounce shaved out of it. The half-round bow was of hickory, likewise worked down fine.

You do not insult such a kite by running it up, not even if you are spoiling for exercise. You do not even boost it. You offer it calmly from your hand to any puff that is half a kite breeze. The puff accepts it, and — glorious moment! — it mounts steadily like a rocket getting under way, picking its tail off the ground yard by yard, rod after snaky rod; eighty feet of tail for a smart breeze, maybe a hundred and twenty for a strong one. By the time it has topped the highest elms it will take out your line fast enough to make it smoke if you have not wound it just so on the stick, fast enough to burn your leather glove as a hot wire would; and still the fast-receding kite hardly loses altitude. When it has taken up all of your two or three thousand feet, it climbs with startling acceleration. There is a breathless moment when you are sure that it means to rocket straight on across your zenith and come down meteor-like behind you, a victim of that vaulting ambition that o’erleaps itself and falls on the other. You then hitch it to some springy branch and, sitting or strolling, take your ease. Often enough we left a kite so flying itself for a whole March Saturday while we played other games or foraged afar in the woods, now and then climbing some lookout hill to make sure that the almost invisible speck was still there against the blue.

But if we did not run our kites, we did sometimes take them for long cross-country walks, gathering in slack to heave the stick over telegraph lines, covering prodigious detours to circumvent some tall tree or big barn with cupola and weather vane. On lower Penobscot Bay there will be, on certain blue-and-white-and-gold days, a northwest snorter blowing aloft while there is comparative calm down at water level. On those days you have to put up your kite from high ground. Let it be an eight-foot kite, covered with racing duck and flown on the toughest mackerel line, and you can walk it down to the shore, harness it to the bow of a dory, and be sailed gloriously from The Brothers clean to Roaring Bull — or Nova Scotia, if the wind were to hold and you had the triplearmored spirit for it.

My kite-flying grandfather — who had his notion of the art from his grandfather — saw me through a sequence of unforgotten springs. He did not grant his fatigue the final indulgence of withdrawal until I, his only living grandchild, was able to make some sort of shift for myself. That spring I made my very first independent kite, putting all manner of pains on shaft and bow and rigging. I could hardly have told the finished product from one of his, though of course he would have spotted the difference from as far as he could see.

There was only one thing amiss with this masterly Opus 1: it would not fly. It was light, it was strong, it was well shaped, perfectly balanced; an ideal kite breeze was bending the birches; but there seemed to be no spark of the soul of levitation in the wretched thing. Incredulous, sorely hurt, I tried every device, even running. My kite might as well have been of sheet lead.

While I was getting my breath back, a sudden picture took shape before my childish mind’s eye. It was of my grandfather carrying a new-made kite out to the back stoop, holding it up by its lengthwise stay to face a mild southwest breeze, and at last, incomprehensibly, making a faint pencil mark on its face. At the precise level of this mark, it now struck me in a burst of illumination, he had placed the tiny brass ring for the kite line. I held my kite up, trying various points of support. Presently I knelt down and shifted the ring perhaps an inch and a half toward the top of the kite. With more faith than hope I held my handiwork up again. That kite left its young maker for the sky with a homing ardor that burned a forefinger nearly to the bone where the line smoked across it. I now understood for the first time that a kite is a tilted plane, and I saw how its tail acts as a self-adjusting governor of infinite, of perfect, flexibility. The secret, simple as all the great secrets, is just to attach the line high enough to provide a fulcrum for the correct tilt. I could make some applications of this discovery to the moral universe; but let it pass.

To our twenty-five-months-old Jane, this morning, there was not a scintilla of miracle in seeing the kite go up. Had she not been told that it would do just that? Was not that what it had been made for? A triumph over the natural law of gravity is nothing in her life. She has not the slightest belief that gravity is natural, or a law. But when the kite fell into a windless trance between squalls and I had to haul in several hundred yards of line hand over hand as smartly as I could manage it, then indeed the wonderment took possession of her wide blue eyes. She stared in utter unbelief at the miracle of the kite lifeless on the sere grass, at the rods of tail incredibly just threatened with fatal entanglement on telephone cables, at the hanks and loops of manila wondrously sprawled at our feet. But as soon as the wind resumed doing business, as soon as the kite soared back to its normal heaven, straightening out the extravagant snarl without anybody’s finger lifted, the child was back in her commonplace, everyday, safe world where things perform as advertised and promises are, as a matter of course, kept.

It occurs to me that a brief course in kiteflying, in the company of the very young and ostensibly for their benefit, might be one pretty good annual requirement for the child psychologists, pedagogical theorists, progressive kindergartners, ethical culturists, and other official shepherds who now expend four fifths of their tissue in ingeniously underestimating the resources of children and the other fifth in sentimentalizing about ‘the age of wonder.’

As for twenty-five-months-old Jane, she has been expending her tissue this afternoon in clamor for a repetition of the morning. But no, my little: poor Dhassa has to work this afternoon. Flying a kite is so patently not work, even by her mysterious canons, that in the end she says to her mother very confidentially, at once wistful and sly: ‘I think Dhassa wants to come out and blow up the kite.’ Out of the mouths of babes — !

It suddenly occurs to me that the greatest of famous Americans did a little adult kiteflying in his day, and in wild unstandard weather, too. Franklin himself had a pretext; not my strictly conventional one, but a scientific subterfuge as wildly original as his choice of weather. For of course the grownup boy that Franklin was flew kites because he wanted to fly kites. He did it, as Dean Fenn used to say, just for joy.

All right, my little, hustle on your warmest things. It is an hour to your suppertime. The northwest wind is still herding his wild elephants across the sky, and — here we go!