The Old Mans Kite -- or Unidentified
Flying Object at Two-Thousand Feet
A True Story (mostly)
By Richard Cone '69
I am thinking about my old man while watching these kites flying in formation. There are lions, lizards and long, complicated coiling spinners, and Chinese dragon kites. There are dozens of them in the sky, competing for space, dancing around one another in an unscripted choreography.
There is something different about these kites I am watching, and I dont think I like it. I look closely, but nowhere is Superman or Batman. No Wonder Woman, no Green Lantern. Not only that, these kites Im seeing are architectural wonders that would do Frank Lloyd Wright proud. They come from little kite boutiques with names like High as a Kite, and Catch the Wind, and they cost a fortune. No, these are not the two-stick and tissue paper kites of my feckless youth in San Diego, California. Ah, yes, San Diego. Home of the world-famous San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park! Sandy beaches! Shelter Island! Sea World!
Forget it. When you live there, its no vacation village. Its like anyplace else. Every day my big brother and big sister and I trudged up Krenning Street, lined with stucco and wood houses, through a tree-lined neighborhood named Redwood Village, which had no redwoods and no village, to Oak Park Elementary School. On the way home, we stopped at Kipps Variety Store to buy penny candy and ten-cent kites from Mrs. Kipp.
When I was eight, Mrs. Kipp was the oldest person I knew. She was capable of following six kids at one time, and her beady, grey eyes missed nothing. She kept the penny candy in plastic bins at the front of the store, where she could watch us.
The kites were in a barrel on the floor, each wrapped tightly so that you could barely see which character it was.
I was a kite kid. Over and over and over, I fell for the sweet lure of the pristine kite, crackly and crisp, with new white string and a promise that this would be the one to break the bonds of earth and soar to heaven. Over and over and over I was crushed in defeat as the latest ten-cent splurge sputtered out of control and crashed to its death.
My favorite kites were the ones picturing the superheroes I watched every Saturday morning. Superman was far and away my first choice. For my dime (often a now-rare Mercury Head purloined from my old mans coin jar), I got balsa wood and tissue paper. My flying beauties came rolled up around two sticks with a single, thin staple holding them together, and a ball of thin, cheap string.
After opening the kite and laying the sticks out in a cross, the next step was at once both tenuous and critical and any parent of a kid who ever flew kites can recall hearing the plaintive wail go up that meant it had failed you had to hook the little loops of the string on the four corners of the kite to the four widest points on the balsa wood cross, which had microscopic slits to receive the string. This operation required an ever-so-delicate bending of the longest piece of balsa wood, so that the kite would be taut on the frame. The slightest miscalculation and the stick would shatter. This happened. A lot. There was no fix. The kite was dead.
And even when I got safely beyond that stage, and stood like Orville Wright on the brink of flight, my kite trailing four-and-a-half feet of pilfered bedsheet tied in ten-inch sections, my kite was good for about fifteen minutes, and I knew it. But still I harbored ignorant hope.
Launching was not a problem and neither was initial lift. We lived on a wide street at the edge of an East San Diego scrub canyon and along with king snakes, California horned toads, skunks and lizards came a steady breeze blowing from the west. Just a short sprint down the street in my J.C. Penney Red Stripe sneakers with the kite trailing over my shoulder and it was airborne. The wind crackled against the kites brittle tissue paper and lifted steadily until it hit a power line or tree.
Seeing as how we lived in a neighborhood filled with power lines, telephone poles, streetlights and trees, every kite I ever flew on 51st Street died a horrible death, spinning wildly out of control, descending to its final resting place, to lie upside down until the winter rains washed it away, or the guy from San Diego Gas and Electric came by in his truck and pulled it down. I knew him by name.
I studied arithmetic and social studies at Oak Park Elementary School, and while I slaved under the evil eye of Mrs. Strain, my old man went to work at Safeway as a meat cutter. He took two sick days in 47 years. On his days off he fished the Coronados, two small islands off the coast of San Diego that look like buffalo ambling across the plains. His quarry was yellowtail, a particularly large, tasty coldwater gamefish known for its ferocious fight and its delectable meat. But fishing the islands cost fifteen bucks and in those days, the old man had three kids who lived to eat, and one who lost his shoes every third Saturday, and he couldnt afford it often. The rest of the time, he was home with us kids. He saw the kite carnage again and again, and he knew how bad I felt every time I lost another kite.
One day no one will ever know why he decided to fight back.
The old man was going to do some heavy construction work and first, he needed space. In the driveway sat his brand new 1959 Oldsmobile 88, which he had just won in a three-for-a buck raffle at Holy Spirit Catholic Church. The old man, a disenfranchised Lutheran at best, had stood among the Popes faithful, where he was handed the keys to the only brand new car he ever owned in his life. A guyd have to be a damn fool to buy a brand-new car, he always said. The old man appreciated depreciation.
Now, having backed his major prize out of the driveway, he carefully laid out his materials. He had roll ends of 18-inch wide, white butcher paper, shiny and slick on one side, and several spools of thick butcher string. He had heavy, two-inch wide cellophane tape, and a couple of old pieces of two inch wooden baseboard about four and ten feet long.
First, he laid the baseboard pieces out in a cross, just like my little balsa wood ones, only ten times larger. I realized he was making a giant kite and started laughing at the sight, and I didnt really believe he was going to fly it. The old man looked up and smiled, saying nothing. He lashed the two lengths of baseboard together and began making the string frame that defined the shape of the kite. He stretched layer upon layer of string around the wooden frame and when that was finished, he laid white butcher paper out in strips across the frame, folding them under and taping them securely.
Slowly it began to take the shape of a kite. More paper, more tape, and soon it was ready for a tail thirty feet of bedsheet tied in about two foot lengths. When the old mans kite was complete, it looked a like a prop for a movie. Faced with the problems of just how to get this thing airborne, and control it in flight, the old man fell back on what he knew best his rod and reel.
For many more years than I had been alive, the old man has used his Garcia deep sea rods and Penn reels to catch yellowtail. He was good at it. But now he was going to hook up on dry land and use his fishing tools to fly his kite. He must have used 50-pound test line, thick and translucent blue. He attached it to the monster kite and went to the middle of the street.
Standing in front of Guy Meisters house, he began to run down the block and the giant kite started to slowly rise. It hesitated, fell and rose, and then caught first one breeze, then another, and in what seemed like seconds, was above the level of the surrounding houses, trees and telephone lines. The trick now would be to keep it in the air.
Penn Reels have the famous star drag, a star-shaped wheel on the side that allows you to adjust the amount of tension in order to play the fish, let him run or reel him in hard. My old man was working the star drag like he had a marlin on, and the kite continued to rise. It was probably five hundred feet up and it still looked immense. Its long tail whipped back and forth in rhythmic cadence, mute evidence of the staccato wind holding it up and raising it faster than the old man ever expected. He was actually sweating now, his long-sleeved red Sunday-shirt rolled up to his elbows, and his ever-present Pall Mall Straight dangling from his lips. He was in his glory.
Sunday afternoon in Redwood Village was pretty quiet, and by now, word of this aeronautical feat-in-the-making had spread throughout the neighborhood. No one had anything better to do than go watch some damned fool try to fly a giant kite, and as fast as voices could cross chain-link fences, out they came, all of the little kids, most of the older ones and few adults. Collectively, their jaws dropped as they looked skyward and saw King Kongs kite some thousands of feet in the air, my old man holding the rod and reel and grinning like he, and not John Glenn, was at the helm of the Mercury Space capsule, which was orbiting above in the same sky as the old mans kite.
I honestly dont think the old man ever thought about the airplanes. I never asked him. We lived in the final approach of San Diegos Lindbergh Field. The commercial flights came right over our house, so low that we could actually see them jettisoning fuel. And in between the scores of commercial planes was a steady stream of small Cessnas and Piper Cubs from Gillespie Field in El Cajon and from the other small airports and landing strips in North County.
Looking back on it now, I dont know how high the kite was, or how low the plane was. But somewhere around two thousand feet or so, a solo pilot in a Cessna looked out the window and saw my old mans kite fluttering in the cloudless San Diego skies. He must have thought he was seeing something that wasnt really there.
No one ever actually said the old man had endangered air traffic or anything like that, but the pilot radioed to the control tower that he had a giant kite at three oclock that, if collided with, might bring him down.
How long it took for the three or four radio-to radio transmissions that resulted in a San Diego cop rolling down the street is anyones guess. My old man had seen the pilot take evasive action, and was in the process of reeling in the kite when the police showed up. The cop said some things that I dont think I ever heard. And the kite came down. Reeled in like a 22-pound yellow, it put up quite a fight. And twenty feet from the ground, it careened into the telephone pole in front of Guy Meisters house and lodged, upside down, in the T at the top. My old man cut the line and let it stay there. The Gas and Electric guy never took it down, and it remained in continuing state of decay, paper and tape shredding off first, followed by lengths of string. What was left of the wood finally came clattering down at the end of winter.