Kites have been around for thousands of years, according to the big 1897 reference book that supplied most of the advanced information for Spring Hill School students. Those who sought more knowledge on most any subject than the $60-a-month teacher could offer always turned to it.
That encyclopedia had a full page on the many uses that the Chinese and Japanese had made of the kite. Did you know Koreans were once led to believe that a certain chieftain was super human because he flew a huge kite?
I am sure you know the story of how old Ben Franklin proved that lightning was a form of electricity by risking himself to fly a silk-covered kite with a steel wire attached in a thunderstorm. Old Ben might have had the right idea about electricity but certainly it was not a smart lesson in personal safety.
Now my experience with kites is not nearly so dramatic. When those gentle southern breezes began to whiff the smell of cherry blossoms and dogwood down the slopes of Red Hill, our stiff, squeaky shoes came off and it was kite flying time.
Bud Fearheiley was the champion kite maker of Spring Hill School. His specialty was two-stick, tissue paper-covered jobs that could out-fly and out-maneuver both the box kites that Joe Sumner built, and the three-stick models that Dee Griggs fashioned. I guess you could call Bud’s kite the ‘sport’ model and Dee’s the ‘freightliner,’ for although Dee’s was a bit slower getting into the air, it could carry a lot bigger load of water than Bud’s.
Water? Yeah, water. You see, we’d take a coffee sack and fill it with water and tie the filled sack in a bow knot to the kite string. When the kite got well up in the wild blue yonder, we’d give it a quick jerk, and plop, down would come an aerial ‘bomb’ – just like the ones Eddie Rickenbacker and those other aces were dropping on the Huns over in France. Well, almost like them.
We made parachutes, too, that could be dropped from the kites. We’d take a silk handkerchief, tie a foot-long string to each corner and attach a weight, like a big washer, to the four strings. Then we’d stick a common pin through the center of the handkerchief and bend it into a hook. This then was hung on the taut kite string. When you do that, the ‘little old handkerchief man’ would climb right up that string, clean to the kite. Then when you let up on the string suddenly, the parachute would fall loose and gently float to earth. Neat, eh?
You can send messages up the line too. Just write the message on a piece of paper about 4 inches square, punch a hole in its center and slip it over the line. Whoosh, away she goes.
Art Vanatta found out that he could crush a Moxie bottle between two bricks until he had a pile of glass dust. Then, if he wiped some Carter’s glue on the string close to the kite and rolled it in the glass, when the glue dried, he had a ‘fighting’ kite that could be maneuvered in such a way that the glass-coated line would rub across the other boys’ strings and cut their lines. Away their uncontrolled kites would sail, never to be seen again -or at least not for a while.
I was never able to make a kite that would fly. Course, my mama didn’t have the fine, light – but tough – tissue paper that Bud’s sister would bring home from the packing boxes that came into the store in town where she worked. I had to use newspapers, and in those days the better newsprint was made from rags and was a lot thicker than today’s newsprint. Those old copies of the Olney Daily Mail were a lot heavier in paper stock than they were in news.
Then too, I had to use carpet twine rather than tough thread to edge my kite, and with the heavy flour paste I used to put all the parts together, there just wasn’t enough lifting power to get ‘her’ off the ground.
I well remember the first and very last kite I tried to build. I split three sticks off of an old orange crate. Two of them were the full length of the crate, or about 30 inches. The other was a little shorter. I made an ‘X’ of the longer ones and then laid the shorter one across the other two so as to form a six-pointed ‘star.’ Then I cut a notch in the end of each stick and strung a length of carpet twine all around each one to form the framework.
This six-sided form was then covered with newspaper. About an inch of each side was folded over the twine and pasted down. Then a ‘bridle’ was made by attaching a short piece of twine to the end of each stick and bringing those to the center, where the main kite string was tied on. A tail was made of long strips of torn-up sheet.
Now I was ready to ‘fly.’ I went out into the south cow lot and strung out my 200 feet of twine, carefully laid down the kite and spit on my finger, like I had seen Bud do, ‘to test the wind.’
Then, I grabbed the string and took off running as fast as I could, but all that old kite would do was bounce along, knocking dried-up cow piles every which way.
Next, I went back to the far side of the pasture, by the Vanatta lane, and laid out my creation again. I took off about half the tail and again raced across the lot with my bare feet hitting every jimson weed and thistle in my path. My breath was coming in gasps, but the only thing that flew was more cow piles.
Maybe I was not running fast enough. Yeah, that’s it. I’ll go get Old Doll, and she’ll gallop fast enough for sure. I was never much of a runner anyway, and by now I was pooped. So I went to the barn, put a bridle on Old Doll and rode her bareback up to the lane, where I had again laid out my pride and joy.
I had to get off the horse to pick up the string and lead her to the fence, dragging that string along, so I could use the fencepost to help me get back on her. And wouldn’t you know it, Old Doll stepped on my string, pulling it out of my hand, so I had to get off and back on again.
This time, I was careful to follow along the string to its end and then, I gave Doll a kick in the flank. She took off like a scared Billy goat, and that kite came alive. It bounced into the air, soared to about 10 feet and just hung there. We reached the far end of the pasture and I swung Old Doll along the fence line, and still that kite hung in there. Soon, we were at the next corner. Old Doll followed it without being guided, and that kite followed us. I was so busy watching the kite fly I forgot to steer Old Doll around the next corner, and before I knew it, we were in the barn – and the kite had crashed.
Come Monday, when school opened, I had robbed my piggy bank and paid Bud a nickel to make me a kite that flew without ‘horse power’. FC
The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.