Go Fly a Kite
The year was 1976 — or thereabouts. Dan’s Kite Fly was in its infancy, or at most its toddler years, and my father, an avid Dan reader and aspiring lookalike, had read about the Fly in the East Hampton Summer Sun. (This piece is non-fiction — that is, everything in it actually happened at some time or another, but my memory is hazy, so forgive me if my mind has conflated more than one edition of this fabulous annual event.)
Putting on his straw hat and brushing up his distinguished beard, Dad bundled the four of us into the old Plymouth Valiant — my mother, my twin sister and me — and set off for the great event, drawn by two of his principle passions: flying kites and the chance of getting stuff for free. The beach was swarming with kites and kite-flyers of every possible variety. Dad immediately achieved success in two of his goals — sampling the free rootbeer that had been promised in the article and shaking hands with his idol, Dan. I can’t remember whether it was the year the magician/clown was roaming the beach in his particolored pantaloons and rainbow wig or the time a serious-looking musician was playing baroque music on a real live harpsichord plopped right down in the sand for the occasion, but I do remember the chief competition.
Dad had his eyes on the prize — a specific prize, to be precise. He wasn’t in the running yet for Oldest Kite Flyer, and at eleven or so, we kids were unlikely candidates for the Youngest category. He hadn’t yet taken to producing his own home-made kites: his diamond-shaped airborne tributes to the “World’s Foremost Poultry Caricaturist” and the Last Pay Phone on the East End (inspired by Dan’s articles) were still before him — but tucked up in its matching carry-case, he had a Steiff Roloplan kite that dated back to 1950 and, despite its age, could be relied upon to go up in a reasonable breeze and remain aloft long enough for the judges to find us — if Dad, who was a shameless self-promoter with years of experience as a PR man, didn’t find them first.
We had spread out the ancient army blanket and were inspecting our dowels and swivels when down the dune came a man with an artificial leg — the simple old-fashioned kind. (The amazing high-tech prosthetics one sees today hadn’t been invented yet.) He was limping through the sand under his own steam, and he had several kites under his arm. This seemed surprising, so Dad stopped what he was doing to see how, or if, this unlikely figure was going to manage to get a kite up in the air. Fancy our surprise when the fellow propped a kite upright in the sand, whipped off the artificial limb, grasped his reel and went hopping away down the beach like a dynamo on a pogo stick, the kite rising easily into the stratosphere behind him.
Shaking our heads at this mindboggling display (flying a kite with two good legs had always seemed quite challenging enough to us), we settled down to the business of getting our own kites into the air. Mom’s bat-like purple box kite was only a little younger than the Roloplan and an even more reliable flyer, so up it went too, making a pretty color contrast to its yellow-and-red companion.
The Kite Fly is always a thrilling and rather hair-raising event from an air-traffic controller’s point of view. There is much jockeying for position on the sandy “runway,” so to speak, and ground collisions and an incredible tangle of strings are pretty much inevitable. Before we found ourselves a safe patch of the celestial dome for our venerable toys, we had inadvertently cut someone else’s line, and a brief flap ensued before the offended party retrieved his runaway and accepted our sincere apology and the loan of a stronger reel.
Dad was just flagging down a judge to explain the provenance of our “oldest kite” when the one-legged man reappeared, this time with an straightforward home-made model that was drawing a lot of attention, not just from the crowd but from the judge. We all listened in and were astonished, and rather daunted, to learn that his kite had been fashioned especially from a 100-year-old newspaper to vie for the oldest-kite prize! Its creator seemed somewhat doubtful as to whether the fragile paper would hold up against a stiff breeze but said he was keeping his fingers crossed, as he had always dreamed of winning a free dinner, and the prize awarded for this particular category was a gift certificate for a nice restaurant in Quogue. He figured he was a shoo-in.
All this might have shaken a lesser man’s resolve, but my father wasn’t about to give up without an effort: he had been deeply impressed by our rival’s intrepid hopping and figured the officials would feel the same way, but one leg or two, Dad was still determined to throw his hat in the ring. The newspaper kite hadn’t actually flown yet, and official entries had to prove that they were viable in the air. Pointing to the Roloplan up in the sky, he explained that it had been purchased by my mother at F.A.O. Schwarz as a gift of perfect love back in their misspent youth, when they summered in Kismet on Fire Island, and had survived a quarter-century or so of hard flying in the ocean breeze. The bear logo on its top section still had the hallmark Steiff button in its ear.
The one-legged man was quite an expert kite-flyer. The ancient paper held up, and we figured we didn’t have a chance. The judges huddled together, a difficult choice before them. After much agonizing deliberation, they arrived at a decision: much as they admired our challenger’s ingenuity, not to mention his unique flying prowess, his kite had only been a kite for some twenty-four hours, and our Roloplan was deemed the victor. My father beamed with pride. Furthermore, there turned out to be a dearth of nautical-themed kites that year, and the Roloplan, whose shape suggested a ship’s sails, was given a second prize to cap off a perfect day.
Our rival was gracious in defeat; he shook my father’s hand, hoped that we’d run into each other on the beach another day and wished us bon appetit in Quogue. My father drew us aside for a brief family powwow: after all, he said, we had won the free sailboarding lesson in the Nautical category, we could take pride in the elegant paper certificate that officially declared ours the Oldest Kite, and our rented cabin was in East Hampton, so Quogue was pretty far afield. We all saw the justice of his argument and unanimously nodded assent.
Envelope in hand, he tapped his rival on the shoulder. The one-legged man seemed tickled pink when Dad gave him the dinner.