Al Fernandez loosens the line of his red and blue kite and watches as the wind sweeps the nylon triangle into the morning sky along the coast of Long Beach, Wash. (pop. 1,283). "It’s just play," says Fernandez, 67, his smile as bright as his rainbow-striped suspenders.
With coils of kite string looped around his neck and shoulders, Fernandez yanks on the line and the kite lurches forward, settling on the wind 150 feet overhead. The Orting, Wash. (pop. 3,760), resident anchors the line to a rod in the sand and stares skyward. Even after 15 years, he’s still fascinated by the simple pleasure.
Fernandez became a kite-flying fan two decades ago when he wandered into a shop selling the colorful creations. The retired electrician had flown homemade contraptions a couple of times as a child, but he was intrigued by the vibrant colors and capabilities of the modern-day kites. So, he and his wife purchased a couple of kites, and they’ve been flying them ever since.
The Fernandezes aren’t alone. Each year millions of people, of all ages and backgrounds, chase the wind to parks, pastures, beaches, business parks and other open patches of land across America to fly kites just for the fun of it.
This month, kite enthusiasts will gather at festivals in Grinnell, Iowa (pop. 9,105), St. George, Utah (pop. 49,663), San Andreas, Calif. (pop. 2,615), and nearly a thousand other kite festivals across the country for National Kite Month. But kite flying doesn’t end in April.
Kite flying fans flock to Madison, Wis., in the winter to catch the breeze on frozen Lake Mendota. In March, kites glide above the memorials in Washington, D.C., during the Smithsonian Kite Festival, and they soar in the shadow of the Empire State Building during the New York Kite Festival in August. Thousands of kite events are hosted nationwide each year.
The biggest in North America is the weeklong Washington State International Kite Festival in Long Beach where more than 75,000 people maneuver kites or simply marvel at the colorful spectacle in the sky each August. With a 28-mile-long beach subject to almost incessant winds, the coastal community is a kite-fliers paradise.
"This is ideal flying," says Carveth Kramer, 60, who travels to the Washington festival each year from Taos, N.M. (pop. 4,700), with bags of hand-made banners and kites. "There is an even wind here all the time."
Fascination with flying
Kiting is a mix of fascination and fun that lures people to launch their colorful creations skyward, says David Gomberg, president of the 4,500-member American Kitefliers Association. Gomberg, 51, who has been flying kites since he was a kid, says flying kites keeps him young. He has written books about kite flying and now owns a kite supply store in Neotsu, Ore., with his wife, Susan.
"It’s just fun and kite flying brings back those youthful childhood memories," he says.
Nostalgia propels a lot of people to grab hold of the kite string as adults, says Bunnie Twidwell. She bought her first kite, a diamond-shaped model with a cloth tail, for 59 cents at the age of 7.
"A kite is a connection to heaven," Twidwell says, "and it feeds our fascination for flying. There is something within the human being make-up that wants to commune with the wind."
Twidwell and her husband, Dorsey, organize the nation’s oldest kiting event, the 78-year-old Zilker Park Kite Festival, held in Austin, Texas, each March.
"Kites are a perfect blend of art and science," Twidwell says. "A lot of people are intimidated at first, but once they find out they can fly a kite, there is a thrill that you cannot describe."
Kite flying wasn’t always about fun, says Kay Buesing, 70, co-founder and curator of the only kite museum in the Northern Hemisphere, the World Kite Museum and Hall of Fame in Long Beach, Wash. The first kites were more pragmatic pieces, tools for science and art, that were probably first flown in Asia, Buesing says.
The earliest reference to kites was found in a piece of Vietnamese poetry written around 3000 B.C. Kite lore declares that the first kite was flown in China about 3,000 years ago when a farmer tied a string to his concave hat to keep it from blowing away, Gomberg says.
In the Western world, kites were first used to study atmospheric and weather conditions. Ben Franklin used a kite to channel lightening. Italian Guglielmo Marconi relied on a kite to lift radio antennas into the air in the development of the world’s first radio signaling system, and aviators Orville and Wilbur Wright created kites to test wing design before they boarded their experimental airplanes.
"Kite flying is a part of American culture," Gomberg says. "From Ben Franklin to Charlie Brown, everybody has memories of flying a kite, and people will always come back to that."
These days, kites are as different as the people who fly them. Designs resemble everything from crawling caterpillars and soaring eagles to grey kittens floating in the breeze. The Gombergs fly a 30-foot wide gecko that is nearly 100-feet long and squirms in the sky.
Some kiters are content to watch the colors zigzag in the wind. Others take a more active role and maneuver their two-stringed kites through various formations often choreographed to music in kite flying competitions that Gomberg likens to ice skating in the sky.
Kite fighting, in which kite fliers attempt to "tag" their opponents’ kite in mid-air, is popular at some festivals. And kites also are used to pull more adventurous types over land and water in the sport of kitesurfing.
Creative kite lovers find an artistic outlet in their creations. They use bold fabrics and elaborate designs to turn kites into abstract art pieces or detailed images that decorate the sky, though they would look just as beautiful hanging on a gallery wall.
"Kiting is the great common denominator," says Mel Hickman, 53, a kite flyer from Walla Walla, Wash. (pop. 29,686). "It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, the wind blows or it doesn’t blow, that’s the great equalizer."
Kites appeal to people everywhere, Buesing says, and the camaraderie among kite enthusiasts around the world is among the hobby’s biggest benefits. "Kites are a way for different cultures to understand each other and to look at each other in a positive way instead of focusing on our differences."
As a child, Buesing chased her father in a Wisconsin cow pasture as he tried to get their kite airborne. Twenty-five years ago she bought a kite for her husband, Jim, in a local hardware store as a toy for him to play with. "It was kind of a joke, really," Buesing says. But after the kite’s first flight, the couple was enchanted.
Kiting captivates Twidwell, too. "When the kite is up there and you are holding the string and you stop and just let the wind do it, there is a certain amount of magic. It’s just a magical thing."
And the magic works on everybody.
"The biggest thing," says Gomberg with a chuckle, "is that you’ve got to remember to give the kids a turn."
For more information on kiting and kite festivals, log on to www.aka.kite.org.