I loved flying kites when I was little… The way they bobbed and swayed upon invisible, tumultuous waves. The way they could be seen by friends, near and far, both close friends and formerly unknown folks, and silently call a gathering that would add to the fleet of flying vessels across the town. My mother made me my first kite, and since then, summers were spent waking up at the crack of dawn just to be the first to take to the skies.
I loved imagining myself sitting atop the fabric and sticks… Ah, the things I’d see. Lands as far as the eye can see. I’d wave to the pharaoh as he pets and feeds the Sphinx. I’d blow kisses to a love in Paris as she looked for me from the struts of the Eiffel Tower. I’d toss a paper airplane that would tap Big Ben, causing him to chime out of annoyance. A boomerang would pass close by my head, whistling in my ear… It must have been thrown by that Aussie and his pet kangaroo. The visions of a child are much clearer and more vivid than the ones constructed by those of us who forsook our childhood for the bitter draught of adolescence and adulthood.
One day, my kite, the “Mary Flyer” (every child would understand, but for you logical sots, imagine “Mary” means the same thing as “merry”), was twisting and turning and tangling and diving so sporadically that I could hardly maintain an ounce of control before it spilled over onto the ground like my milkshake. In a sudden gale, I lost any sense of control, and it crashed into the beckoning boughs of a tree. “This would never happen if only I could sit on top and steer it,” I’d grumble as I went to tell my da.
The next day, we came back to the tragic scene, finding my beloved in such a state of disrepair, I wondered I could ever retrieve it. My pride got the best of me and I decided I required it be taken down one way or another, else my friends would see it and disgracefully throw pebbles at it, or worse, get it down themselves, repair it, and fly it. With no branch low enough to begin a climb nor bark to grasp, and considering it was old and leaning at quite an absurd angle, we figured it best to fell the giant before it toppled of its own volition, no doubt crushing someone and sending them home in a neck brace.
With a hearty crackle and rumbling boom, it struck the ground, sending a plume of pine needles and cones, dust, and grass high into the air. I swore it made a mushroom cloud, but my father refutes my claim with his own witness. I stand by my beliefs.
I delicately dislodged it with my nimble fingertips, careful not to tug or tear the poor treasure. “It’ll take a great deal of sewing and stitching, but she should be air-worthy before long, if you give me a chance to work at it patiently,” my father reassured me with a wink and pat on the back. A looked from my woefully tattered kite back to the sky it once ruled and realized – with one less tree in the air, there was now more airspace. I could dominate the extra room with spins and twists I had only imagined before that.
“Hey da, could we lop one more timber down to give me just a little more room?”
“I don’t see why not. One less tree won’t kill the world.”
So at that, I had what I considered another half-kingdom’s worth of sky more to admire and use as I see fit. My dad took the kite home and made quick work of the holes and tears, in part to get me back outside and resume his peace and quiet inside.
The days I spent after that were filled with frivolous stunts and stunning acrobatics. I was the envy of the town, now owning enough room to dazzle even my own imagination. That summer went by in a hurry, and after being consumed once again with homework and routines, my kite collected dust under my bed, eagerly awaiting another opportunity to soar high and swift for all to see. Autumn and winter were bitter cold that year, my fingers were surely too numb to grip the twine, so I let the kite rest and resolved to resume flights in spring.
About a month and a half into the new quarter at school, I was assigned a project in woodwork class, and I thought back to the old logs in the park. Surely they’d be dry enough by now for me to use, and extra credit for bringing in my own wood (since I’d be responsible for cutting into the likeness of a straight board) seemed too good of an opportunity to pass up. So da and I went out and sawed the two trees into workable sizes and began learning how to create straight boards. I did come across an issue with the large tree that leaned. Hardly resembling any sort of straightness, I decided to use it for the smaller, finer parts of the project. The other tree, however, would be perfect for building a reasonably large doghouse.
We brought the logs into the woodshop and began by running a horizontal saw across the straight pieces in order to refine them into boards. The first attempt resulted in a log that flew across the room (I hadn’t quite learned how to brace them for the impact from the blade. The blade was also rotating opposite of the direction I needed it to, causing the projectile motion.) The second log stayed in place well enough, but splintered badly because I rushed the wood through the blade. I did more of the same with the third and fourth logs, but found a good pace for the fifth piece of wood. The saw cut through like a cold knife in frozen butter, but it cut smooth, straight, and true. I rotated the log to begin cutting the next edge of the board. By the time I had passed the log through the fourth time, I realized another issue: I had not check the angle of each pass, resulting in a more trapezoidal cross-section – hardly workable for the siding of a doghouse.
It took me another ten logs to figure out how to properly square it, but I eventually made a straight board. At that point, I had three logs left, and if I could replicate it, that would make a total of four workable pieces of wood… Not quite enough to make a large doghouse. So I decided to shorten each of the pieces and make a small doghouse, but seven small boards (one was cut too short to use) would only make part of the frame.
I explained the ordeal to my father, so he took me out to cut down another couple of mighty trees. I had wasted a week and a half of class time perfecting the art of a straight board and the assignment was due in another week, so I rushed the next logs to the school and worked them into boards before the weekend started. With warmer weather setting in, I was determined to save the weekends for returning my kite to its home among the birds and clouds.
With the absence of another two trees, I was joined by a couple friends, and together, we spent every second of daylight tugging at our kites. The wind was also stronger with less branches and leaves to diffuse the zephyrs.
By the time the week resumed, I walked lazily to class and my head bobbed like my kite, trying to keep itself up amid slow-moving airs of lectern-led discussion, exhausted from the weekend’s activity.
Lethargically eager to continue the project in woodshop, I dragged my feet a little less down the hallway and turned into the shop. With a gasp and stifled sob, I ran to my boards and found that they had all dried and warped in the warmth of their corner. They still somewhat resembled boards, but they were hardly workable. Still, the deadline remained for Friday, so I did my best to fasten together the pieces that were slightly less deformed than the others, and set a few weights on top of the others. I waited until Wednesday to ensure as much flatness as possible, and when I uncovered them to finish my project, a few had split along the face of the wood, and the rest compensated by bending along the edge not being squished. That was that and I needed to assemble the structure in order to get whatever feeble points might remain after my teacher’s pity-laughter.
It stood roughly three feet tall (unless you count the corner made with a piece of extremely flexed wood, in which case it measured closer to three-foot-six), had more holes than a knitted Christmas sweater that was run through a rough wash cycle, and earned me every last bit of that C- (it would have been a D- if not for that extra credit). With some boards still refusing to be tamed, they pulled away from the frame, resembling more of a hollow pile of sticks than a doghouse.
Still, I passed my class, and at the onset of the summer, I began reinforcing and streamlining my kite in whatever ways I could to prepare for the following months of incessant flight. Just before school let out and when there was finally no need for even a light jacket, I was soaring as I normally did one Saturday afternoon when I heard a distant, curious buzzing sound. Fearing the worst (considering a bee sting was the worst trial I could endure, I’d say I’ve lived a good life), I reeled in my Mary Flyer and ran to my house across the street. Just as I slammed the front door behind me and turned to look out the front window at the swarm which I was sure was in hot pursuit, I noticed something dart across the sky, graceful as a bird yet fast as an arrow.
I ran back out the door and across to the park and found one of my friends watching the foreign flying object intently while holding something with a bunch of knobs that he continually twisted and tapped. “Whatcha doin, Tom?” I asked.
“Flying my new plane! Isn’t it just the coolest?”
I wanted to try flying that plane more than anything in the world, but trying to not seem too impressed, I replied, “It’s pretty neat, I guess.” We watched him fly it around for another ten minutes or so before he landed it (a pretty rough landing, if you ask me) and walked our separate ways. He told me he had to go home and charge it before he could keep flying. Ha! His weakness was my strength! I could fly every time he had to go charge his batteries, and the sky was mine again for another two hours, only stolen from me for fifteen minute intervals.
And so, after another couple weeks, summer was all systems go, and we took turns wooing each other with complex and mesmerizing flight paths until the day Tom took to the skies and wouldn’t get down. That day, he came to the park with an armful of fully-charged batteries that I swore lasted five or six hours.
“I need to get a plane!” I burst through the door one day as I threw my kite on the ground and addressed my dad sternly.
“What if we could do one better?”
“Nothing is better than a plane, da! Tom won’t let me fly even between batteries anymore! I NEED A PLANE.”
“What flies faster than a plane and requires less batteries?”
“Larger planes with bigger batteries?” I was not the most creative thinker when my sky was being traumatically compromised.
“How about a rocket?” and at that moment, he pulled a box containing a scale model of the Aries rocket out from behind the couch. “I saw you watching that darn plane with what I swore was a pang of disappointment in your eye when you looked back at your kite, and it broke my heart. This should floor that kid Tom, and ground his little machine.”
It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life. My eyes were as big as baseballs as I reached out to grab it. “We need to assemble it first,” he said as he kept it just out of reach, “but once we have it put together, all it takes is a couple handfuls of motors and an ignition button to operate, and that only needs a few double-A batteries. He can’t fly while you’re waiting for it to parachute down, then you slam a new motor in the bottom, insert the sparker, and you’re set to go again.”
We worked long into the wee hours of the night to build that thing, and when finished, it stood three and a half feet tall, and glistened from the custom chrome paint job. Tom would be green with envy, and I’d tell him to set his plane next to his spot over there by the tree.
The next day, I took a box full of motors and my rocket, complete with its own private launch pad, to the park, and set it up, eagerly awaiting Tom and al of our friends that usually came to watch his puny aircraft. As they approached, I started my countdown, “All clear! All clear! Ten… nine… eight…”
“What are you doing?” Tom asked, interrupting my count.
“Oh, this is my new rocket. I was just about to blast off.”
“But what about my plane?”
“I’m sorry but I haven’t tried my rocket yet but you’ve been flying your plane for awhile now, and I don’t want your plane accidentally running into it. You won’t mind if I play with this today, will you?”
“No, I guess not,” he said in disappointment, head hung low, scraping his heels as I made them all back up to the trees, warning that the explosion could probably vaporize them if they stood too close.
I spent the entire day performing immaculate launch after launch, each one as beautiful and thrilling as the last. They all went up with oo’s and aa’s from the crowd that had gathered.
The rest of the week was more of the same. In fact, the sky was mine again until the following Wednesday, when the unthinkable happened.
“Ten… nine… eight…” I always began my count with ten or higher, the anticipation making the launch all the more thrilling, and prolonging my dominance, “five, four, three, two…” The final number was always muffled and overwhelmed by the sparks flying from the bottom of the rocket as it soared starward-bound. But this time, instead of a steady fizzling woosh that would grow more distant as it obtained its apsis, there was simple a loud crackle, and scattered popping as it catastrophically failed, sending shards of burning solid rocket fuel in all directions, the launch pad cracked in half, and everyone ducked. I had left the box of extra motors, now half gone, by a tree about twenty feet behind me.
One of the burning shards struck the box and I ran to go put it out before it sparked an even larger flame. My proud father who was standing behind me on that fateful day grabbed my arm and pulled me as we, along with the rest of the crowd, ran for the hills. Someone called the fire department as we stood across the street and down a little ways and watched as motors started flying this way and that, straight up into the thick canopy of branches created by the mighty trees. The damage could not be reversed at this point. We stood hopeless as the entire box erupted in one large KABLAM, showering sparks and starting fires in almost every tree in the park. After about ten minutes, the fire department showed up and doused the flames, and I stood weeping and shaking as I gave my testimony to what happened.
The firefighters looked around at the black smoke still rising from some of the trees and said there’d likely be some sort of fine to pay for the damages. My father told me I’d have to find some small job watering plants at a nursery or bussing tables at a restaurant to pay him back for covering the cost.
The next day, a small, orange net-fence went up and surrounded the park with signs saying, “No Trespassing, Beware Of Falling Branches.” The damage from the fire had not quite taken its full effect on the massive giants, but over the next week I watched in horror as tree after tree was chopped down, in danger of falling as they dried out. All but one tree was left standing.
Every day, I went to the corner grocery store and bagged groceries for the old ladies who would hand me a dime or a piece of nasty hard candy, neither of which was very useful to me. About a week before the new school year started, my father told me I had made enough to pay him back, but I’m pretty sure he was lying because he stayed late at work every day too, dark circles forming under his eyes, but the same contagious smile he always wore never dimmed for a moment.
I was walking home from my last day of work for the summer when I looked up and saw they had built a permanent chain-link fence around the park with new signs that read, “No open flames or smoking allowed. Absolutely no rockets allowed. Be careful of the newly planted trees. Area preserved for reforestation.” There was a small break in the fence to allow people to still use the space, but the exceptions to activities was clear.
I got home and sat on the couch across the room from my dad, who was reading a book in the loveseat. He had finally arrived home at his regular hour. “Hey champ, how was work?” He asked with a smile.
“It was okay… Mrs. Stoeckle gave me another dime. I think I’ve made enough off her to pay for college now,” I said with a smirk.
“Oh you think so, eh?” He chuckled as his eyes went back to scanning the page.
After a few more minutes of silence and me staring at my socks, rubbing my toes together to make a faint squeaking noise, my dad looked at me and asked, “What’s eating you, bud?”
“All the trees in the park are gone and it’s all my fault. I should have never tried competing with Tom.”
“Yes and no, son. There is still one tree there. It was my favorite one, anyways. It annoyed me that the others blocked my view of it,” he said and he winked at me, “No one could have seen that coming. You don’t decide which motors work and which ones are duds. You can’t even tell by looking at them. You just put the rockets together and hope it all works out. But you didn’t need to prove yourself to Tom or any of the other kids or there parents. You don’t even need to prove yourself to me. You just need to do what makes you happy.”
“I was happy flying my kite,” I shed a tear as I looked over at it, still sitting in neglect in the corner of the room, the dust now in a visible layer on top of it like icing.
“I think it’s time to reinstate that old bird. Your mother would smile to see it again.”
He started to tear up, too, even with that same smile he always wore. “How are you always so happy, da? Why don’t you frown, even when thinking about ma?”
“Your mother knew what it meant to be happy, and she passed that on to me, champ,” he said as I walked over to sit on his lap. He held me close and said, “The day she went on that sailboat, just before she set off, she called me and told me what a great time she and her friends were having, fulfilling their dream of buying a boat together, of sailing the open sea for a couple days. I told her I missed her and she said she missed me too, but that she’d be home soon. She said she missed my smile. Of all the things I was to her, she missed my smile the most. She never imagined a storm would stop them, she never feared that it would sink. Probably why they didn’t take any life vests… She said she wanted me to have a good time with you while she was away.” He sat me up so I would face him, “And I’ll tell you what… I’m having a great time with you. And you have her smile, so I never really have to miss it. It makes me smile to see you smile. Hence the rocket. So, if it’ll make you feel better, you can blame the fire on your mother and me.”
“I could never blame it on ma. She only gave me a kite. You gave me a flyable fire.” I giggled as he tickled me. “I love you, da. You’re the best.”
“No, son. You mother was the best. She’ll always be Merry Mary to me.”
The next day, I woke up at the crack of dawn and ran out the door before the church bells started ringing to call everyone for morning service. I loosened a little twine and raised the kite, a little afraid the wind wouldn’t be strong enough to pull it into the air. With a sudden, magical gust, it was up and away before I could blink. The wind pulled it so tightly that you could almost play a tune on the string. It bobbed and swayed as it always had, spinning in circles and performing stunts I’m not entirely sure I was in control of.
After service let out, Tom came out and joined me, asking my permission to fly his plane. I told him he could, but warned that the wind was pretty strong that day. Putting caution to the wind, he took off and performed some amazing barrel rolls, loop-de-loops, and split-s maneuvers. During one of the stunts, the plane caught a gust and spun wildly out of control and flew straight into the tree, which had started growing a few leaves on its uppermost branches, most of them had been burned off, the trunk still a bit charred from the fire. He started walking home in a sad state, but I called out for him and told him to grab his kite and join me. I felt bad for him, but we had a much better time flying kites together than watching each other try to win over the whole of space. We left the plane in the tree and it never came down.
When he returned, I looked up into the sky… The mass stood like a giant, blue ocean suspended above our heads, the clouds racing in the distempered wind. “This is gonna be a wild ride,” I said as Tom and I looked at each other in amusement. The wind was now whipping our hair and batting our ears, “Three… two… one.”
And up they flew, soaring like eagles. I let my grip loosen on the spool of twine so the kite flew ever higher. When I had finally come to the very end of the string, I held on tight and tugged to make Mary Flyer do a quick loop. I had to squint a bit to see it; I’m not sure I had ever flown that high before. I imagined sitting on top and seeing the world.
And I smiled.