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Original Issue


Washington, D.C. this particular season seemed as suitable a venue for a kite festival as Gomorrah for a tea dance, but man and kites and balmy days being what they are, the Smithsonian Institution's seventh annual Kite Carnival came off, nonetheless, as unpolitical as anything that's happened in the capital since 1908, when Gabby Street caught the 14th baseball thrown to him from the top of the Washington Monument.

On the broad lawn at the foot of the monument, just across the Ellipse from the White House, 176 kite fanciers gathered on a spring morning to engage in informal competition and to talk with kindred spirits about Jalbert parafoils, 16-cell tetrahedrons and the lack of wind. There was a gentle breeze, two or three knots at best, enough for light flat kites or Indian fighters but not nearly enough to lift a showstopping tetrahedron. So the big guns held back hoping for the wind to pick up, and the early judging was devoted mostly to kids and neophytes, like the woman whose entry was a lavender-and-apple-green nylon extravaganza, long on dressmaking but woefully short on aerodynamic principle.

Flying higher and steadier than any other was Fred Klein's tricolor flat kite with 30-foot paper streamers fluttering behind. It's four feet across, made of two spruce-wood sticks and madras tissue," said Klein. "Very light for its size. If anything flies today this one will." As ticket sales manager for United Airlines, Klein travels a good deal, and when he does he takes along a collapsible Brazilian bird kite. He once flew it from Cook's monument in Tahiti and says it "really knocked their eyes out."

There must be as many reasons for flying kites as there are kite flyers, and certainly the satisfaction that comes from knocking out Tahitians' eyes is as good as any. A sculptor from Virginia Commonwealth University, Charles Henry specializes in assemblages of machine parts that move and make noise. But there is obviously a corner of his soul that cries for a more lyrical medium because his kite was a graceful white bird with 18-foot wings made of parachute nylon and fiber-glass rods that flexed and spread, seeming to breathe as it rose. David Fales sells geodesic dome kits for a Long Island company and one day found himself with a bunch of leftover spoke-shaped hubs, meant to form the joints of a dome, and decided to make something with them. The result was his 6-foot-high, 16-cell tetrahedral kite that weighed only three pounds and sparkled like a diamond when the sunlight caught its silver mylar panels. The original designer, said Fales, was Alexander Graham Bell, "But one of his kites had 3,400 cells, was 40 feet across and carried a man to 168 feet."

At 1:05 the wind fell momentarily to a whisper, and kite after kite streaked from side to side as if trying to shake off a tether and then dived headlong to the ground in disgust. A 110-foot bronze mylar dragon, which had been streaming nicely back and forth past the monument, suddenly sailed into the tangled branches of a tree, drawn surely by evil spirits. However, Andrea Bahadur, proprietress of the dragon and New York's Go Fly A Kite Store, gave her line a few expert jigs and the kite slithered out of the tree and into a heap on the grass. Others, especially the paper kites, did not hold up so well, and the kite hospital—a picnic table staffed by a 14-year-old boy with his arm in a sling—was kept busy dispensing tape and sympathy.

By two o'clock the wind had proved so unpredictable that contestants were being allowed to create their own by running the length of the judging area, letting out line, a practice frowned on in more formal competitions. The judges made what they could out of categories like takeoff and climb, and let angle and stability go by the boards.

At a microphone on a tiny stand stood Paul Garber, the 73-year-old historian emeritus of the National Air and Space Museum, where the Spirit of St. Louis flies eternally among the rafters. In 1918 Garber was one of those young lunatics who joined the brand-new Postal Aviation Service, and his head has been in the clouds ever since. An old-fashioned patriot who thinks there's nothing wrong with America that flying a kite won't cure, Garber cajoles the carnival into being each year almost singlehandedly. All day long he provided tidbits of aeronautical lore, praised, advised, joked ("Don't get excited. Remember, a spurt is a drip under pressure"), relocated displaced parents ("There's a lost child over here who thinks his name is Benjamin. He's not sure his name is Benjamin but he is sure he's lost") and, finally, handed out the trophies.

The trophy situation grew a little ticklish when it became clear that a family of five named Brown had accumulated enough points to walk off with almost every prize in sight. But just as the last presentation was ending there arose behind the speaker's stand a gigantic red, white and blue striped barrage kite, a sort of double box kite shaped like a WW I biplane. At first, it seemed to be flying under its own power. Then several young men, wearing dark suits, white shirts and ties, appeared from behind the stand, running hard and trailing the wondrous contraption behind them. Seven Annapolis midshipmen, led by Neal Guernsey, an aero-engineering major from Detroit, had built the kite to enter in the carnival but had stumbled over Naval Academy red tape when they tried to get authorization to leave Annapolis. "It was an unofficial project," said Guernsey, "and besides our ride didn't show up on time." Arriving at the monument grounds too late to enter their creation and without enough wind to get it up, the middies put on a good show anyway. As long as their legs held out the kite flew, not high but steadily. The reward, better than a trophy, was a bunch of awestruck Cub Scouts. It really knocked their eyes out.