"Go fly a kite," people used to say, meaning the same thing as "hogwash," a more complicated concept. But these days kite flying requires a realistic checkbook rather than a dreamer's illusions. Some years ago in Central Park a dreamer named Al Hartig test-flew a kite he designed himself called the "National Eagle," and reeling it in found a confused Audubon Society member in close pursuit, bent on saving a wounded bird. Now Hartig and his wife run a back-order business (called The Nantucket Kiteman 'n Lady) from a wharfside shop on the Massachusetts island. A rawboned man who wears a bowler and a flannel shirt, Hartig has moved from dreaming to business, and kept both his love of kite flying and his sense of humor.
That is a tall order in a field that used only to attract bored children on summer vacations. For instance, there is a store on New York's Third Avenue selling 288 varieties of kites and the American Kitefliers Association boasts 2,800 members.
In a sport dominated by the long-practiced Japanese and Indians, Hartig is the best of American kite designers and builders. His are not the flimsy paper and balsa Hi-Fliers sold in drug stores, nor are they, ugh, plastic. "The first kite I bought as a grown-up was plastic, and it just fell apart in the wind, like Earthquake, you know?" says Hartig. "So I thought I'd make one out of cloth." Now, 12 years later, Hartig has escaped Central Park for the steady winds of Nantucket. In his shop he stocks only three models, and all are based on the delta-wing shape. Made of cotton and polyester, dowels and drapery hooks, they have deep keels and resemble gigantic and colorful paper airplanes.
The "Ace," $7, is Hartig's basic kite. It has a wingspan of more than four feet and is flyable in even the slightest breeze. Hartig doesn't recommend it for kids under six. The "Valkyrie" is a $13 6-footer and isn't even to be used by preteens. "These kites are for grown-ups," says Hartig defensively. "We have to play, too." But the acme of the line is the "National Eagle" at $35. If that seems a lot for a kite, consider the plight of some recent and not-uncommon customers in Hartig's shop. "It cost the four of us $600 to fly here from New Jersey in a rented plane, plus lunch and taxis," one man said. "So these kites cost over $700," lamented another, brandishing a handful of rolled Valkyries. Aw, go fly a kite, fellas.