In just such weather, my favorite English teacher used to peer over her glasses and declaim in e. e. cummings’s whimsical tones and lowercase letters that “the world is mud-luscious” and “the little lame balloonman whistles far and wee.” I did in fact see the balloonman recently, though he was not exactly whistling, but rather clinging to the frame of a wildly bucking box kite. Truthfully, he wasn’t really little either, but the size of the kite must have made him feel so.
Fox Hill Bruderhof had been preparing for our Kite Festival for weeks. Young families, inventive singles, creative grandpas, practically everyone on our community had been designing, constructing, and “secretly” flight-testing their aeronautic wonders for this big day. Good luck to anyone searching for a spare scrap of Tyvek, dowels, or twine.
Ironically, we were fresh out of wind. It’s a quandary. Large-scale community events requiring preassembly also require a day firmly pinned down on a calendar. The chief element of this event was not so easily pinned. But why try to corner a commodity so lavish over our open meadows and bald hilltops that only its rare moments of absence are a cause for any comment? And there was comment – plenty of it, when the only movements of air to be felt on the highest knob of hilltop were the gusty sighs of grounded kite-meisters.
The judges threaded through the crowd, ready to tot up points for the highest flyer, biggest frame, most environmentally friendly, most inventively designed, or greatest flop. But all seemed to vie equally for the latter category, as none could make it off the ground without the aid of some assistive helium balloons. (A notable exception: the top contender for environmental friendliness, a milkweed seed-and-silk, attached to a long strand of human hair, which blithely ignored the burden of gravity all afternoon.)
Our family knows our limits, so we left the small and graceful category for others to fill, and went for big. Very big. Actually eight feet tall and eighteen feet across, counting the mainframe, glider panels, two wing-tip mini-box-kites, and some sweet end-triangles that my husband said were vertical stabilizers but I say were just for show.
One of our kids, I don’t know which, had discovered a white paint suit and envisioned it stuffed with balloons and hanging onto the base of the kite. Thus assembled, our balloonman looked rather mystical, even with a prosaically painted shirt and slacks. The pointy plastic hood gave him an elfin air (while helpfully holding his head in place) and the blank golden face registered no emotion, even during his harrowing flight.
How did he fly? We cheated the wind by commissioning an SUV and an accomplice to drive it. With my husband sitting in the open hatchback, twine wrapped several times around his gloved hands, the car took off at a roaring fifteen miles an hour. The kite blazed up into the sky, our intrepid airman billowing behind. After a dizzying lurch that had his feet skimming alarmingly near the grass, he rallied his craft and soared steadily at a height of 120 feet for the whole glorious length of the meadow.
We found out later that from a distance he caused a few heart palpitations, possibly because he was wearing the same color shirt as my husband, and possibly because upon launch, my son shrieked, “Let go! Let go while you still have time!” No doubt my husband felt like he was going to join the stunt at any moment, as he jounced along, hanging onto the furiously tugging line, ignoring the rope-burns through his leather gloves. The kids and I were way back at the launch site, but we could see him laughing wildly, communing with his alter ego through the connecting line.
In the end, Balloonman’s flight was cut short by the car, which abruptly ran out of runway. So he called it a day – or a minute – and drifted gently down, following the line of the distant mountains, to bring his craft in at such an easy angle that only one (sweet) end-triangle got bent. His own unceremonious belly-flop could therefore be overlooked.
When it came time to bestow awards, the judges contrived to find the perfect prize for all entrants. Unsurprisingly, our kite won first place in the Heaviest category (although even our ten-year-old can lift it with one hand). But considering that the lightest entry, the milkweed-seed kite, is probably still airborne somewhere over the Atlantic, I think Balloonman is satisfied. I’m pretty sure I can hear him whistling.
Watch Balloonman’s flight: