Earlier today, I was thinking about the summer my dad made us a kite. He had frequently told us that as a child, he and his buddies would make their own kites. They would run errands and do odd jobs for pennies until they had a nickel to invest in a roll of kite string. (A roll of kite string was a prized possession.) The wooden kite sticks were 2 cents apiece, and the body would be made from penny sheets of tissue paper. In effect, you could get the makings of a kite, string and all, for a dime. They saved packaging twine and scrounged bits of rags for kite tails. This was in the 1930’s during the Great Depression. Money was hard to come by and it could take weeks, or even months, to save up enough pennies to buy the materials to make a kite. Sometimes best friends would club together to buy the “fixin’s” and take turns flying it.
This one summer, when I was 9 and my brother was 5, he decided he was going to make us a star kite with hummers. (When he was growing up, having a star kite was a big deal, because it took three kite sticks to make one.) He stopped off after work on Friday evening and bought the materials, and that Saturday evening after supper, my brother and I gathered around the dinner table and watched him make the kite.
He folded the sheet of thin white paper in half and then in fourths to find the center. Then he spread it out and my brother and I held down the corners. With a piece of string tied to a pencil, he drew as large a circle (see diagram below) as would fit on the paper. He “eyeballed” where the sticks would go, and drew these lines (brown) in pencil with a yardstick. Once he had those lines in, he could draw the outside string lines (black). That enabled him to trim the circle into a hexagon with the scissors. Next, he drew the lines (green and then orange) that would help him form the points. He cut the blue areas in half along the orange lines to form the flaps that would become the points of the star. Remember, he laid all this out by eye using only a piece of string, a pencil and a yardstick. This was “kite lore” that the younger boys learned from the older boys.
With that done, he cut about a quarter-inch slit into the end of each stick with his pocket knife, and then lashed the sticks together. He strung kite string first along the green lines, one piece for the upward pointing triangle, and another for the downward pointing triangle, pushing the string down into the slit on the end of each stick to hold it taut. A third piece of string was strung from point to point around the circle (black lines), again pushing the string down into the notch at the end of each stick to hold it taut. These strings held the sticks in the proper position and gave the framework stability.
He positioned the framework over the paper, and folded the blue areas of the paper over the string (green) and glued them down onto the purple area with water-thinned white glue. (As a boy, he would have made paste out of flour and water.) That’s how the paper was held onto the kite, by folding it over the (green) strings and gluing it down.
The hummers were strips of butcher paper cut 12 inches x 1 inch, folded in half over the outer string (black) and glued together all along their length. There were three hummers spaced equally along each stretch of string between the points. You couldn’t use the paper the kite was made from because it was too thin. The wind would “flap” it to pieces for the same reason a flag begins to fray along the edge that’s parallel to the pole.
He poked a small hole through the paper at the point where the sticks crossed, threaded the string through it and attached it firmly to the sticks. Then three lengths of string were used to form a bridle, one piece of string attached to each of the points as shown in the diagram. The other ends were fastened to a point on the main string about two feet from the kite. The length of the bridle strings was adjusted to hold the kite at about a 40-45-degree angle to the main string so the wind would push it upward. We made a tail from five short strips of old sheet tied at evenly spaced intervals to a piece of thick string that was about 5 feet long. The tail was tied to the bottom point.
Finally it was Sunday. After we’d come home from church and had lunch and had gotten it cleared away, we all waked down to the park that was about two blocks up the street to fly our kite. Where I live is perfect kite country. Flat land, not all that many trees, but always plenty of wind.
My dad ran the kite up (– trotted a short distance, actually as we had a good 20 mph wind going). Up it went, higher and higher, the tail snaking out behind it. The hummers made a low thrumming similar to a bullroarer. The string was rolled on a length of old broomstick. My dad held the stick in his fist with the string going out between his middle and ring fingers. He could just relax his fingers and let the wind play out the string, or pull on the string with one hand and wind it back on the stick in his other hand by moving the stick in a circle. My brother and I took turns holding the kite. We had to hold the broomstick with both hands, the only way we could hold onto it against the pull of the wind. More than once my dad had to grab us to keep the kite from pulling us off our feet; the wind got gusty as the afternoon progressed. It was one of those clear, cloudless days, and the white star of the kite stood out against the blue of the sky.
What got me to thinking about this was the news that my dad’s boyhood best friend had died. His son called my dad last week to let him know. My dad had told us many tales of their exploits growing up. Of making pop guns out of elder branches to shoot chinaberries at each other. Of double dating and going to dances. They joined the Marines together, and fought in the Pacific during WWII. The war separated them, but spared them both. After the war, his friend met and married a woman in California, and raised a family there. My dad came back to Texas, to the city where they had grown up together. There, he met and married my mom. But they had stayed in touch over the years. My mom told me about his getting the phone call, and about how quiet he was the rest of the evening. I wonder if you can even buy kite sticks and string anymore.