Us and downs -- the adventures of a kite-flyer

THERE are skills of childhood that some of us never quite acquire. These little inadequacies constitute no big deal in later life as the adult goes on to master the skills of grown-ups -- whatever they are. Balancing a checkbook. Using chopsticks. Speaking in public. That sort of thing. But one's childhood failures are sharply felt at the time, and still chafe years later, like a tiny pebble in the toe of the shoe. Some children never learn to swim. Some children never learn to blow huge pink spheres of bubble gum that grow and grow, and then go splat. Some children never learn to fly a kite.

This is a kind of group confession for all adults who can never forget those awful moments in the park, just about this time of year, when they ran their little legs off while their demon of a kite bumped along behind them -- bouncing from one grass clump to another, executing an occasional promising leap, but forever remaining grounded, like the gasping child who towed it.

Alas, there are no rehearsal halls for kite-flyers where you can practice in private, keeping your disasters a secret, as you might in the case of bubble gum. As you scraped your kite to an ignominious stop, birds and squirrels for miles around bore witness to what happened, or rather, did not happen -- to say nothing of other children.

The other children seemed to learn nothing from your proof that kites are not meant to fly -- as conclusive as anything the Wright brothers ever did on their worst day. Eager to make fools of themselves, the other children took a kite exactly like yours -- maybe they even borrowed yours -- and ran across the field, exactly where you ran, and. . . . Oh boy! Up, up, and away!

There's something as lyrical as a spring sonnet about a kite taking off. It flutters like a nestling on its first flight. The tail gives a little wiggle of triumph as it leaves the ground. With sudden sidewise dartings and fluent curves upward, the kite ascends. The receding patch of color waves as gallantly as a flag, staking out a patch of sky in the name of the person paying out the line.

Those of us whose kites earned only grass stains had to wonder why. Was there some simply mechanical explanation for our failure? Did we allow our kite too much string, or maybe too little?

Or was kite-flying an act of faith, like floating in water? The swimmer who doubted floating expelled air and sank. Perhaps the kiter who doubted kiting gave a discouraged little tug just as everything was about to soar, and back to earth it came.

What a destiny to be grounded! -- your kite and you. For when a kite flies, the person on the other end of the string flies, too, sharing in that saucy, dipping little dance on air.

Last week at the park, on a perfect day for kiting, a neighbor held his grandson's kite in hand. The birds watched. The squirrels watched. Other children with kites watched. The grandson did not watch. Turning his back on his grandfather, he gave his undivided attention to two Little Leaguers playing catch. No matter. Kite-flying, in the end, is a solo event.

The grandfather ran slowly, cautiously, like an old plane from World War II lumbering down the runway. The kite flipped. The kite flopped. The kite skidded along the ground. Then the unbelievable -- the always-unbelievable -- happened again. Up, up, and away.

As the gray-haired kite-flyer looked up, the birds and squirrels and other bystanders could see the face of a child -- vindicated at last. A Wednesday and Friday column

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