A KID with a boom box blaring reggae zooms past, reeling in his wayward kite. Two small children crane their necks to catch sight of their psychedelic-colored kite flapping high overhead. A family of redheads takes turns guiding their kite, shaped like a stingray, through the network of strings dangling from the sky. Each fall, with the gust of cool autumnal winds, hundreds of people head for parks, golf courses, or beaches, with kite tails trailing behind them. And lately, according to kite enthusiasts, there's been a resurgence of interest in the airborne toys.
Kite flying has no racial, social, or generational barriers. It captures white kids, black kids, college students, retired folks, inner-city and suburban families.
``It's a chance to meet new people,'' says John Wood, who with his wife, Mary, owns six kites and participates in the Kites Over New England club.
``Kites are a magnet. You're standing out in the middle of a field and people are drawn to you. You make new friends.'' Mr. Wood flies a huge parafoil kite, designed to resemble an American flag.
Parafoils - their design credited to aeronautics engineer Domina Jalbert in the 1940s - are kites created for minimum weight and maximum lift. They have been used to lift jeeps and other heavy equipment, and their shape has been adapted for use in certain kinds of parachutes.
The love affair with kites is thought to have started in China more than 2,000 years ago. It spread from there throughout the Orient, and much later to the West. Kites were used in ancient cultures as tools for prophesying, for military operations, for sport, and for celebrations of birth and happiness.
Kites took on more significance when Western scientists began using them to study clouds and other atmospheric conditions - and of course, when Benjamin Franklin conducted his famous 1752 experiment in a thunderstorm. The Wright brothers and others used kites in their initial experiments with changes in the positioning of lifting surfaces, which led to the development of airplanes.
But for many people today, kite-flying is simply an exhilarating hobby.
For others, it's a link to childhood. Wood and his wife have another extracurricular activity - they fly twin-engine planes. But they got back into kites as an activity they could share with their two daughters, aged 5 and 8.
``It is a princely sport in India and China,'' says Abdul Barman, who flew kites while growing up in India. ``You have competition for days, especially during the summer vacation for schools. During the afternoon and evening you would find literally hundreds of thousands of kites [flying] from the rooftops.''
Mr. Barman brings a competitive edge to the activity. He uses a special type of string he makes out of ground glass. The slightest contact with it would sever other kite strings. In Asia, where kite competition is keen, ``glazed'' string is made from powdered glass or porcelain bonded with egg white. In kite fights, the goal is to circle an opponent's kite, cut it loose from its owner, and ``capture'' or bring it down.
The kind of kites mostly used for these tactical maneuvers are single-line fighters. Stunt kites, like the Rainbow Stunter, can be had for $25 in most kite stores, according to Hank Manseau, president of Kites Over New England, who lives in Concord, Mass.
Mr. Manseau explains that the best kites for beginners are the Peter Powell, made in England and costing between $25 and $30, and the Dynakite, ranging in price from $13 to $15. These kites are generally tough and durable, made of fiberglass, with polyethylene sails.
How does a person learn to fly a stunt kite?
``Trial and error,'' says Manseau. ``But it's a joy to watch when it's done right.''
The New England kiting club is the regional branch of the American Kitefliers Association. Manseau estimates that the association has ``a couple thousand'' members nationwide. It publishes a bimonthly journal called Kiting.
Readers interested in locating the nearest kite club, in subscribing to Kiting, or in finding out more about the hobby may write American Kitefliers Association, 3839 Dustin Rd., Burtonsville, MD 20866.