By Jesse Halsey c1932
Mrs. McGinty keeps a little candy and notion shop on a back street near the school. Her trade is not entirely confined to children for she also sells homemade crullers (or doughnuts, as she calls them) of her own manufacture. My friend, Hopkins, stopped in the other day. He waited while some children were served. Then Mrs. McGinty brought his package. “I believe the depression do be over,” she greeted him.
“How’s that?” inquired Hopkins. “Is your trade picking up?”
“Ah, no, nothin’ astonishin,’ but the children do be buyin’ ten-cent kites. Last year it was five cents they would be payin.’”
Hopkins told me this the other day, and since then I have been counting the kites. There were twenty yesterday, flying off the Grandin Road viaduct*, ten or a dozen from the Airport, and groups of three to six here and there along Eastern Avenue. Most of them looked like the store-bought variety, only here and there was one that was homemade (or boy-made).
In Eden Park last Saturday, I watched an old grandfather trying to adjust the “bellyband” and tail while an eight-year-old tyrant held the string and gave orders. They were having a strenuous time. Somehow it brought to mind a kite that stood seven feet tall, made by an old Indian who lived on the back street of our village, when I was a boy. In a strong wind even he couldn’t hold it and tied it to the rail-fence with his wife’s clothesline (and as many as he could borrow from the neighbors). It was from him I learned the art (or knack) of making a kite that would fly. The fancy designs were pictured and described in “The American Boy’s Handy Book,” but old Asarriah knew how to make them fly. My creations were always lifeless until he took a hand. “It all depends on the bellyband,” and he rolled the word deliciously. Outside of reading Holy Scripture that inelegant morsel was never allowed in the vocabulary of our Puritan household. Other boys could have that kind of an ache, but regardless of green apples, we were never allowed to describe it in those [exact?] terms. I used to think it might be partial compensation to just say it right out loud—“bellyache.” And on one occasion I did. My aunt and sisters were chagrined beyond measure and I got a switching afterwards, but it was worth it just to say what you felt and to have had the applause of one sympathetic listener in the person of the great Mrs. Beers, who lived in the summer colony and came to our house for milk. Her husband was the president of the mail order house, “Beers, Doebuck & Company,” and she had given me their catalogue—nearly as big as our Bible and much more interesting to my six-year-old intelligence.
She always laughed at my antics and when, one night I was rolling on the floor before the fireplace, she asked me what was the matter, it just slipped out. “Why, Mrs. Beers, I got the bellyache.” How she laughed; and how I smarted afterwards! I still maintain it was worth it.
But I was talking about the anatomy of a kite and not my own. It is a delicate art to make a kite that will hang in perfect balance and, as old Asorriah said, it all depends on the placing of the string that the boys used to call the “bellyband.” And, much to my delight, I find that the word is still used to designate the same part in the construction of kites for military and scientific purposes.
Kites come with spring. It is a sure sign, when the boys venture out on windy March days, that spring is not far behind. Marbles and tops have their place, too. But kites are more aspiring, and this year it is kites. Maybe Mrs. McGinty is right and the depression is gone. At any rate, we are glad that the youngsters have a dime to spend, though we wish that they had the impulse and the ability to make their own kites.
They came, I suppose, from China and Japan—birds and bats and dragons—and often covered with silk. Science appropriated them long ago and old Asorriah used to warn us against flying in a thunderstorm, telling us the story of Dr. Franklin. And Asorriah knew all about it. Said that Franklin’s kite frame was made of cedar and covered with silk and that it had a point like a lightening rod on top of it and that the end of the kite string, where Franklin held it, was covered with silk. He knew the date, June 1752, and that Franklin from it charged alyden-jar—whatever that was. Kites could fly, he said, twenty-five hundred feet high. That was half a mile, which was more than all the clotheslines of the neighborhood could measure; at least more than Asorriah could borrow.
With Asorriah in mind, the other day I went to the library and found that some kites had been flown seven and ten thousand feet and that on one occasion, seven were flown in tandem and, with five miles of wire, reached a vertical height of 14,000 feet. That would have been a big story for the old Indian; but here is one even better. Instruments were raised at the Weather Bureau at Mt. Weather, Virginia, in May 1920, to a height of 23,835 feet, when kites and eight and one-half miles of wire were used.
Kites are sometimes used to carry lines across streams or chasms for the construction of bridges, or to convey lifelines to stranded ships. In some sections they are extensively used to hold suspended in midair banners for advertising. Before the days of the airplane they were used for taking military and other aerial photographs.
I went into the Beers, Doebuck store. There were no kites in their catalogues in the old days. Yes, they had kites—several varieties. I balanced one delicately by the bellyband in memory of my old friend, the president’s wife.
Later in the day, I sharpened up my jack knife and whittled out two sticks; and then courage failed. Suppose I finished it and it wouldn’t fly, how my boys would laugh. I hid the sticks, got into the car and went down the hill back of the school to Mrs. McGinty’s shp and bought two ten-cent kites. May her prognostication be right—“the depression do be over.”
* "The GrandinRoad Viaduct, also known as the Grandin Road Bridge or the Delta Avenue Viaduct was built in 1905 and was the highest in the city at 150 feet over Delta Avenue. The viaduct once connected Grandin Road in Hyde Park to Grandin Road in Mt. Lookout. The wood and steel structure underwent many repairs in its lifetime and in 1975, it was torn down due to concerns over the safety and stability of the bridge."