Leif Enger: Why I Carry a Kite With Me Everywhere
When You Need a Bit of Lift in Bad Times
It was late April and a tan Corvair convertible came up the gravel drive. Its top was down and it trailed blue smoke. A small bright bonfire appeared to be driving. The Corvair eased into the yard next to the chokecherry hedge. The bonfire climbed out and grinned in the sun. I started to laugh. Dave was a college friend of my sister Liz. For a while he came to visit all the time. I was sure he was mostly there to visit me.
Dave was the first hippie I knew well. I was too inexperienced to understand the full hippie scenario, but admired the bell-bottom pants, the easygoing attitude toward, for example, work, and especially the lexicon—Dave said man all the time, and cool, and best of all, with timing calibrated to annoy the previous generation, relax. He was pale and slight, with red hair that flamed in all directions when he drove with the top down.
He said, “I brought you something, man,” and reached into the car, then handed over a tube of loosely rolled plastic. It shook out to become a floppy triangular kite. It seemed flimsy and a little hopeless. A cartoon pterodactyl was printed on it.
My previous kite experience was with the heavy homebuilt diamonds Dad fashioned from scrap wood and butcher paper. I loved them, but they were intimidating, taller than me, requiring gales of wind into which, if you ran hard enough, the kite would rise at a low angle over the fields and woodlots of west-central Minnesota. They were a man’s project of overwhelming weight and power. Dad flew them on baling twine that flayed your palms in the gusts.
“Look, it wants to fly,” Dave said. The kite was awake and rippling in my hands. “See there? It can’t even wait.”
We snapped the single crosspiece into place and tied the string to its bridle. Launching required no running or indeed any effort at all—you held it up like an offering, and the breeze lifted it out of your fingers. The pterodactyl’s outstretched wings seemed to flap with pleasure. It soared and dipped. Its pull was slight but satisfying. It asked nothing of the flier except a willingness to be delighted.
Dave said he’d been “doing this a lot lately,” and I asked how come.
“It’s lift, man,” Dave replied. “It just seems like assistance.” He didn’t try to elaborate. Relaxed as he was, Dave seemed bedeviled at times. He was a user of substances recently gone clean. He admired my sister, model trucks, Jesus, ten-speed bicycles, and the mournful pop lullaby “Sweet Baby James.” He had a half-brother he adored who was in and out of trouble, and talked about old friends as though they’d all existed together in a previous dire universe he’d barely escaped. If his half-brother was in hot water, Dave would say: “He’s a good person, one of the best I ever knew, but he’s in deep Nixon at the moment.”“I was in fifth grade, a year of unmaskings and unpleasant revelations. For example, it transpired that I was no longer fast, or popular, or smart.”
The moment was 1972. We were all in deep Nixon, and it was going to get deeper. Not that I paid politics any attention. I was eleven. It didn’t occur to me to ask Dave about the state of his college deferment. Standing there with the string in my hands, all I could think of was the kite—a green darter 200 feet overhead, dancing and spinning, testing escape routes. I’d caught enough Lake Osakis panfish by then to know when something was alive on the end of a line. Like a bluegill or perch the kite responded to tugging with strong resistance and surprising shifts in direction. It trembled and thrashed. Also like a fish, the kite could be tricked into serenity; if it made a particularly determined run, its shoulder down, powering toward the ground, you had only to loosen your grip on the reel and give it 30 or 40 feet of line all at once—then the kite would pause, reconsider, turn upright and climb back to safety. By the time the wind died and we went inside for supper, I thought of myself as a flying prodigy.
The timing couldn’t have been better. I was in fifth grade, a year of unmaskings and unpleasant revelations. For example, it transpired that I was no longer fast, or popular, or smart. Math was not going to get easier. Around this time I was called to the blackboard to tackle a long-division problem well outside my ability to solve. The teacher allowed me to retreat without further humiliation, but I saw how she looked at me—saw her realize that I, the youngest in a family of reasonably clever siblings, was not clever in this way. Worse, because of those siblings I knew what was coming in subsequent years—I’d heard of algebra, of geometry, and whispers of something called calculus which was judged to be too difficult even for the instructors charged with teaching it.
If I tripped over long division, what future did I have?
I was in deep Nixon.
When Dave next visited we went flying again. I’d been practicing and shot the kite into the sky on a strengthening breeze. By now it was summer, normally a hot season, but clouds piled in and the wind turned harsh. Dave’s hair flattened and sprang around. The kite flogged screaming this way and that. To prevent it tearing itself apart I fed out ever more line. At 500 feet I reached the end of the string where it was knotted around the reel. The next strong gust bent the kite double. It clattered unbearably until the string suddenly broke. Far overhead the kite went quiet. It dipped and sailed forward, then found its balance and moved away in the direction of Manitoba.
I had a moment of panic and profound dejection before Dave said come on and we vaulted into the Corvair and chased the kite whooping. It wasn’t easy to keep in view—the pterodactyl kept switching directions, dipping behind grain silos or stands of trees. At last it settled down in a cornfield several miles away. I stumbled through the rows, fell to my knees, picked up the kite and examined its joints. Except for a slight rip along one spar, it was sound. I hugged it to my chest. The hook was set. To never be kiteless again might be the last unbroken resolution in my life.
Following this episode I fell ever harder for flight. When the ptero at last tore beyond repair, I embarked on a series of cheap deltas, the ubiquitous Galas available at dimestores and Holiday stations, including the popular Bat model, a black triangle with glowing orange eyes. These I flew and lost and replaced and ruined in a parade of innocence and minor tragedy until the fall of 1976.
In that bicentennial year the school library obtained a large-format volume called The Complete Book of Kites and Kite-Flying. The author, Will Yolen, was a New York publishing executive and the father of author Jane Yolen, but more importantly he seemed a kind of sprite, twinkling and unreliable, a man who might vanish or grant you three wishes. The book is equal parts wide-ranging kite history, tall-tale memoir and well-drawn designs for the kitchen-table Icarus. In snappy paragraphs Yolen recounts the Union Army’s decision to spy on Confederate forces by lifting observers hundreds of feet into the air under enormous kites (the observers saw plenty but made easy targets for gleeful southern sharpshooters). There’s a chapter on “dropniks”—kitefliers who hoist heavy objects aloft (typewriters, watermelons, political effigies) then trigger their tumbling, thrilling falls to earth.
Best for me was Yolen’s crisp account of his clash with the infamous Pablo Diablo, whose razor-studded kites ruled the sky over Central Park, terrifying children and cutting all competition out of the sky. None but elfen Will dared challenge Diablo, who descended sneering from his rooftop for single combat. The duel between Pablo’s fearsome kite, its string encrusted with glass shards, and Yolen’s featherweight wing that would fly on a rumor, confirmed for me what Dave had hinted at: that a kite could “assist.” It could be a kind of equalizer—you might not be athletic, or cool, or able to do long division in front of a squinting teacher, but all this mattered less if you could put a wing in the sky and keep it there, feel its flight in your fingertips, then bring it to hand like a falcon.
The Yolen book was so nourishing that for months I read nothing else. No pulp Westerns, no Tarzan paperbacks. Again and again I renewed the library loan—no one else was requesting the Yolen—poring finally and obsessively over the collection of schematics. These drawings had a technical, resolute look, yet were whimsical enough to promise whatever magic you needed at the time. My early builds were failures, but paper and glue were cheap. One bamboo fishing pole could be split into a dozen flexible spars. My pilot brother came home from Alaska and we constructed a French winged box kite that climbed to a point just above the horizon and stuck there steady as a bookshelf. Every kite had a different personality and taught its flier new things. An Indian fighting kite flitted like a dragonfly and could turn in its own length. A Chinese serpent, 20 feet of tissue paper, flew so easily it seemed like cheating. There was a rectangular Korean design I could never keep in the air—it finally broke free in a strong wind and vanished upward into a cloud, perfectly stable, as though I had been the problem all along.
In the fall of 2001 I was traveling in support of a book. The World Trade Center towers had only recently fallen, and airlines were in enough upheaval to justify going by car. This decision in turn allowed us to turn a long book tour into an epic family road trip. Our kids were young and game, so between the four of us we got a kite in the air at every stop. In 31 days we flew in 21 states, in parking lots and off hotel balconies, next to oil derricks and orange groves. It was fun, and also a way to forget daily pressures and ease the close quarters of car travel.
To this day I travel with a kite in my luggage, a connection to wind and rain and the long perspective in times of bottomless Nixon. Sometimes I put a camera on a gimbaled mount and shoot photos from three or four hundred feet up. It’s not reliable, like drone photography, but it’s quieter, adventurous, more dependent on luck than batteries. The resulting photos are humble, most of them fuzzy with motion, and the rare clear shots are usually bisected by the bellying white line of the string. Still, the best of these photos make you think of old stories.
A kite sees a lot of the world, which appears round, craggy, verdant, incredibly old, and luminously saturated like a watercolor. In some of these images you can follow the line of the string all the way down to the kiteflyer—a stick figure, a minor piece of alphabet, a lowercase L under the tilted apostrophe of a straw hat. Something about him looks a little desperate—yet hopeful too, in that vagabond posture, gauging the chances of rain. Deep greens and blues are the colors he’ll choose, and why not? Who on this planet doesn’t look hopeful, when peering up at the sky.