Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

May 29, 2004 At the kite festival.

On the beach at the end of the Wildwood boardwalk was a kite festival, a big important event in the stunt kite world, one of the biggest of the year. I’d heard of these festivals, but never happened upon one, so I was in luck. I climbed onto the bleachers next to the judges’ tent and struck up a conversation. Whup! I had just fallen into another subculture, the kite fliers. Donna and John were from the Washington area. Kite doctors, they told me – they fix the kites at the annual Smithsonian kite festival, held at the base of the Washington monument every fall. Donna regaled me with tales about the people competing, the judges, the party they’d had the night before at the hotel where most of them are staying, the categories of competition, who’s the best, who’s been around longest, which kite clubs go to which competitions. She admitted to being an unabashed name dropper, trying to impress me with her connections in the kiting world, waving to all the regulars who passed by. But she laughed in agreement when I pointed out that I had never heard of any of these folks, so how could I be impressed?

These weren’t young people. Most were my age or older, lots of stout grey-haired men flying in the competitions. Mostly white, except for one team, “Smitty and the girls,” flying a kite ballet to music. Donna pointed out one athletic middle-aged woman who apparently is one of the best. How is this? Do young people shy away from organized activity? Is it only older folks, whose children have grown and gone, who have the leisure to get into these subcultures? I didn’t see any children around, except in the tent selling kites to vacationers who had walked past on the boardwalk and decided they wanted to try it themselves. The folks staffing the official tents weren’t young either. They reminded me of some of the women in the kayak community; middle aged, divorced or never married, looking to enjoy the paddling, but even more looking for community, and perhaps for like-minded single men. They find what they are looking for, a place where they can fit in and enjoy themselves and have a crowd to hang with. I’m probably a bit like that too, always exploring the subcultures of the things I do as well as the activities themselves.

The kite competition itself lacked the soaring grace of flying a kite for fun. It’s a lot like figure skating – set figures to be done precisely, the angles just so, the turns sharp and clear. Kite ballet, judged on choreography and choice of music as well as skill in performance. The team ballet has more complex choreography, the kites dancing around each other in loops and swirls designed to suit the music. Unless, of course, the wind doesn’t comply. That’s the uncontrollable unknown in kite competition. If a figure skater falls she has no one to blame but herself. But if the wind falls the kite flyers can’t do anything about it, and their whole program can be lost in a puff of air.

Smitty and the girls – an older man and two middle-aged women from north Jersey – got through their performance fine. The next team, though, wasn’t so lucky. The wind dropped, picked up, and dropped again, and so did their kites. I guess that’s part of the game, but it does seem a bit unfair, to lose when you might be just as good as the next ones. I never found out who won, though. Donna explained that the judges’ decisions would be announced at the banquet at the end of the festival, and of course I wasn’t there.

Along with the competition, the kite clubs brought their biggest, splashiest single-line kites to send into the air over the beach and wow the passers-by. Tall colored banners lined the boardwalk and the beach, flapping madly in the wind. Two vast black puffer-fish with colorful spots, 20 feet high and 40 or 50 long, hovered a few feet over the beach all day long. Giant octopus kites, red, yellow and black, floated and swooped high above the sand. Dozens of smaller kites buzzed among them, box kites, dragon kites, tiny kites with very long tails, kites in rainbow colors, and one silvery white one that fluttered in the breeze like smoke. And around the edges of the competition everyone was flying their own kites, single lines, double lines, four lines, simple paper kites, fancy fabric kites, flowered ones and striped ones and checked ones. It was a riot of kites, in the best sense of the word.

Continue to the next entry.

Return home.

Unless otherwise indicated all text and photos on this site ©Joy E. Hecht.