It seems life has been on cruise control for me for several years. I’m certainly not bored, but there have been some fairly subtle indicators that age is catching up with me. In reviewing a list of columns over the past year or so, I realized that many of them were reflections of earlier times in my life. Several readers have made the same observation from some of these reminiscences … that time is moving on.
With what has seemed like an endless string of windy afternoons lately, I was reminded of an incident that thrilled that 9- year-old lad in 1943. During World War II, it was necessary for me to attend a boarding school in Arkansas. Dad had gone back into the Navy at the age of 49; Mom worked nights as a nurse and slept during the day. There was no one home to take care of me, so off I went to Arkansas. I was terribly homesick and longed for the day I would return home. But there were some experiences that are filed in my collection of favorite things.
Mr. Willis taught math and was the shop teacher. I would imagine that he was in his early 30s, tall and slim. He had a Jimmy Stewart look to him. After school one day, he approached me and asked if things were OK. “You seem a little down, Johnny …do you have a problem?” I explained that I was homesick and wished I could go home.
“Well, I have a project we are going to work on in the shop class tomorrow. I think it will be a lot of fun,” he said, smiling broadly. It was spring time in the Ozarks and we had many windy days, like we have been having in Cambria recently. “We are going to build a big kite. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
And big it was. As I recall, it was around 8-feet tall, nearly 7-feet wide and had a tail that must have been 100 feet long. We used heavy wrapping paper to cover the frame made out of sticks of 2-by 3-inch pine. Mr. Willis had obtained heavy twine for the string and used a garden hose reel to hold several hundred feet of tether.
A dozen students carried the cumbersome creation to a nearby field; a brisk breeze danced in the 2-foot high spring grass as we made ready to launch our huge kite. Mr. Willis laid out 200 feet of twine and arranged the tail so it wouldn’t snag on anything as the kite lifted into the cloud-bedecked blue sky. “When the other boys let go of the kite, you run along with the tail, Johnny, and release it when I say to. OK?” The boys struggled to maintain control of the darn thing. “OK, boys … let ’er go!”
I ran as fast as I could to keep up with the ascending craft. But I stumbled in the tall grass and fell down. I instinctively held on to the tail — even as it lifted me into the air. Before I knew it, I was 8 or 10 feet above ground. “Let go, Johnny … let go!” Mr. Willis yelled. I dropped into the grass as the teacher raced to my side to make sure I wasn’t injured. With no one holding the string, the kite made a couple of dives and came to earth.
We eventually got the thing into the sky, tethered to nearly 1,000 feet of twine. My buddies and I lay in the grass and fantasized about building an even bigger kite— one that was large enough to ride on and to reach the clouds.
As I write these words I can recall the sound of the wind in the tall grass … and our dream of flying high in the sky. I have trouble keeping score during tennis now, but it is no problem remembering the kite ride from 67 years ago.