Cautionary Tales

When I was around ten or eleven years old kite flying was all the rage.  There were all sorts of kites to be built: box, triangles, trapezoids, and even a circular one.  In a given month I probably built as many as five or six of them in varying shapes and/or sizes.

Several of my buddies and I were huddled in our clubhouse (a dirt-floored area under my back porch) poring over plans in a magazine for several kites.  Since there were six of us and five plans naturally we split among ourselves on which one to build.  We never agreed at that meeting which one to try but over a period of a week or so we generally agreed that a box kite would be our next project.

We started gathering materials for the kite – several clumps of tissue paper (ultimately destined for Christmas presents), some bamboo sticks (my dad never did find out what happened to his fly rod), various bits of twine, and a small pot of glue.

On the day we started, Bob noticed that the instructions for the glue stated that it needed to be heated.  After thinking a bit, we came up with our Boy Scout stove which was fired with small pellets of fuel.  We dragged it out, fired it up, and set the pot of glue on the small burner while we turned to cutting out the panels of tissue paper we would need.

As industrious as we were, not one of us noticed that the pot needed to actually be opened before putting it on the stove.  The pot solved that problem by promptly popping the lid (which stuck to the rafters overhead), bubbling out half of the glue all over our pre-cut tissue paper, and generally spraying each one of us with hot glue.

“HOOP! That burns” was pretty much the only printable shout that ensued as we prepared to scrape hardened glue from our arms.  “Come on, Paul, your mom was going to give you a haircut soon anyway wasn’t she?” ran a close second.

Carefully, we managed to remove most of the glue from our fingers after finding out that picking up tissue paper with glue on your hands really doesn’t work well.

Starting virtually over again, we re-cut tissue panels and set them aside so we could work on the struts and risers of the actual box.  The phrase ‘measure twice and cut once’ now comes to mind, but none of us had ever heard that back then as we managed to turn it around to ‘cut many times and don’t bother to measure’.  Finally, we had four long sticks and four shorter cross-members ready.

Gluing the paper to the long portion of the kite proved pretty frustrating as we had no idea that you were supposed to lay three sticks down flat, glue the paper to them (top and bottom panels) and then bring the edges together at top and bottom to glue to the fourth stick.  Several trials later (and a small raiding party to obtain more tissue) we finally had the four side members glued to paper.

It was time now to put in the cross-braces.  These are supposed to be inserted in a “X” shape running from one corner to the diagonal corner so with infinite care we tried our very best to notch the ends of the braces to they wouldn’t slip off the sticks.  Note to all kite makers:  bamboo does NOT split well and will continue to split when a crack is started longitudinally.  In short, we needed something other than bamboo for the cross-braces.

With a hoot of divine inspiration Donny took off home and returned with the tattered remains of his last kite and handed us its balsawood stiffening members to use.  They worked well and we even had several pieces left over for the inevitable crash we would have later on.

Finally the time came to test our creation.  We adjourned to the street and sat the kite on its haunches, attached the cord to it, and ran out about thirty or forty yards of twine from the big ball of twine we used.  Luckily, the wind was rushing by us at a fairly good clip and appeared to be steady right down the road.  With a watcher at each end of the block (for cars) the swiftest one among us began running down the road and into the wind.

The kite rose majestically to a height of around fifteen feet, swerved from side to side, and nosed over towards the ground.  Sensing something was amiss; Bob slowed, and then stopped – puffing hard.

We reset the attachment point a little and tried again.  This time it soared higher and higher until it reached the same height as the trees around us then took on a mind of its own as it reached into the actual jet stream above the trees, quickly putting on a burst of altitude.  Rapidly stripping twine from the ball, Bob attempted to keep up with the climbing kite until … the bitter end of the twine slipped from the stick at the center of the ball and floated away.  This caused the kite to lose any stability it ever had and made it decide to flutter crazily downwind.

Whether by design (the kite’s that is) or just luck (we’ll never know) the trailing twine snagged an upper branch of the tallest tree down the block and halted our runaway kite.

“Well, poop.  What’re we gonna do now?” Alex asked, watching the tree hold our creation.

“Maybe we could climb up and snag the string?” I volunteered.

“Not me!”

“Not me.”

“Not me.”

“Not me.”

And that’s were we left it.  As far as I can tell, the kite came down sometime in the night because the tree was bare the next day.  We never found it.

Since my dad was a Meteorologist at the base he had access to all kinds of really neat stuff for kids.  One of the best things he ever brought home was a selection of weather balloons.  Some of them were fairly small, around eighteen inches across, but the prize in the collection was huge.

This balloon was meant to loft a collection of Radiosonde electronics which weighed around a pound and a half so it had to be pretty large.  I stared at that balloon for days wondering what I could to with it until – now, let’s not always see the same hands – Yes, you there bouncing up and down in your seat.

“You could fill it with water and really drown someone.”

“I think that’s a splendid idea young man,” I thought.

As I saw it, there were some inherent problems in implementing that sort of insidious prank, mainly (and in no particular order) support while filling, actual filling, launching, and, finally, delivery.  While, technically, launching and delivery would be the same thing I thought them to be two separate items.

Grubbing behind the hardware store one afternoon I spied a very sturdy box which originally held a washing machine.  Dashing home to get my brother’s wagon, I went back, loaded the box onto it, and brought it home.  After cutting the sides down a little I found that the balloon would fit nicely inside the box.  And now, what to do about launch.

I remembered my dad had some nice long boards down in the basement so I managed to locate a board around ten feet long and about twelve inches across which would do nicely.  A short piece of firewood provided the necessary fulcrum for the board so I placed everything right next to our front porch which sat about ten feet high over our front yard.

Attaching the hose proved a bit difficult until I found that I could wrap loops of twine around the hose which I stuck into the neck of the balloon.  Filling it took a bit of time because I had to readjust the balloon’s position with the box for maximum fill.  Finally, it was full so I tied the neck tightly on the quivering balloon in a box.

I had no idea how I was going to test this because anyone who walked up to the front door would see it so  I decided to wait until it got dark and see if anyone would come to visit.  I was not fussy, even one of my friends would surely see the humor in it.

Finally, after sitting for what seemed like hours on the narrow steel railing of my front porch, I spied one of my buddies pedaling up the street and called to him.

“What?” he asked, searching for me in the gloom.

“Over here by the porch” I replied.

As he dropped his bike and entered the yard I prepared to leap off the porch and onto the empty end of my catapult.  Closer, closer, and closer he came.

Finally, I judged he was close enough and lept.

On my way down I heard the front screen door open and my dad’s voice tell me it was time for dinner.  What I didn’t know was that when I hit the end of the board that the box (suitably fixed to the board to it would stay attached) launched the balloon fully into the air – and directly towards the front door.

“BOOSH!”

“WHAT THE HELL TO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?” roared my dad, soaked to the bone by at least twenty gallons of water – and hit by a very wet, sloppy, piece of rubber.

My buddy collapsed to the ground, roaring with laughter; I was struck dumb with horror; and my dad had departed to grab The Paddle.

I don’t remember him ever bringing home any more balloons.

One of the programs on the fledgling medium of television was a rather good program called Zorro.  We kids thought he was really cool dressed all in black, riding a black horse, slashing “Z” into all manner of items, and, most of all, cracking his whip at the bad Alcalde’s troops.

At one time or another each of us would run around with fake swords and mock fight each other.  None of us had ever tried to make a whip though – except me, that is.

I started with some really nice hemp rope and untwisted several strands to make it a bit more pliable. To this I attached two jump rope handles glued together.  All in all it ran to around twelve feet or so in length.

On my very first try, I snapped my hand back over my head (just managing to miss catching the end of the whip on my nose) and brought it forward over my shoulder with great force.

The rope curled around behind me, popped loudly as it zoomed past my head (but hit it anyway) and straightened out directly in front of me.  Not stopping there however it curled back around and struck me in the groin region – hard.

I still have a small scar on my ear from that whip but at least I don’t talk in a high voice. Don’t ever try to emulate Zorro.

T.O.M.

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