John Carlson: Got The World On a String…

Can happiness be found floating on the breezes? Photo by: story blocksCan happiness be found floating on the breezes? Photo by: story blocks

By: John Carlson—

These days, I keep thinking I could use a kite.

That’s because kites are such happy creations, a fact which has been reinforced in my life on repeated occasions, starting with Mr. Heffernan.

Back in the 1950s, he was the neighbor across our backyard fence, the father of my friend Donny, and had a magical way with kites. He’d scribble a question on a slip of paper, like “Who is the greatest TV cowboy? Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy or the Lone Ranger?” Tying the note to the string just below a kite, he’d send it skyward. Then he’d reel it back, revealing the answer written on the other side of the note to the mystified kids gaping around him.

“None of them,” the kite gods would have proclaimed. “It’s the Cisco Kid.”

In doing this, Mr. Heffernan – who’d surreptitiously written the answer on the back of the note before sending it up, of course, kept us boys mesmerized for years. As a matter of clarification, just let me note that as far as I know, none of us went on to join Mensa, the high IQ society.

Sometimes it sent us scurrying up to The Corner Store with our pocket change to buy a kite, though.

You don’t see that many kids flying kites anymore. Back then, there’d often be a few dancing on the breezes above the overgrown, thistly field just west of our neighborhood. It was a place rife with prickly bramble, bogs and snakes, but absent the power lines we were warned could toast a careless young kite-flier in his Red Ball Jets.

But to continue…

Years later in the newspaper business, I became friends with Doug Toney. He was a fine guy of his own accord, but his true claim to fame was this: His grandfather was Ansel Toney, the famed Kite Man of Farmland. Ansel was a celebrity, having been introduced to a national audience by no less a figure than Charles Kuralt, first host of CBS News’ “On the Road” segments. Those segments, featuring interesting Americans he encountered in his travels, were wildly popular, and Ansel melded with the best of them.

A mostly retiredfarmer, fully eighty-nine years old when interviewed, the old man designed and built his graceful, sturdy birds by hand. Their fabric coverings were stitched on a sewing machine Ansel’s wife had bought following their wedding in 1910. These colorful creations brightened the skies above the flatlands surrounding his hometown east of Muncie.

As I recall, he even had one giant kite that could lift a full-grown man off the ground! How high? Trying to find out would have been a really dumb idea.

Ansel’s kites being the envy of any kite aficionado, they were coveted objects, so I counted myself fortunate the time I got the chance to fly one.

Which brings to mind another kite experience …

This happened out at Reese Airport, where I would sometimes rent myself an airplane to buzz about the clouds for an hour. A pleasant, low-key flying facility, it had been founded years before by brothers Lew and Tom Reese. Climbing from my car there one day, I spotted Tom standing in grass, flying what could only be an Ansel Toney-original, floating at the end of what looked like one-third mile of taut twine. As I hustled over, Tom could see how much I admired it.

“Want to fly it?” he asked.

“Heck, yes!” I exclaimed with childlike innocence, and was handed the substantial wooden kite reel Ansel had also made.

“Just bring it back to the office when you’re done,” Tom said.

For ten whole minutes, I thrilled to the substantial tug of that kite as it danced in the sky. About then, though, my arm was starting to feel the strain, so I began laboriously cranking her in. Fifteen minutes later, that kite looked about nine inches closer. Switching hands on the reel, I cranked some more, and then cranked some more, then some more, casually glancing over my shoulder every now and then to see if Tom happened to have stepped from the office.

No, as it turned out, Tom hadn’t.

The long and the short of it was, I ended up cranking that sucker for what felt like the rest of the afternoon before finally bringing it to heel. With all feeling long since drained from my wimpy newspaperman’s arms, I finally stumbled with the kite into the office and collapsed onto a chair.

“What do you think?” Tom asked.

“I’ll never forget it,” I moaned, wiping sweat from my forehead.

Tom just grinned. Guess he was tickled I’d brought his kite back in one piece.

And a final story …

My earlier fascination aside, with the exception of flying an occasional kite with my kids or my kite-loving brother-in-law, Bobby, I pretty much forgot about kites for the next thirty-five years. Then one day, I was sent out to the Academy of Model Aeronautics to write about a national gathering of kite enthusiasts. Being a guy who preferred his flying machines with engines, I wasn’t too excited about it.

But arriving, I encountered a level of kite magic that even Mr. Heffernan couldn’t have imagined. On this sunny day, the sky above the windswept AMA was filled with all manner of whirling, dodging, fluttering kites, from traditional ones to spider-shaped creations a hundred feet long. They hovered over packed fields of kiting enthusiasts, launching every conceivable sort and color of kite, all while sprightly music wafted from speakers.

It was like walking into a living Salvador Dali painting.

Perhaps most entertaining of all were the husky, bearded guys wearing granny dresses. Navigating their way around the grounds racing steerable carts, they were pulled along at considerable speed by wind power, harnessed by the large kites to which they were attached. In driving them, these guys’ happiness seemed unbounded.

By the time I had to go back and write my story, I didn’t want to leave.

Imagine that these days, being in a situation so beautiful and so happy, you don’t want it to change. This, to reiterate, is why I think I need a kite, and maybe why we ALL need kites.


John’s weekly columns are sponsored by Beasley & Gilkison, Muncie’s trusted attorneys for over 120 years.

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A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.  John’s columns appear on every Friday.