A Boy and His Kite
by Charles C. Cole
Five-year old Neal Mastrobattista stood on the edge of a rolling meadow of tall grass waving especially to him, behind his grandparents’ beach house. With his hand over his brow, he admired the wide blue sky, while listening to his Skye terrier, Lulu, happily barking in the distance.
As Neal squinted to block the bright sun overhead, he noticed a large yellow diamond flying lazily, suspended above the field: a kite. Neal had never seen a real kite, only in drawings by his older sister, Mimi, and those of her classmates.
When it came to drawing skies, Mimi was in the kite stage: every drawing included a kite, as if it were a requirement. Neal wasn’t at that stage yet, but he would be soon, because they were only 15 months apart in age.
A premature attempt had, according to his father, turned out to be “a very handsome tadpole.” Neal had to accomplish the smiling-sun stage first, the third stage of sky drawing. His latest sun looked “anxious,” his mother had said.
The stages as Neal knew them were:
- The wobbly sky egg, for early pre-schoolers;
- The porcupine sun, with rays that resembled the legs of a flattened spider or laser beams;
- The benevolent overseer: a smiling sun, with or without laser beams;
- The smiling sun with kite; and
- The industrial stage: a faceless sun with a powerful jet zooming past.
Neal was not fond of the last stage. He’d seen examples in the hall, along his way to lunch, outside the second-grade classrooms. The sun no longer smiled in this stage, and the carefree kite was replaced with a wedge-shaped jet trailed by half a page of swirling smoke, smudging an otherwise perfect sky. No wonder the sun no longer smiled.
His sister never drew people. She said Neal couldn’t see the flyers because they were lying flat on the ground, looking up at the sky. Neal thought the truth was that maybe she didn’t want to ruin her beautiful picture with its soaring kite by adding top-heavy stick people with large bubble heads. People were harder to draw because they didn’t fit into simple shapes like circles (the sun), diamonds (kites) or triangles (jets).
With his eyes, Neal followed the taut kite string to the ground. He wanted to meet the fortunate kite flyer. He wondered how this flying was done. The grass was even taller in the middle of the meadow, dense like a cornfield in autumn. As he approached over the top of a small hill, Neal could just see a green blanket below, tucked in among the amber waves. Two adults — a man and a woman — tanned in their bathing suits, close together and giggling, the kite tied to the man’s foot.
Lulu barked nearer, having followed Neal. Neal didn’t wish to share the couple with Lulu and retreated, leading the dog back to the house.
Later, about the time Mimi had moved on to drawing jets, Neal finally entered the kite stage. Where Mimi had drawn kites with stripes or polka dots, Neal chose plain, familiar yellow. While Mimi had declined to draw people, Neal always — but without explanation, as if it were a secret — included the foot of the man in the field and, of course, a toe to tie the kite string to.
His parents and art teacher thought Neal was quite clever for inserting what they assumed was a lower case “n,” his first initial, directly into the context of the picture, like it was his brand, his “mark.”
As Neal reluctantly enter the jet stage, he refused to add smoke, and he continued to add the flyer’s foot and toe, though without attaching a string of any sort. His concerned parents considered that, maybe, he was not progressing at a traditional pace. They analyzed his pictures with the principal and the guidance counselor.
The counselor focused a good deal on the lower case “n” and cautiously suggested Neal had suppressed feelings of inferiority. “If only he would draw an upper case N,” she mused aloud.
Neal’s father felt sympathy for his worried wife and compassion for his unassuming son. On his own, he decided to comfort the boy with a real kite, even though the boy had formally moved on to jets.
To everyone’s surprise, Neal’s father took the family on a picnic, revealing a completely assembled kite from the trunk of the car. It was made of thick, crackly plastic, like the kind Neal saw in the exposed walls of his unfinished basement. It was blue with a mostly-white Pegasus, the flying horse of legend.
Neal fell instantly in love with the kite. His father, after reminding him how breakable it was, taught him how to launch a kite by running, how to catch and use the gentle breeze, how to fly a kite with shoes on, so he could run and cheer and be chased by Lulu. After that formative day, Neal left behind his “n” for good, replaced with a standing stick-figure boy, flying a kite and waving at the jet.
One day, Chief Harlan Hammond visited to talk about school safety. As Chief Hammond stood taking questions after his brief prepared speech, he noticed Neal’s latest drawing suspended from the ceiling by clear filament.
Chief Hammond, an amateur pilot, was inspired. He explained about foreign object debris (FOD) that can damage airplanes and cost millions of dollars. FOD was an object that did not belong near airplanes, such as a kite near a runway. “In fact, a kite over the Taixian Airport in Liaoning Province, China once led to its closing for four hours.”
Soon after the visit, Neal surrendered. He drew his first picture with smoke. The jet had crashed because of the kite. Neal filled the page with a preponderance of black fumes.
The counselor noticed. “He’s finally coming around,” she said, sighing with relief. “They all do eventually. You just have to encourage them.”
Copyright © 2017 by Charles C. Cole