I’d always meant to spend a day at the Smithsonian Kite Festival, which is held each spring at the start of the Cherry Blossom Festival, and this year I finally managed to. We’d driven by the Mall in previous years when the festival was in progress, catching sight of dozens of kites fluttering in the breeze near the Washington Monument, but we never stopped, parking being what it is in Washington. This year, with the area next to the Washington Monument blocked off by immense, ugly, safety/construction barriers, the festival was held further up the Mall, near the Smithsonian museums.
My husband always stubbornly insists on driving to Washington, parking in Outer Mongolia (herein defined as somewhere beyond HUD), but he was out of town the day of the Kite Festival and so I sensibly took the Metro. The crowd getting off at the Smithsonian station spilled off the escalator and was immediately greeted by gusts of wind that sent loose hats careening down the long grassy expanse of the Mall. Kites are associated with windy days, of course, but this was a case of too much of a good thing. The stiff 20-30mph winds played havoc with many of the kites, plus the unseasonably cold weather had most folks dressed up as if they were going to, well, Outer Mongolia. I’m well-insulated by nature (ahem) and seldom feel the cold, but I found I had to thaw out with several ‘hot tea breaks’ during the day at the nearby Pavilion Café.
But despite the cold and the wind, the festival was still a success. There’s something wonderfully poignant and hopeful about kites. Spirits rise with as the kites ascend, then swoop and dip… and sometimes crash, of course. Most of the people who were on the Mall for the festival had store-bought kites and were strictly in the amateur class, but there were two large roped-off demonstration fields in which the competitors flew ingeniously engineered and elaborately decorated kites, many demonstrating "hot tricks" kite stunts.
One kite caught my eye even before it was airborne. Two men were laying out its immense tail – meters long – and wrestling with the enormous kite itself. It came as little surprise to me when this entry later won the National Air & Space Museum’s aerodynamics award.
Actually, it was a little hard to tell exactly which events for the competition were going on at any one time. The wind caused problems for amateurs and pros alike, and the Smithsonian staff seemed to be struggling to impart order to the proceedings. Somehow I managed to miss the "costumed" portion of the competition, (must’ve been during a tea break), a fact I regretted when I later saw the winners, the "Holmes Family Pirates," accept their award uttering convincing "ARRRGGH"s.
It came as something of a surprise to me how seriously... no, wait, that’s the wrong word... how wholeheartedly people threw themselves into flying kites. There are no fewer than three kite societies in the greater Washington area (perhaps more), and they were all amply represented, not to mention people from all over the country who had come to participate, such as members of the "Ohio Society for the Elevation of Kites."
And never let it be said that kite-flying is a gentle sport – that is, certainly not when battling rokkaku kites are in the sky. The day ended with a battle royale among these traditional six-sided Japanese kites. The kite handlers employ the most cut-throat of flying techniques, seeking to ‘ground’ opposing kites with a variety of impressive maneuvers. When a rokakku’s line was severed, it plummeted earthward in an impressive arc. Amazingly, the rokkaku seemed to sustain little damage from the impact and were soon back in the air.
Despite the cold weather and buffeting winds, scores of families, many with young children, turned out. The kids were suitably bundled up, some looking like fat little penguins as they ran at a waddle holding kites up to the wind. Along one side of the demonstration field, a bubble machine sent cascades of enormous iridescent bubbles racing on the wind, and this proved a huge hit with young and old alike. No one came anywhere near the bubble machine without breaking into a silly grin or doing a bobbing "catch that bubble!" shuffle with complete strangers.
They should set up a bubble machine on the floors of the House and Senate whenever things get particularly rancorous in Congress, I think. Or maybe just let the Republicans and Democrats duke it out with rokkaku.