SAN DIEGO — 'I like it when you can make nature work for you--sailing, hang gliding or flying a kite.'
Some men go deep-sea fishing for marlin off Mexico. Some grab their rifles and hunt for caribou in Canada. Others play football in Mission Valley or build skyscrapers in downtown San Diego.
And some men fly kites on the jetty at Seaport Village. But no wimps here; as kite flyers go, these are real men.
Men who intentionally fly their kites into trees, "park" them and then fly them out of the limbs, free and unscathed. Charlie Brown, eat your heart out.
Men who intentionally plummet their shark-like kites into the drink, then pull them back out into the sky, wet but flyable, to the applause of tourists aboard the harbor excursion boats.
Men who intentionally entwine their lines with one another, yet maintain individual control of their kite and then separate the lines to fly free again, or who coordinate their stunt tricks in an exercise called "team flying."
Men who fly a train of 50--or 100--kites attached to one another; men who wear gloves so they don't get string burn; men who lean over almost parallel to the ground against the tug and pull of their kites and wear soccer shoes for good traction; men who spend hundreds--and thousands--of dollars on their toys and talk about kite manufacturers with the same respect and awe that teen-agers talk about surfboards and sports cars and fashions.
Backyard kite flying was never like this.
"It's good to hear the oohs and aahs from the people watching when you do something spectacular," said Bob Carr, 44, a Navy machinist who finds nothing wimpy about this pastime.
Carr isn't allowed to fly his kites on ship deck because they interfere with the radar, so he joins the likes of Bill Pressler, 40, a security officer at General Dynamics, and Dan Plummer, 26, a postal carrier, on weekends and whenever else they can get away to fly their plastic sheets at Seaport Village.
On a breezy day, a dozen or more kite flyers carefully space themselves out on the sidewalk and grass of the jetty extending out from the shops, and fill the sky with all colors--and shapes and sizes--of stunt kites that are maneuvered with two strings, whizzing overhead like hyperkinetic artworks.
If it is a crowded day, they display etiquette by taking turns sharing the airspace, giving each flier his time of glory, and comparing notes while standing by and talking about the latest in designs and nosing around in one another's equipment bags.
These stunt kites have dual string controls at the end of their 150-foot lines, giving the fliers incredible control in darting the kites one way and another. They have kite fights. They perform precision ballet maneuvers, choreographed to music. They can attain speeds of 100 m.p.h. in a 30-m.p.h. wind. They make figure-eights and perfect squares. They spook the birds and amaze the tourists.
There is even a slow lane, for people like Bill Johnson who just like to run their 10- and 16-foot wingspan, delta-shaped kites into the air 500 feet or so, then sit back and enjoy the aesthetics of their colorful toys parked virtually motionless in the bright blue sky.
Spinners Make Kites Stand Out
Johnson decorated one of his kites with three dizzying spinners on the trailing edge, a little gimcrackery that makes his kite stand out all the more. As kids walk by, he invites them to pull on the string and they do, gleefully, marveling at the tension on the line.
Johnson spent 20 years as a bureau chief for Time and Life magazines in the United States and abroad, and later was a journalism professor at the University of Southern California. He and his wife, Liz, retired to San Diego, where they live in a downtown condominium, and Johnson now can be found almost daily at Seaport Village with his two custom kites, built for him by a local kite manufacturer.
"I like it when you can make nature work for you--sailing, hang gliding or flying a kite. And I just like these damn things. I liked to fly kites as a kid and could never walk by a kite store without stopping," said Johnson, who is 77.
"My wife seems reasonably content with this arrangement," Johnson said of his hobby. "My kites keep me busy and out of her hair."
Johnson bought his kites from Jerry Sinotte, a one-time charter boat skipper off Key West, Fla., who spent years as a drummer for Las Vegas house bands before deciding to change his life style--markedly.
"I was realizing I was becoming an old man in music. I grew up with '50s and '60s music and I didn't want to be known around Vegas as the old man," said the 52-year-old Sinotte. "I had always liked flying kites as a kid and when I bought one a few years ago, I decided I could have built the same thing a little bit nicer."
So Sinotte purchased the rights from another San Diego kite builder, Don Tabor, to build Tabor's "Avenger" stunt kites, and has designed his own kite as well for commercial sale.