I spent a good many summers in my misspent youth on the Jersey Shore. And when a cold wicked wind blows in from the West and the winter months seem endless, I often think of those days. In the early 1970s, amenities were few and far between. The tiny bungalows that lined the sandy streets of Ocean Beach had no air-conditioning. Cable TV did not exist. Tin foil embellished the rabbit ear antennas on the undersized TVs in a desperate attempt to get a broadcast signal from New York City. Most of the time you were flat out of luck on that score. So there wasn’t much to do once the beach closed for the day. But if you had a kite to fly, you were still in business.
After the lifeguards blew the last whistle and called it quits for the day, the beach emptied out. As soon as dinner was finished, the teens and twenty-somethings returned to the sand to enjoy the last gasp of daylight. Footballs and Frisbees filled the air. Dads dragged young kids out to witness the magic of kite flying.
Kite construction had changed over the years. Traditional diamond shaped kites with long tails were rapidly being replaced by updated designs. The new kid on the block was called the Easy Flier. Constructed of flexible plastic, this bat shaped wonder was a piece of cake to get airborne. It required no tail and could stand up to the stiff wind coming off the ocean. I had just bought myself one the day before. I couldn’t wait for the maiden voyage.
Funny thing about kite flying. It really isn’t that interesting. Sure, watching your store bought superstructure defy gravity and ascend into the heavens is great fun. But sooner or later you come to the end of the string. Then you’re pretty much done.
And bored. Holding a stick tied to several hundred feet of string while staring at a speck of plastic in the sky doesn’t keep a teenage brain interested for very long. I looked around and realized that I was very much alone. My buddies had lost interest in watching me let out the string. They were nowhere to be seen.
Sure, I could have just reeled the kite back to earth. That was an arduous task. Rolling up the string by twisting and twisting the stick had no appeal to me. I mean , I had just gotten the damn thing up in the sky. I should be able to sit back and enjoy this incredible achievement.
That’s when the idea hit me. I didn’t have to hold the stick. I could let Mother Earth do the work. All I had to do was bury the stick deep in the sand. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? It was just too simple.
So, that’ s what I did. Digging with one hand wasn’t easy, but the sand was soft. Soon I had a deep hole for my efforts. I wedged the stick in and covered it up. I positioned myself over the filled-in hole with both hands around the string. If the stick started to move, I was ready. Ever so gently I released the string and held my breath.
Nothing happened. I didn’t move for a full minute before I straightened up. I glanced up at the kite and back to the string emerging from the sand. Back and forth. Back and forth. Finally, I smiled.
Success! Now, I could give my fuII attention to the Easy Flier floating overhead. I put my hands in my pockets and looked down to the water hoping to spot my buddies. I wanted to wave them over, show off and gloat. After all, that’s what geniuses do.
Then the wind picked up and the stick exploded out of the sand.
The flying stick smacked me on the side of my head before it fell back to earth and made a beeline for the ocean. I set off in a dead run to catch it and save my kite.
I was young, slim and reasonably fast, but the wind waits for no one. The stick danced happily over the sand mocking my pursuit. I glanced up and saw my kite dropping like a dying guII out of the sky. Miraculously, there was no one in my way. It was just me, the stick and the sand.
I could hear the sound of waves growing louder. I knew if I could just get my hands on that damn stick, I could pull the kite out of its death roll. I stole another glance upward. The kite was faIling, diving toward the horizon and a watery grave. This was it. It was now or never.
I leapt, stretching my body to fuII length and…and…didn’t even come close. Instead of saving my kite, I ended up with a mouthful of grit. The stick dashed across the wet sand and into the pounding surf.
I refused to give up and I waded into the sea in search of the runaway stick. The sun was setting and the light was dying. Then, before aII hope was gone, I saw it. The stick was floating, teeter-tottering on the surface, a couple of yards from me.I pushed through the water and snatched it up.
Something was wrong. The string was missing. I bent over to get a close look at my prize. Yes, it was a stick, but it wasn’t my stick. Just driftwood.
That’s when I heard the roar. I looked up and saw a hungry wave come out of the darkness. It swallowed me, bounced me along the seabed and spit me out on to the cold, hard, unforgiving sand.
I washed up at the feet of my three buddies.
I can still hear their laughter.
What are friends for?