Boomers Go Fly A Kite

This year’s relatively mild winter belies the winters of boomer days when, by this time, we would have been desperately awaiting spring. Most of the snow would have melted, but the ground and trees were brown, and the sky was grey. A sharp wind was blowing, shaking our reality as the dot of sun beckoned us to play, while its rays struggled to warm our frozen landscape.

One of the first outdoor activities the neighborhood would engage in at this time of year was kite flying. The blustery winds of a Midwest March were perfect for launching our paper and wood flying machines, even if the bite of the cold numbed our fingers in the process. Boy or girl, regardless of age, could participate in the activity. For boomers, kite flying was another in a series of outdoor activities that required very little cost or training.

The neighborhood store readily sold kite kits for ten cents. Another ten cents would buy a ball of kite string, and you were in business. We could easily raise the money the same day we decided to “go fly a kite” by picking up a few discarded pop bottles (it was ALWAYS called “pop,” not “soda”). We’d quickly race back to our houses to rinse any accumulated dirt from our finds by using the faucet on the outside of the house. Glass bottles still wet, we’d rush back to the corner store. At two-cents apiece, it never seemed to take that long to accumulate the cash. All we’d have to do was follow the path that teenagers took on their walk home from our high school.

In the store, a cardboard box with the top third cut off sat alongside a glass display case that held a tempting assortment of candy bars, neatly arranged row by row. On this day, the money in hand wasn’t for sweet treats. Mister Boomer would browse through the selection of kites, looking for a color to “speak” to him. The paper kites were wrapped around wood strips and slipped into long, clear plastic bags. On the glass counter was a cardboard display of string balls. Kite selection and string ball in hand, the transaction was completed, and off we’d go to the nearest kid’s house that had a garage. It was easier to assemble our kites out of the wind, and we stayed a tad warmer in the process.

The kite itself was easy to assemble: Two wooden strips were joined by a piece of metal bent around them like a staple. All that was required was to turn the shorter strip perpendicular to the longer to form a cross shape. Each end of the strips had a slit notched into it. Unfurling the triangular-shaped paper kite, it was ready to attach to the strip by way of pre-placed pieces of string that conveniently slipped into the notches on the pliable, thin wood strips.

At this point, the kite took shape, but wasn’t flight-worthy yet. Down the central spine of the paper face were two dots that indicated the place to pierce the paper. Using a pencil tip we would do just that, then open our ball of string and slip the end through one of the holes. On the backside, the string was knotted. Flipping back to the front, the string was let out to give it a little slack between the two holes. A scissors cut later, the other end could be threaded through the hole and tied off like the previous end. This central string was the main line to which we could we could tie our ground-based string.

Flipping the kite over, we could see the paper was not as taut as we preferred. Mister B can’t say if this was a neighborhood or regional thing, or if it was the proper way to make a kite, but we’d tie off string on one horizontal end of the wooden strip and stretch it across to the other side, forming a bow by pulling the string before tying it off. Now the paper fit tightly over the wooden structure.

Next, a quick trip home to raid the basement rag bin. Boomer families kept rags for cleaning, but they sure came in handy when you needed to make kite tails. Strips of cloth were tied to a longer strip at regular intervals, creating Bow-tie shapes along its axis. Then it was tied to the bottom of the kite to act as a rudder tail and counterweight in the wind.

How you prepared string for your first flight was a personal choice. You could let it unwind from the ball as it came from the store, but most kids in Mister B’s neighborhood chose to tightly wind the string around a twig. If you found the right one, it would have a couple of knobs that could contain the string between them while offering space to grip the twig on either side when two hands were needed to steady the kite in flight.

Once the prepped string was tied to the central string, the kite was ready. Mister B’s block had far too many trees and telephone wires for kite flying. Inevitably, kites, trapped like live creatures rustling in branches and wires, were testaments to the hubris that got them there. Instead, happy to avoid a Charlie Brown kite-eating tree moment, we’d head over to the nearby schoolyard where the baseball field offered an unobstructed free range for flying.

While Mister B enjoyed the process of building the kite, he never became an expert flyer. First there was the launch: running over the uneven terrain and learning to time the release at just the right moment for your paper triangle to catch the wind. Then there was the stability factor. Here is where you’d see if you had indeed built a flyable kite: A tear in the paper, tautness too slack or too tight, cloth tail too long or too short, and your kite would not stay airborne for long. Once it was in the air, though, it was a thing of beauty.

Mister B recalls one time when the conditions were just right, and he launched a promotional kite he had received from the neighborhood Sinclair gas station. Fifty-plus feet up as he carefully let out more string, the kite seemed to hover in a sea of gray, its green dinosaur logo on a white triangle of paper holding strong in the breeze. The kite seemed to fly itself, and for one moment, Mister B’s spirits climbed up along the string and into the spring sky.

What memories do kite flying bring to you, boomers?

Boomers See That Everything Old Is New Again

In a recent discussion around the lunchroom at Mister Boomer’s workplace, a colleague was describing her success in eliminating her need for cable TV with a digital TV antenna. While the “rabbit ears” of our youth haven’t returned in their original form, this latest incarnation is a direct descendant of the contraptions we knew as young boomers.

For you trivia fans, the TV antenna we came to know and love/hate was invented by Marvin Middlemark in 1953. He was a Queens, New York resident born in 1919. After the war, when TV broadcasts started a regular schedule, Middlemark saw the need for a booster so people could receive better TV reception. His solution was to invent an indoor dipole antenna that took the shape of a central unit with two adjustable telescoping rods on either side. This gave the antenna a “v” shape protruding from a central “head,” thus giving it the appearance of “rabbit ears.” The rods could be positioned at any point along a 90 degree radius, from fully vertical to fully horizontal. In the middle of the central unit was a numbered dial that allowed for a change of frequency as a means of intercepting the strongest signal. When used in conjunction with the angling of the antenna rods, the best possible signal could be received.

In reality, we boomers recall that rabbit ears were a source of frustration and amusement. Adjusting the antenna was a constant necessity whenever the TV was turned on or a station was changed. It seemed like the rods could never hold the position that was most needed. Instead, they would succumb to gravity and fall to the closest horizontal or vertical stopping point. Flipping the central unit dial would, on occasion, remove a few flakes from the snow-filled TV screen, but as a general rule didn’t help much. Ultimately, boomer families found their own ways to further enhance the boosting power of their antenna. The most common method was to crimp a ball of aluminum foil to the end (or, occasionally, middle) of one or both telescoping rods. The theory was that a clump of metal might act as additional surface area for reception. In some families, links of paper clips were festooned from the rods, or between them. At Christmastime, tinsel could be found to perform the same function, while adding a festive holiday flair, as well.

Mister Boomer recalls two different sets of rabbit ears for the three black-and-white TVs his family owned in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. More than likely, the family’s first TV was a hand-me-down when Mister B’s parents were married after the war, so it’s possible the rabbit ears came with it. The first one was an art-deco looking thing. The central unit was essentially a metal ball with the bottom third cut off. Between the rods was another wire, twisted around itself and looped to return to the base, criss-crossing like the snakes on a caduceus. On either side of the central dial were three eighth-inch wide strips of metal, painted the same dull brown-black as the rest of the unit. It looked very much like the one pictured in the episode of The Honeymooners when Ralph and Norton are fighting over the TV!

The second set of rabbit ears was similar to the first, but now plastic parts were beginning to make deep inroads into consumer products. Instead of a loop-de-loop central wire, this one consisted of a simple circle, with each end of the wire bent sharply on the bottom of the circle, forming a “tree trunk,” that fit into the brown-plastic base.

Mister B’s father was often the General in Charge in the Battle for Better Reception. He’d issue orders to Mister B and his siblings to move each end of the antenna up, down, left and right until the best picture was established. Inevitably, as soon as one of the kids would let go of a rod, it would fall, ruining the reception. “Go stand there and hold it,” was the General’s half-kidding solution. A quick trip to the kitchen for foil, maybe a few rubber bands, string or tape from the junk drawer, and the makeshift work would begin in earnest. Somehow the battle was always at least partially won, but would be repeated on a daily basis.

When a rod or central wire broke, one of the more common remedies was to replace it with a wire coat hanger. In some households, you’d see the full hanger shape sticking out of the end of one of the rabbit ears’ rods. In others, it was straightened to replace a rod, taped or rubber-banded to a rod, or jammed into the central base to replace a central wire.

Rabbit ears were what we had at hand in the early days of TV. Now that they are poised for a digital-makeover comeback, what memories of these TV antennas come back for you, boomers?