Paul Garber, on his 10-foot-high podium, was higher than some of the 150 kites entered in the 13th annual Smithsonian kite-flying contest Saturday.
Serving as official emcee, the 80-year-old kite expert exhorted the heavens and the entrants. "Whistle for a wind," he advised, Demonstrating into the mike, when the breeze, and the spirits of the kite enthusiasts, faltered.
"Get back, go back to the ropes," he instructed an entrant whose kite bumbled along the Washington Monument grounds. And to another he counseled, "You better cut 15 feet off the tail."
Some of the kites barely got as high as the natty checked cap on Garber's head, the very head that Alexander Graham Bell patted many years ago when he told young Garber how to properly "bride" his kite. That was up on Connecticut Avenue when Garber was a rank amateur.
Kites are serious business. Bell spent years experimenting with them, confident they were the key to powered manned flights. But the Wright brothers studied the birds and beat Bell into the air.
Nevertheless, Garber was full of historic kite tales, which he interspersed in his finest oratorical voice with the awarding of prizes. "Admiral Ramsey came into my office during the war," he said, "and told me that my kites saved a ship. He had his men practicing their gunnery by aiming at some of my target kites when three enemy planes came out of the clouds."
Sandra Pritt exemplified the seriousness of these kite-flyers. For hours before launch time, people had been admiring her double-construction kite, with Clark Kent on one part and Superman on the other. Just as planned, Clark Kent plummeted to the ground when Pritt started the takeoff. But then Superman, arms stretched out in triumph, rumbled only a few feet into the air. "You need better bridling," judge Pete Ianuzzi told Pritt, who smiled not once during the ordeal.
Sprinting along the grass, he made a spectacular bid to launch his colorful homemade cloth kite, but brought it down just as spectacularly when he ran out of running room and took a turn at breakneck speed. "What's my score," he shouted even before he had regained his footing.
A battery of judges scored entries on everything from design and beauty to climb and angle loft and awarded 20 trophies.
Kelvin Ono, an architecture student at Virginia Tech. won the Aerodynamics Trophy given by the National Air and Space Museum. "This is a Marconi-jib kite," Ono pointed out, "and at first I thought I didn't have it jibbed right, but it got out to 1,100 feet."
An artist form Ithaca, N.Y., Carol Spence, won the trophy for beauty with her box kite decorated with appliqued suns and moons. "Kite-making is an art form," she said after the presentation.
Cass Mairs, 9, from Camp Springs, Md., won the Beauty Junior trophy, while Tony Bieda, a 9-year-old from Columbia, Md., took the trophy for the funniest kite. "I thought my kite was funny because I had pictures of cars crashing on it!" Bieda exclaimed.
Brian Helms of Silver Spring won the trophy for the best sled kite, which, for a while at least, was doing well in the aerodynamics department. It was at the end of a 2,000-foot string when the line broke. "Oh, I'd just as soon cut my kites free anyway," Helms confessed. "I love to see them go up high, and I love it when the string disappears."
At one point during the afternoon, when the wind was up and the sun was out, Garber counted 205 kites up in the air.
Or in a tree. In one tree alone sat three forlorn kites. And in another next to it sat three starlings. And when a spring storm dampened the day, those three birds just cackled and cackled.