Kites that just sit in the air don't excite me anymore. That kind of kite flying is a comtemplative sport -- like pipe smoking, or fishing," says Mel Govig, a seemingly mild-mannered bindery supervisor who doubles as kite-dueling champion of the Mid-Atlantic states. Instead of the pastoral image of kites floating peacefully on the spring breeze, Govig, dressed for the kite-dueling ritual in a Japanese volunteer fireman's coat, conjures up visions of ancient Asian gladiators and their warring kites.
Kites, according to Chinese lore, began as military equipment. More than 2,000 years ago a military tactician named Kungshu Phan built giant kites that carried archers over the besieged city of Sung. Today, the weapons are the kites themselves or, more commonly, their string, which is impreginated with ground glass or grit.
"In Ahmedabad, in India, there's the festival of Utran. Everyone gets up on the rooftops of houses with picnics lunches and cuts everybody else's kites," says Valerie Govig, who is the editor of Kitelines magazine, as well as the champion's wife. "It's beginning to catch on over here, in Americanized versions."
Mel Govig, demonstrating the art of kite fighting and defending his title on the beach at Sandy Point, uses an India fighter kite made in Portland, Oregon.He lends an identical kite to the challenger, Richard Kinnaird, whom he refers to with friendly disparagement as "the young pretender."
"When you slack the line, the kite spins and then you can make it go in any direction," explains Kinnaird, making his kite turn cartwheels in the sky. Govig's kite, meanwhile, dances menacingly just above Kinnaird's head.
"He's going to win by annihilation -- he's attacking me!" accuses Kinnaird, but Govig explains that the so-called attack, like the Japanese garb, is just one more way to psych out the opponent. The psyching out, according to Govig, is just as important as the flying technique. That's why kite gladiators have to confine themselves to a 30-yard circle.
"You can't psych your opponent out if he can't hear you," say Govig.
India fighter kites, he explains, are highly maneuverable because they're built to be unstable. They can't just sit in the air -- they tip this way and that.
"When it's pointing in the direction you want it to go, pull the string," he demonstrates, swooping, his kite toward Kinnaird's, which deftly evades the string's cutting edge.
"There are two basic approaches to kite fighting," Govig explains. "You can come from underneath your opponent's kite and power through his line, or -- and this is harder -- you can power down through his line. If your line is moving, faster, it's the stationary line that gets cut. This can be done with regular string as well as glass impregnated string, but with regular line it takes a lot of tension. A variation is to hit the kite hard on the wing, and make the person lose control. Then you can maneuver around and cut the string."
As if to demonstrate, Govig's kite nudges Kinnaird's Kinnaird yells a protest, and in the confusion, Govig cuts his string from below. The liverated kite flies away in the direction of the Bay Bridge.
"Victory! Victory!" yells Govig, but Kinnaird suddenly remembers he has been flying one of Govig's kites and laughs uproariously.
"When a $20 kite is flying off, it's a lot easier to take if it's your opponent's," he says.
"The ultimate is not only to cut your opponent's kite but to encircle it in your line and bring it back as a trophy," says Govig, with some regret. This is a feat similar to those engineered by the famed. Thai fighting kites that swoop at each other in an aerial battle of the sexes. The chula, or male kite, comes equipped with bamboo barbs to kill the female and a pulley to bring her down. But the female kite, called a pukapao, dangles a long hook -- the better to snag and retrieve the male.
Virtually every Asian country engages in some form of kite fighting, and in Japan it's a team sport. The ultimate kite fight takes place in the city of Hamamatsu in early May as a tribute to all first-born sons. Neighborhood teams, yelling, "Washoi! Washoi!" (Forward! Forward!), man 10-foot square kites flown on heavy hemp lines. The teams keep the lines taut, sawing opponents' lines until they snap. Govig's ambition is to organize teams to fight with these giant kites.
For now, however, he's content to meet all challengers with the smaller fighting kites, even to teach the martial art to potential challengers. At the 15th annual Maryland Kite Festival to be held at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Govig and others will show would-be kite fighters how to do it and supply them with cutting string. The all-day festival will end with a free-for all kite fight, with the last kite in the sky declared the winner.
"It's mainly a matter of chance, and there are no holds barred. Glass string can be dangerous -- it can cut across your ear and slice off an earlobe. No one should use glass string unless they're in a duel. We always clear the field when we're fighting.
"Once we tried an alternative system called the kiss of death. We impregnated six feet of every line with lipstick. You had to strike the white part of the other peerson's line and leave a red spot. But the lipstick ran up the lines and we couldn't tell who got kissed first."