Nine-year-old Morgan McKenney, a redheaded dynamo from Oakridge Elementary School, tugged at the sleeve of Paul Garber, curator emeritus of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.
"Do you make kites all the time?" she wanted to know.
"Not all the time," replied Garber, as he busily attached a kite spar to its spine. "I sleep sometimes."
Garber, who is to kites what P.T. Barnum was to elephants, comes by his passion honestly. As a boy living in the wilds of Connecticut Avenue NW, he had occasion to receive kite instruction from an expert in the field -- his neighbor, Alexander Graham Bell. Here's how he tells it:
"In 1910, we were living at 1307 Connecticut and Dr. Bell lived at 1321," Garber recalls.
It was a grand location for a kite flyer, he remembers, because it was across the street from the British embassy and next door to the Austro-Hungarian embassy, both of which had large yards.
One day as Garber flew a kite, Bell came along, noticed the flyer and said, "Young man, that kite's not bridled properly." The inventor then stepped out into the street, brought in the kite, made his adjustments, "patted me on the head and went his way," says the curator.
Kite flying was already his "chief absorption" at that early age, Garber says -- an absorption he shares with the Washingtonians who'll be at the Smithsonian's annual kite-flying contest this Saturday, and with the Arlington youngsters who attended a recent kite-making workshop.
"Murphy's Law applies to kites more than anything else," Garber cautions, "so you must follow me closely." Together with his wife, Irene, a white-haired woman with pearls, sensible shoes and an equal love of kites, Garber pulls the children through 15 kite-making steps.
Together, they make Eddy kites -- the familiar diamond shape invented by William A. Eddy in the 1890s. But kites can assume a nearly infinite variety of shapes, he points out. "We don't know much about dragons, but we know they make beautiful kites," says Garber.
But beauty is secondary to ability to fly, and the youngsters concentrate on the little "fussy" steps that make an Eddy soar. Morgan supervises her younger brother Michael and his friend David Boggs, both six. "Did you make your mark on the stick? Okay, Michael, hold your stick. Where's your mark?
"I've made kites before," she confides proudly. "And I won a prize."
The kids lean their sticks against a table and start to saw notches in both ends, with various degrees of competence. First prize for speed in sawing goes to 11-year-old Amy Sullivan, who admits to having a mentor. "I saw my dad do it," she says, cutting swiftly. "It's not hard."
Irene Garber, observing the purposeful chaos of the room, asks an observing parent, "Where are your sticks? There are plenty here."
Parents and other adults -- as well as youngsters -- can make a very flyable kite in less than an hour, following Garber's instructions. You'll need two 36-inch dowel sticks and some glue, string and paper. Here's how to do it: * With a small saw, a reinforced razor blade or a sharp penknife, make a half-inch slot in each end of each stick. * Mark the spine 61/2 inches from the top with a pen. "Mr. Eddy determined that it should be marked at 18percent of its length," says Garber, who describes the vertical spine as "just like yours -- your head is on one end and you sit on the other." * Mark the spar (or cross-stick) in the middle and lay it across the top of your ruler at this point to see if it balances (none at the workshop did). If not, take "half a smidgen of tape" and paste it on the light end, checking again to be sure it balances. * Join the spine to the spar at the 61/2-inch mark with a tiny nail, and lash them together. * Tie a knot in a piece of string and thread it though the bottom notch. * Then take the string around the kite, threading it through each notch, and ending at the bottom -- this defines your boundary lines. Tie a little loop at the bottom, which will be used to attach the tail. * Lay the kite, with the spar next to the paper, on cloth or paper; newsprint will do. * Trace around the inside of the boundary (string) lines with a pen. * Laying a ruler next to the boundary lines on the outside, trace around the boundary again, so you end up with two sets of parallel lines about an inch or so apart. * Cut out the paper along the outside line. * Cut a slit at each corner down to the inside line. * Fold the outside edge over the string to the inside line, and glue your paper down. * Turn the kite over, cut a small hole in the middle of the paper where the spine and spar are lashed together, and attach a string. * To measure the length of the string needed for your bridle, pull it from the spine/spar attachment to one end on the spar, and put your thumb on it. Then pull the rest of the string down to the bottom of the spine. Attach it there. You then need to put a loop in this string at about the point where it reaches the end of the spar; the bridle is not, however, attached to the spar. The kite-flying string will attach to that bridle loop. * Attach the tail -- about 25 feet of cloth tied at one-foot intervals, so if you need to remove some tail, you can do so one foot at a time. KITE DOINGS SMITHSONIAN KITE FESTIVAL, Saturday (raindate, April 2), west side of the Washington Monument. Registration and competition begin at 10 a.m. Contestants must have made their own kites, capable of flying at least 100 feet for at least one minute. Registration closes at noon and awards to different age groups will be given at the end for: Aerodynamics, Airplace, Bird, Figure, Box or Cellular, Spacecraft, Tandem or Compound, Foreign Type, Most Beautiful, Funniest and Family. 357-3030..