KIDS GROWING UP in industrial cities during the Depression learned to be inventive or they didn't have much fun. Playthings arrived once a year, at Christmas, and they had to be made to last a year. When the neighborhood football became unpatchable, everyone shed their undershirts and stuffed it. By May, baseballs were black, wrapped in electric tape, as were bat handles.
Kites, especially, were the products of scrounging. Kits to make complete kites hadn't been invented, and if they had been no one could have afforded them. Kites were fabricated from what was on hand that would seem to work.
The basic models in Worcester, Mass., in the mid-'30s were created from wire coathangers, newspapers, flour-and-water paste, string and/or strips of rags for tails. They flew erratically, if at all.
So, something lighter than coathanger wire was needed for frames. The answer came from behind the United Fruit Co. market -- banana crates of very thin wood wired together. The slats were about 1/4-inch thick, 21/2 feet long. The chore was to take a jackknife and cut half-inch wide strips. The trick was to get these strips the full 21/2 feet long without splitting the wood; that the success rate was maybe once in six tries made it a chore. But we persevered.
The same went for newspapers -- too heavy. Suddenly we remembered that our mothers lined our bureau drawers with tissue paper. Suddenly all of our drawers were unlined -- we were too shrewd to unline drawers of other family members, particularly mothers and sisters.
The problem with flour-and-water paste was that it didn't stick, except on clothing or wherever you didn't want it to. Library paste (made from mixing water with an obnoxious- smelling powder obviously of fish derivation) was little better, until a budding chemist name Karl LaVallee discovered that it helped to mix it with gin scrounged from his father's cache in the garage (actually a former stable, the horse-and-buggy age just coming to a close).
The last problem was string. We first tried scrounging fishline from fathers' sporting supplies. But the retribution when we were discovered was terrible. In a textile city like Worcester there was plenty of "string" available for scrounging -- tire fabric cordage rejected by the testing labs at the mills, often full reels. But the usual reason for rejection was weak spots, and we lost a lot of kites to broken lines. And it was rough and our hands were often bloody from handling it.
So we kept on scrounging, especially in the attics of the big old Victorian houses most of us lived in, which were rife with temptation since they were filled with boxes, especially shoe boxes, carefully labeled and tied up and stacked away according to the ingrained habits of Ynkee thrift. But we would never dare to scrounge the string that bound these treasures.
Then one day, a bonanza! Something we'd have no compunctions about scrounging, and after a couple of days of square- knotting, the best kite season ever could start.
In a dusty attic corner, shoe boxes carefully bound and labeled:
"Pieces of string, too short to save."