The year was 1909 and Paul E. Garber, then 10, was flying a kite outside his Connecticut Avenue home in the District. The kite wobbled and wavered in the wind, and Garber could not figure out what was wrong until a neighbor came along.
"Young man, it's not bridled properly," Garber remembers being told as the neighbor pulled in the kite and proceeded to refashion the triangle of string that connects a kite to its cord. Then Garber and his neighbor, Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, stood at the curb and watched as the kite, with a jerk of the line, flew into the air. "And it flew much better, and we watched, and he patted my head," Garber recalled.
Garber, first curator of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air Museum and called the father of American aviation heritage, told that story yesterday as he explained the techniques of kite-building and shared his love of flight with an audience.
About 30 people -- some kite aficionados and others new to the hobby -- gathered yesterday at Capitol College in Laurel as Garber, whose 88 years literally span the age of modern flight, conducted a kite workshop and a kite-flying festival.
Garber dated his interest in flight to a kite given him on his fifth birthday that allowed him to feel "the pull of the air." In a soft-spoken speech with flashes of dry humor, he discoursed on how to build a William A. Eddy 1900 Deltoid kite, on the many different types of kites from the cobra to the sled, on the reason why Charlie Brown has such trouble with his kite (the spar or crossbar is down too far on the spine) and on how spray starch gave flight to a kite made by his late wife.
Then the audience got into the act and with the help of Robert Price, president of the American Kitefliers Association, built what Garber called "the simplest kite on earth, rather the air." A group that ranged in ages from 5 past 70 used sticks and cutouts from plastic garbage bags to fashion sled kites.
Magic Markers gave personality to the kites. A stylized cat's face adorned one. Rainbows were abundant, and 'Go fly a kite' was as popular a label as the kite fliers' names. It was the first kite Meg Garber, 11, of Laurel, had made by herself, not counting the newspaper kite her grandfather designed. "What I like about kites is how it stays up in the air, like you are up there flying."
Stephen John Bernstein, 79, of Arlington, started building kites in 1966 after a tour of duty in the Air Force that brought him in contact with the Taiwanese and their elaborate kites. He entered the national kite flying festival on the Mall (started by Garber, who is now historian emeritus of the National Air and Space Museum), won a trophy and has been hooked on kites ever since.
For Bernstein, there is a challenge both in building the kite and then seeing whether it flies. "To create something and then see it perform the way you intended it, makes you feel like you have accomplished something," he said.
Later, with less than 5-mph winds on the sun-baked lawns of the Laurel campus and only a few kites able to fly, Bernstein talked about another kite-flying challenge: getting the kite in the air.
Bill Koeher flew his apparatus of 50 tiny kites, but Jessica Shover, who said, "I'll be 9 in a week," had less luck. She panted, ran and sweated across the field with her kite trailing in the grass until, finally, she stopped. With both feet, she stomped the kite she had decorated with a scene from the Wright Brothers' historic flight.