I watched a man I’d just met lug what looked like an industrial tricycle into the middle of an open soccer field. He wore a helmet and harness that cinched his t-shirt to his small frame. He approached a five-meter, four-line maneuverable traction kite that was tethered to the earth.
The man is Larry Stiles, and he’s the perpetual president of the Tulsa Wind Riders Club – perpetual because the group of kitefliers doesn’t hold formal elections or levy dues, so there’s no way his office could really be transferred to anyone else. That he’s the kind of guy whose typical kite repertoire is barely contained by the bed of a pick-up truck probably has something to do with it. Either way, Larry lives for wind.
We were on the east side of a business park at 43rd and Garnett, one of the state’s most treasured kite-flying spots. The air space is free of power lines, and the wind blows like hell. The American Kitefliers Association’s national convention was there in 1995, bringing hundreds of kite fliers from around the world to Tulsa. We’d taken to the field to watch Larry hook himself to a giant kite, lower his body into a three-wheeled cart and, assuming the wind picked up, ride it across the field.
When the weather is warm, Larry goes on tour. He travels the country doing little more than tossing big pieces of synthetic fabric into the wind and doing what he can to keep them aloft. Occasionally, he’ll cruise across the field at a festival in his buggy, sometimes achieving speeds that would earn him a speeding ticket in a school zone.
Mother’s Day weekend is kite festival weekend in Tulsa. At this year’s 18th-annual, Stiles and crew offered stunt kite demos, kite-making workshops, and food to kite lovers and the kite curious. Stiles said it’s an easy way to pull his kite-flying friends from other cities into Tulsa and showcase his aircraft arsenal, as if the show of bright, ripstop nylon in the sky was some kind neighborhood Christmas lights competition.
Jason Sanchez, a Stiles protégé, was sitting on the edge of the field by a pile of bags packed with kites. He probably earned the sunburn peeling on his nose the same way he did his necklace – a long string of colorful, handmade beads. Every kite flyer that hangs around the Tulsa Wind Riders long enough is considered a member of the club, and every club member gets one.
“People have been killed by kite flying,” Sanchez said, popping the tab on a can of beer. “There was a big kite festival on a beach somewhere, and they were launching one of the world’s biggest kites. A guy’s leg got caught up in the bridles. It took him about 100 feet up into the air and he fell out and,” Sanchez paused, making the sound of an explosion, “he hit the ground.”
Stiles was standing in the middle of the field, latching the strings of the kite to his harness. He sank into the seat of the buggy and loaded his feet onto the front-wheel steering bars. He turned it 90 degrees from the direction of the wind, and the buggy began to roll.
The cart stopped and started as Stiles struggled to trap a steady current of air in the bow of the kite. His ass was just inches from the ground, a lot closer than the man who fell to his death kiting on the beach was (actually, he fell from three times as high as what Sanchez thought). It didn’t look like the stuff of an extreme sport, which kite buggying claims to be. Stiles was dressed like a crash test dummy, but the threat level of his trip across the field seemed less than that of the kiddie carousel at the state fair.
It was the middle of a Monday afternoon, but Stiles and Sanchez don’t have real jobs. Stiles calls himself semi-retired; he’s pursuing a career in professional kite flying, he said. Sanchez shrugged, saying he doesn’t do anything for a living. He just flies kites.
“People are too busy to fly kites anymore,” Stiles said. He sat on the lid of an ice chest. His eyes were hidden behind a pair of cheap sports sunglasses. “Everyone should stop and fly a kite sometime.”