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Give the People What They Want 

Kite-flying and gun control

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Most of my childhood memories are awash in summer sunshine. Only a few have snow underfoot. Of the snowy ones, the most vivid involves a couple of hand-me-down Radio Flyer sleds and the lumbering Buick Roadmaster that served as our family car for more years than it should have. Sometimes, on a snowy night, my father would tie the sleds to the rear bumper of the big green Buick and drag my brother and me along the dark streets of our Sugar House neighborhood. We lay on our stomachs and tried to steer a zigzag course behind the car. It was more fun than ambushing passing cars with a fusillade of snowballs, another winter memory.

My father’s engagement with winter was limited. I think he tried to avoid it by hunkering down and waiting it out. That explains why he chose the warm car instead of a cold hilltop for sledding. On those January and February weekends when my mother was working and he was in charge of my brother and me, he bought model airplane kits to occupy us. Most were World War II warplanes—the Flying Fortress, P-51 Mustang and Messerschmitt—whose molded-plastic parts were the color of a stormy winter sky. The directions for gluing them together were never clear to me, and so I often had to cope with pieces that were supposed to dovetail and wouldn’t. I soon learned that a screwdriver heated over the flame of the kitchen range would melt enough plastic to convince reluctant pieces to fit together. Once finished, the plane was rigged with black thread, fore and aft, then thumb-tacked to the ceiling of our bedroom.

By the end of February, after a winter’s confinement, I was ready to run—literally ready to run. Months’ worth of pent-up energy was set abuzz by the smell of mud, the first yellow blooms of crocuses in south-facing gardens and the gusting wind. I wanted to run fast enough and far enough to launch a kite.
Buying a kite was my father’s first and last concession to springtime each year. Flying kites held no attraction for him. It was my interest, not his. Kites, like the model airplanes, had to be assembled. Each became a flimsy construct of paper, string, pinewood struts and pieces of bedsheet knotted into a tail. I don’t recall whether the instructions called for a cloth tail, but I always added one in the hope that it would make the kite more air-worthy.

To launch the kite, you had to run into the wind, trailing the kite behind, until some benevolent upward thrust sent it aloft. None of my kites ever made it. They would gain a little altitude, gyrate wildly, then nosedive into the ground with enough speed to rip the paper or break the spindly struts. When the kite was damaged beyond repair or when I had tired of running, I gave up in frustration.

Years later, while living in Pakistan, I watched enviously as little kids launched tailless, arrowhead-shaped kites on days without a whisper of a breeze. Pakistani boys had two passions: cricket and kite-fighting. The latter was the focus of a spring festival each year called Basant. On the Basant weekend, the sky was filled with so many kites it was as if confetti had been caught in updrafts and left to float above the skyline. No rooftop wanted for a group of men and boys maneuvering kites in aerial combat. There probably wasn’t anyone whose palms were not lacerated by kite strings coated with ground glass. The glass-encrusted strings sawed through the others’ lines and sent their kites fluttering to the ground like wounded birds. The battles continued through the night with white kites and spotlights.

Casualties were the dark side of Basant. Some people fell off roofs. Some were electrocuted when kites rigged with fine-gauge wire touched high-tension power lines. Kite runners, impoverished kids chasing drifting kites, raced headlong into traffic and were hit by cars. In 2007, the mounting fatalities caused the government to ban Basant. That’s equivalent to canceling the Super Bowl.

Earlier this year, a proposal to revive the traditional festival in designated areas was greeted enthusiastically across Pakistan. Only Islamist radicals objected darkly, calling Basant “un-Islamic, owing to its Hindu origin.” So, despite Basant’s near-unanimous popularity in the country, the government shelved the revival plan.

Pakistani officials were criticized for being cowed by zealots just as Orrin Hatch, Mike Lee and 52 other senators were called out for being sufficiently cowed by zealots to vote down gun-control measures favored by 90 percent of Americans. Sure, the underlying motivations were different—Pakistani politicians worry about violence, American politicians worry about money—but it seems to me that when the preponderance of the population wants something, they ought to get it. Our elected officials don’t necessarily see it that way. Their votes are dictated more by self-interest than by regard for the commonweal. As a result, only 1 in 3 Americans believe senators and congressmen are well-intentioned, according to the Pew Research Center, and trust in the federal government to operate in America’s best interests is eroding. A 2005 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center shows that 42 percent of Americans have lost faith in the government. I’ll bet the percentage is higher after the intervening years of gridlock in Washington.

My disgust for Hatch, Lee and others of their self-interested ilk will fade. My memories of kite-flying will not. They return like crocuses each spring when the March wind blows in, melting the snow in a shady corner, rattling the storm windows, and sweeping away my cynicism along with winter’s suffocating smog. 

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