Vintage kites from all over the world hang from the ceiling and walls of the late Richard Dermer’s popular Hideaway Pizza restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma—and that’s only a fraction of his collection. To many locals, the kites might just seem like another piece of quirky décor. But not so. Dermer, who spoke with us before he passed away in March 2014, was an avid kite enthusiast, and each has a personal meaning.
“Three of those kites were made by people who won national championships for kite building,” Dermer says. “And some of them are cheap commercial kites that sold for $20 or $30. Almost all of them have a story of one sort or another. There’s a tissue-paper fighter kite an Indian schoolchild had colored with Crayolas before presenting it to me. There are Thai kites that have ceremonial significance in Southeast Asia. We’ve got one wall of nothing but Asian kites. Another section has a dozen different types of fighter kites.”
It’s easy to overlook the kites, because the original Hideaway, located across the street from Oklahoma State University, has become a local institution for myriad reasons: The joint introduced the exotic cuisine known as “pizza” to northern Oklahoma in the late 1950s. When Dermer took over in 1960, he encouraged his college-age staff to think creatively. Dermer’s wife, Marti, decorated one wall with a collage from magazines like Life and Oklahoma Today. Then, he purchased a series of cheap Volkswagen Beetles for delivery cars, which he let his staff go crazy painting like Herbie the Love Bug, lady bugs, and psychedelic tie-dye patterns.
In the 1970s, Dermer and his Hideaway manager, Gary Gabrel, both chess players, got hooked on playing board games, particularly the Asian game called Go, into the wee hours of the morning. When Gabrel learned a Japanese variation of Go called Ninuki-Renju, he got the idea to market it to the United States, and turned it into a top-selling board game sensation of the late ’70s called Pente. Several copies of the game were placed at the front of the restaurant for customers to play while they waited for pizza.
After establishing a successful game company, Gabrel attended a national toy fair in the early 1980s and returned with a two-string Skynasaur stunt kite. He asked Dermer to fly it with him. That set the Dermers on a journey that led to Richard becoming the longtime regional director and the 1997-1999 president of the American Kitefliers Association, where he helped develop and shape the modern concept of stunt kiting. The couple, who have two sons, have also traveled the world, visiting China, Japan, India, New Zealand, England, France, and Denmark to learn and teach about kites. They often put on educational programs about kites of schoolchildren. And of course, they amassed an international kite collection.
“By today’s standards, the Skynasaur is an absolute dinosaur,” Richard Dermer says, remembering his first kite outing. “It weighs about 2 or 3 pounds versus today’s 6 ounces; it’s made of solid fiberglass sticks and heavy fabric. It was built like a tank, and it needed about 15-miles-an-hour wind before it would fly. But we took it out in a very strong wind, and it was an absolute hoot. It was dragging us through the OSU intramural field on the seats of our pants. And you could have incredible control. You could steer it in the sky like a bicycle. Pull left, and the kite turns left. Pull right, and the kite turns right. Balance the pull, and it goes in a straight line with incredible power.”
“We had a really good time playing with this thing,” he continues. “I had to buy one, of course.”
Gabrel, who got the kites wholesale thanks to his toy-industry connections, talked several of their friends into buying and flying Skynasaurs. Then, in summer of 1984, they heard an announcement on KATT 100.5-FM that the Oklahoma City radio station would be sponsoring the state’s first-ever Skydancer Kite Festival, with a stunt-kite competition.
“So four of us piled into the car and drove to the city,” Dermer says, who remembers the contest had no rules. “We were flying Skynasaurs and the other 16 were flying stunt kites that weren’t as good. We had the better toys, and because of that, we finished first, second, third, and fifth out of 20.”
Afterward, Gabrel put in a call to the Skynasaur headquarters in Colorado and let the company know about their victory. The company offered to foot the hotel bill if the group was willing to represent Skynasaur at the American Kitefliers Association convention in Nashville, Tennessee, the following month.
“In the U.S., we think of kite flying as a peaceful, relaxing thing. Not so in India. It’s a fierce, combative sport.”
“So we go to the convention and discover there are several hundreds of these adult kite flyers who are passionate about their hobby,” Dermer says. “I had no idea this little subculture existed. We got skunked in the competition because it was light wind and our kites wouldn’t fly.”
But Dermer and Gabrel met a man at the convention who had been tasked with putting together an American team for the second Weifang International Kite Festival in Weifang, Shandong, China, in April 1985. Richard Dermer asked his wife, Marti, if a trip to China would be a suitable 25th anniversary present, and she said yes.
Dermer says that even though the Chinese are credited with inventing kites nearly 3,000 years ago, they were impressed with his Skynasaur, because they’d never seen a maneuverable kite like it before.
“When we got back from China, people said, ‘Wow, you must know all there is to know about kites,’” Dermer says. “No, I didn’t. I was very much a novice, but I started learning. And the more we got into going to kite festivals and collecting kites, the more I discovered and the deeper the subject became. My kite-book library now runs over a hundred volumes. I learn stuff new every time I go to an event. And I think the kites out in the garage are multiplying when the lights are out.”
Naturally, the Chinese have many legends about kites. One asserts that around 200 B.C., General Han Hsin of the Han Dynasty used a kite to calculate the distance of a city he wanted to siege. His troops were able to dig a tunnel under the city wall and conquer the town. Other stories tell of man-lifting kites flying over Weifang, which were used to spy during the Warring States period (475 to 221 B.C.).
“We took the kite out in a very strong wind, and it was an absolute hoot. It was dragging us by the seats of our pants.”
“There are a number of these folklore stories that are maybe true, maybe not,” Dermer says. “Another Chinese military-use story claims that soldiers attached noise makers to kites and flew them over the enemy camp at night. The strange shrieks and whistles from the sky scared the bejesus out of the opposing army, who took off.”
Chinese travelers probably brought the concept of kites to India, and then Indians developed a maneuverable fighter kite, designed to dogfight in the sky. Eventually kite-fighting spread to countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and Brazil, which each have their own styles of fighter kites and competition rules.
“In the U.S. and in the entire Western world, we think of kite flying as a peaceful, relaxing thing,” he says. “Most of the time, you fly a kite just to have a good time and put a little color to decorate the sky. Not so in India. It’s a fierce, combative sport. Putting a fighter kite in the sky in India is an open invitation to everybody to go get another kite and try and take you down. If there are two in the sky, there’s going to be a battle.
“People’s eyes get really big when I hand them that line winder and say, ‘Fly this for a bit.’”
“They fly them on a special cutting line called manja, which is very light cotton thread that’s then been coated with a mixture of glue and something like powdered glass, crushed egg shells, rice husks, or powdered ceramic dust. Everybody has their own recipe for the best material to make the sharpest manja.”
Then kite fliers compete to cut one another’s kites down. Boys known as “kite runners” chase the fallen kites, which is what inspired the book, The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini and the 2007 movie based that book. “Once the kites hit the ground, it’s finders keepers. The kid who picks that kite up is the new owner.”
Dermer has visited Ahmedabad, India, in January for the country’s Makar Sankranti, the kite-festival holiday that celebrates the beginning of spring. “Gazillions of fighter kites fill up the sky,” Dermer remembers. “The kites are made out of tissue paper and bamboo, and they retail at street stalls for 2 cents or 3 cents each. In Ahmedabad, everybody went up on the flat roof of their building first thing in the morning with a boom box for sound, a cooler full of drinks, a hamper full of food, and a box or two or three of stacks and stacks of fighter kites and manja. They would put up the kite and start flying it, and try and cut down their neighbor across the street.
“Nobody stays up very long without being cut because the higher your kite gets, the bigger target your string becomes,” he continues. “While you can dodge or defeat one attacker or two, when there’s a dozen people trying to catch you, it’s impossible to defend all threats. I have video of trees with 300 kites stuck in them, and two power lines with four dozen kites draped between one pole and the next.”
In Thailand, traditional kite fighting has a “war of the sexes” spin: Five to ten men or boys operate one 8½-foot-tall kite shaped like a star known as the male “chula” kite.
The chula string has three sets of bamboo barbs meant to catch one or more female “pakpao” kites. The diamond-shaped pakpaos are only 35 inches tall, but each has a long tail and a long loop on their string used to lasso and bring a chula down.
Even in the Western world, kites have been used for far more than a serene way to pass the time; they were important tools for scientists. Of course, everyone knows the story of how founding father Benjamin Franklin, in 1750, supposedly used to a kite and a key to prove lightning was made of electricity.
“Franklin was very, very lucky,” Dermer says, emphasizing that he always tells kids to never fly kites during thunder or lightning. “He didn’t know what he was doing. When he was flying, sparks were jumping from the key to his hand. He claimed that these sparks were lightning. They were not. They were static electricity, the same kind of electricity you get when you scuff your shoes on a thick carpet and zap your friend. Had Franklin really attracted lightning, it would’ve come down the kite string and almost assuredly killed him.”
Kites were also instrumental in the development of aviation technology. In 1883, a meteorologist in England, Douglas Archibald, used a kite to lift a device that measured wind speed. In the United States, inventor William Eddy grew more and more obsessed with how to make the standard diamond kite more stable, so it could fly without a tail and in a chain of kites. The more kites you have on a string, the greater the ability the kite train has to lift heavy objects.
Around 1893, Eddy came up with a tailless kite, Dermer explains, that looks like a large diamond kite, but both sticks are the same length. The horizontal stick is placed at 20 percent of the length of the vertical length from the top. That means the kite itself looks nearly flat on top. The horizontal stick is then bowed.
“I have a train of 72 Eddy kites that I fly a lot, the string of kites is 150 feet long, and the kites are the colors of the rainbow,” he says. “You look at each one, it’s a pretty simple, nondescript little kite, but 72 of them working in concert have about 80 or 100 pounds of pull. And people’s eyes get really big when I hand them that line winder and say, ‘Fly this for a little bit.’ They’ll say, ‘Wow, you’ve been doing this all day.’ I say, ‘No, I’ve been asking people like you to fly it all day.’ I couldn’t do it for more than an hour.”
But Eddy’s invention was quickly upstaged by the box kite, invented that same year by an Australian named Lawrence Hargrave. “Nobody had ever thought of a three-dimensional kite before,” Dermer said. “But he refused to patent it. He said it belonged to the world. Almost all of the early aviation pioneers, the guys who were trying to invent the airplane, all leaped on the box kite as the most probable way for man to fly.”
Still, it wasn’t until Samuel Franklin Cody, an American showman living in England, put two box kites together and added wings to them that the first man-lifting kite was patented in 1901.
“Sam Cody figured out a way to beat the system,” Dermer says. “He took a traditional two-cell box kite and doubled it, added wings on either side of that, and came up with this thing that looks a lot like an antique airplane. Cody built kites like this ranging from 18 to 30 feet across, wing tip to wing tip. By the time you get six or eight of these winged box kites on the kite train, they were pulling hard enough to lift to a person in a gondola basket as high as you wanted to let out the rope. He sent his 12-year-old daughter up a thousand feet in one of the first tests.”
Naturally, Cody felt his innovation would be of use to the British military, which hired him to explore the possibilities of using his kites for observation. These devices became known as Cody War Kites (Dermer has a smaller replica of one). In 1906, Cody was put in charge of creating kite sections of the Corps of Royal Engineers of the British Army, and by 1908, he was testing early aeroplanes.
By the time World War II broke out, everyone had fighter planes in the sky, but kite technology still proved invaluable to the Allied Forces. Gibson Girl rescue kites were installed in the life rafts of U.S. military ships, for example.
“If your ship went down and you managed to get on the life raft, you would find a waterproof pouch containing an orange taffeta box kite with aluminum sticks, a copper wire to fly it up, and a peanut-shaped metal gizmo with a crank handle on it,” Dermer says. “You assembled the box kite, flew it up, and then you started cranking the generator, which caused the wire to transmit an SOS signal. It was called the Gibson Girl box kite because of the curvaceous shape of the generator. These kites surface from time to time on eBay. I’ve got one, but I don’t have the generator.”
A young American Naval officer named Paul Garber, who was trying to figure out the best way to train new naval and aircraft gunners, decided a maneuverable two-string Eddy kite would make the perfect target. The Garber Target kits were usually 5 to 7 feet in length, and painted with a silhouette of an enemy plane, like a Japanese Zero or a German Messerschmitt.
“The idea was, we can tow it behind the jeep and drive by these gunners, making our kites do figure 8s and loops and dives. They try to shoot it out of the sky, while we try to keep it in one piece,” Dermer says. “The U.S. military shot up tens of thousands of them to train gunners, but they also took them on board ships. A lot of them got saved after the war as souvenirs. I have one of these also. I’d say a Garber target kite in good condition will bring $500 these days at auction or eBay, and poor condition like mine is, a couple hundred dollars. Same thing for the Gibson Girl Rescue kite.
“A third World War II kite, which will bring in five figures and more, is the Sauls’ Barrage Kite,” he continues. “This giant box kite was flown on heavy cables over London during the Blitz. The hope was that German aircraft would fly into the cables, lose wings or propellers, and be brought down. Another version had bombs attached at the bottom so if a plane snagged the cable and kept going, it would pull the cable across its wing, bringing the explosive up to the plane, which would then detonate. These were quite effective, so none of them survived.”
By the time Dermer took to kiting in the ’80s, innovations focused on sport, rather than war. He just happened to get into modern stunt kiting at its very beginning. “For the first 20 years, the stunt kites were all triangular two-string delta kites. In the ’80s and ’90s, kites went through quite a developmental phase where they were getting better and better as new lighter, stronger materials were being developed. Tubular fiberglass became obsolete when tubular graphite came along.”
As a leader in the American Kitefliers Association, Dermer help set rules for judging and winning stunt-kiting competitions in the sport’s early days.
“The precision flying competition was created to see what kind of control a flyer has,” he says. “Flyers perform patterns in the sky straight out of a rulebook for judges, who will stand behind them to see how perfect their patterns are, the same way an ice skater or a diver is judged. Then there’s the ballet competition, where the flyers’ artistic sides get tickled. Flyers pick their own music for the PA system and choreograph the moves of their stunt kite to the music. It can be very beautiful, moving stuff; I’ve been brought to tears on several occasions by ballet performances. Then, you can have both precision and ballet performances for pairs or multi-flyer teams. That’s a lot of strings to get tangled if you screw up.”
These days, Dermer says, interest in stunt-kiting seems to waning, despite the late 1990s invention of four-string kites that can move as deftly as “Pac-Man in the sky.” Part of it may be the lack of brick-and-mortar kite stores in the Internet age, he theorizes. In most places, there’s no longer a spot in town where you can grab a replacement stick or can ask what materials work better in what winds. But he says, “I think maybe we over-legislated the competition end of it, too many rules, made it too complicated.”
Lately, the Dermers’ particular fascination is miniature kites, and they have several hundred, many of which are displayed in cases at a Hideaway dining room. The couple learned miniature-kite building at a workshop led by a renowned expert named Charlie Sotich. Soon, they were involved with a worldwide community that makes, trades, and collects these tiny kites.
“You fly them indoors,” Dermer explains. “You turn off the air conditioner and shut the windows so there’s no breeze in the room. You let the kite dangle from your hand on 2 or 3 feet of sewing thread, and you start walking. A gentle walk provides enough breeze for a miniature kite to swing up and fly about 2 feet above your head.
“I tell children when I’m still doing school programs that if you try and make a miniature kite and use a toothpick for a stick, it would be much too heavy. That’d be like using a log. If I want to make a good-size miniature, a 4-inch kite, my preferred stick material is a very, very thin sliver of bamboo, which I shave down and split with a razor blade. But you can use a straw from an old-fashioned broom. But for smaller miniatures—we’re talking postage stamp size—forget real wooden sticks and start thinking lighter materials, like a bristle from a nylon paintbrush or a cat whisker.”
Besides attending kite festivals, putting on educational programs for schoolchildren, and keeping the kite displays at the Hideaway, the Dermers find clever ways to spread kite love wherever they go.
“When we go to somebody’s wedding, the reception always has those little napkins with the bride and groom’s names and wedding bells printed on them,” Dermer says. “You can separate the layers of tissue and get one thin tissue with the name of the bride and the groom. We always bring a little bit of bamboo, monofilament fishing line, sewing thread, and glue. In about 20 minutes, bingo, we’ve made a couple of wedding kites for the happy couple we can present on the spot. We’ve got a lot of those out there.”