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Painting the Air with Flights of Fancy

Krissy Clark

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Born to fly
(Krissy Clark)
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When was the last time you looked up in the sky? It feels good, right? One recent Saturday, Weekend America's Krissy Clark spent most of the day looking up -- here's why:

A few years ago, I was walking along the beach in Santa Monica one Saturday when I happened to look up. High up in the sky, just north of the pier, a strange cluster of white birds was flying around and around in a perfect circle. They were far away, at least a half mile. I had not planned to walk that far, but couldn't help myself. Were they trained to fly like this? Were they circling a dead animal?

The sand was soft. It took me a long time to reach the birds. Approaching, I saw that they were owls, and each one was tied to a short string attached to a single long one. My eyes followed the long string down, hundreds of feet, until I saw who was at the other end: a small man in a beige fisherman's hat, named Tyrus Wong, age 97. He was standing at a slant, leaning back and looking up at the owls. He had made them. They were kites.

Wong learned kite-making as a little boy in China, where he lived until the age of 8, when he and his father moved across the Pacific Ocean to America. His mother stayed behind, and Wong never saw her again. But he never forgot her, or the red, diamond-shaped kites that he flew when they lived together.

Years later, after Wong retired, those kites grew into a life's passion. He has made hundreds since then. For the last 30 years, on the fourth Saturday of every month, he flies his kites on the Santa Monica beach.

Now they are much more elaborate: hand-painted animals, decorated with feathers or spinning bottlecaps for eyes. He fills the sky with owls, swallows, rainbow-colored insects, centipedes, panda, goldfish.

"I got 16 cranes," he says. "And 25 butterfly."

If all these critters sound like a scene from Bambi's forest, they should. Wong is the artist who painted much of Bambi's background landscapes for Disney in the 1930s. His favorite character was Thumper.

Wong doesn't paint anymore -- "My hands shake too much," he says. But he can still make kites.

"Can I interest you guys in some pomegranate blueberry juice?" asks Kim Wong, Tyrus's daughter. Every month, she brings her dad and his truckload of kites to the beach. They lay out a picnic blanket, put up the kites and serve refreshments to friends and family who stop by. Wong's nephews and nieces come, as do old friends from his days as a sketch artist at Warner Bros. Studios. Tyrus and Kim Wong greet them all with a variation on one theme: "Thank you for the wind today." Or, "Did you bring the wind?"

Everyone is welcome, including strangers who stumble onto their kite-flying party. "Sometimes the seagulls come and investigate," Kim says, "like they think it's another bird in their territory."

Once, after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a helicopter patrolling the beach took notice, Tyrus says. "Finally they called down to a policeman. He said, 'This guy's got too many kites up here, and too high.'" Tyrus had to take the kites down that day.

I've come back a few times since I first met Tyrus and Kim. The last time I was there, it was a still, hot, sun-baked day. Kim asked if I'd brought the wind.

Tyrus gets a little restless when the wind isn't up. Now and then he would pull a white handkerchief from his pocket and raise it in the air. He looked like he was surrendering, but he was doing kite calculations to gauge the amount and the direction of the wind. "Still not enough," he tells me.

Finally, a light breeze picks up. Tyrus jumps out of his beach chair, grabs the kite string and points Kim towards a red goldfish kite. "Go ahead, Kim," he instructs, as his daughter backs up along the beach with the goldfish. "Go ahead, further," he says, adjusting. When Kim gets to the right spot, Tyrus gets in position -- feet apart, knees bent -- and then he gives Kim the signal to let go of the kite: a wave of his hand.

The fish lunges up. Then it swerves down, head-first into the sand.

Now the Wongs' friends and family are watching from the picnic blanket. Each one has a look on their face like they're trying to will the kite into the air. Tyrus tries again. The kite swoops up. It sinks a few feet. Then it dives. "Up, up, up!" someone orders the kite, under her breath.

Then it is floating, rising. It's up, and staying up. Tyrus can't find it at first. Someone points. "Oh, there it is."

A little girl who goes to church with Tyrus's niece is in awe. "He's older than my great grandma," she says.

Tyrus looks down from the kite for a moment and notices her. "I tell you what, honey," he says. "You go over and get a black goldfish. Get it and bring it over here, OK?" He knows a good kite assistant when he sees one.

He and his entourage put up a swallow, a 20-foot-long centipede, a panda with little legs dangling so that when the wind hits, it looks like it's running. It's a big hit with the crowd.

Once the kites are up, Tyrus relaxes again. He leans back on his heels, looks up at his kites, and starts flirting with the ladies who are also watching them bob up and down.

"How come that one is wiggling?" asks one woman.

"It's a female kite," Tyrus says.

After Tyrus retired 30 years ago, he took up fishing for a while. That pastime also involved holding on to a line with an animal at the other end, gently tugging now and then. But before too long he stopped fishing, and went back to the kites of his childhood.

It's better for you, he says. "Fishing you're looking down. Kite flying, you're looking up."


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