Searching for the Real WILL YOLEN

by Valerie Govig,
Kite Lines Magazine, Spring-Summer edition, 1980

Rogallo Kite Will Yolen  Rogallo Kite
Will Yolen, the master kiter in Carl L. Biemiller's mostly fiction for young readers, The Kite of Kilauea (soon to be published). Yolen's picture is flanked by the famous Rogallo kite.

 

Valerie Govig writes:

It's a New York City apartment building that was probably elegant 20 years ago. A uniformed guard contrasts with worn carpeting. An elevator takes us to an upper floor and we ring an anonymous number.

Will Yolen answers the door wearing neat, almost natty sportswear and a welcoming smile. A small man, now 72 and afflicted with the tremors of Parkinson's disease, he has always had--for me--a special stature.

It's about the fourth time we've met and talked. Although Will's speech is slower today, the words are as sharp a reflection as ever of the wit and spirit that make him an important figure in kiting. Is he, indeed, the champion and the personification of the International Kitefliers Association? Have we reached mecca here on 48th Street?

The spacious apartment has many windows and a balcony with a skyline view. It's a tad over decorated, with mirrors, hanging ferns and gilded chairs that are contradicted by such homey touches as a TV set often turned on even with guests present, family pictures, books and memorabilia--and kites. Of course.

When I first plunged into kites, I read anything I could find on the subject, which wasn't very much in 1967. The kite books in print could be counted on two hands and most of them were directed toward children. There were two exceptions: Clive Hart's Kites: An Historical Survey (1967), a rich and scholarly store, and Will Yolen's Young Sportsman's Guide to Kite Flying (1963).

Will's book was fuel for the imagination. No one else saw kites quite as Will saw them. The book was a sophisticated pastiche of facts and fancies about kites and their fliers as they existed in 1963. Living kitefliers and flying kites! For a long time, there was nothing like it, though it was joined shortly by two new developments: the beginning of Robert M. Ingraham's quarterly, Kite Tales (predecessor of Kite Lines) in October 1964, and the opening of the first kite shop, Go Fly a Kite, in New York City, in May of 1965. Will's book led the way to the acceptance of kiteflying for adults and it implanted the idea of a worldwide kite community in the public consciousness--what Will called the International Kitefliers Association. "No dues, no meetings, no officers, no publications, no responsibilities--just kiteflying," Will would say.

Over the years, Yolen has handed out over 35,000 membership cards ("Worldwide Friends through Kiteflying") to his kiteflying friends and to anyone who writes for a card. He still does so, though the burden of correspondence increases as his physical abilities decline. And he still goes out to fly a kite or talk about kites on rare ceremonial occasions.

Though Will's book contains instructions for making kites, his one deficiency in the opinion of some kiters is his personal disinclination to build kites. When asked about this, his reply is always, "Did Babe Ruth make his own bats?" It's a feisty, much-quoted, Yolenesque remark.

It wasn't Yolen's skills as a kiteflier so much as his perception of kites and his talents in writing of them that nourished the kiting renaissance as we know it today. These very talents caused him trouble, too, at times. He was thought of by some as a mere huckster and egotist, especially as more and more kiters came on the scene, building new kites and flying them ever more adventurously. Will did not always recognize these exploits or even know of them--though his second book, The Complete Book of Kites and Kite Flying (1976), was a gallant try. The fact is, the enthusiasm which Will helped generate had grown beyond the ability of any one person to embody all of it.

But today in the spring of 1980, Will's eyes still gleam as he talks about kites, including many craft sent to him from admirers around the world. "I fly kites from the porch," he says. "I fly messages to the U.N." (Always pulling your leg a bit.)

He shows me his reel, carrying bag and kites. "This is one of the first kites Caleb Crowell made for me," he says of a Filipino-type kite. Crowell is the unsung collaborator in Yolen's second book who was responsible for many of its fine plan drawings.

Yolen enjoys a chance to reminisce. He is sure to talk about his two children: Jane Yolen, noted children's author of 54 books, three of them on kites; and Steve Yolen, Bureau Chief in Brazil for Fairchild Publications. And then the tales roll out, slowly, the stories from his books, the quips, the claims. In oral form, these tales sound somehow more believable. One can sense the solid stuff as the lighter particles sift past. It's all there, it all happened. And it started quite naturally.

Will Hyatt Yolen, a native of Connecticut, was a very successful editor, reporter and public relations man for a string of broadcast and print media, including Life magazine. He is still on call as a consultant to the well-known public relations firm Hill and Knowlton. Active in many associations, he has served as president of both the Publicity Club of New York and the Overseas Press Club. Who's Who has listed him as the "kite flying champion of the world."

Yet, as Will says, "I never flew a kite until I was 30 years old, right after the war. I had a brother-in-law, Edward Garrick, who was the chief physicist for the old NACA [National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics], now known as NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration]. He and Francis Rogallo came up to my house in New York City. I was living at Central Park West at the time. My daughter Jane was about 4 or 5 years old and I'd come back from the war. Then my brother-in-law shows up with this guy Francis Rogallo. He says, `He's the chief of the wind tunnels at Langley Field [VA]. We're working together on a new way of getting down from the stratosphere. He's got a kite here and he wants to know what he can do to make everybody know about it.'

"Rogallo takes out a piece of plastic, flat and square, with strings on it. I said, `That doesn't look like any kite I ever saw.' "He said, `Well, I'll show you how it works.' His theory was that if you had a nonrigid flying object you could go through Mach 1, 2, 3, 4, 5--through the sound barrier because it would just go through the atmosphere without any friction, it would just bend with the turbulence in the air.

"I said, `Very good, let's try it.' And we went out into the park, but not before I told the editor of the Daily News (he lived in the apartment below me) that we were experimenting here with some high level stratospheric flying where we could reach the moon. (I made that up quickly to get his interest.)

"I couldn't understand how a piece of plastic with no sticks in it could fly. But he put it up on a line and it just took the wind and bellied out like a parachute opening, and it was so responsive to every change of the breeze. It moved like nothing I ever saw in a kite.

"Jane flew it and she was ecstatic. Isabelle, my wife, was waving (we had windows that faced the park about 200 feet away) and the editor in the apartment below was waving and up above us Arthur Burns, the economist, was waving us on--everybody in the building who had windows facing the park saw this crazy kite, the kite with no sticks in it. We got back and I found out that the first time I'd ever flown a kite--just imagine, this is how I started my kiteflying career--I was flying the most sophisticated kite. Instead of starting at the bottom I started at the very top. And after I got to flying kites, I never flew anything but Rogallo's kite."

Yolen's initial self-consciousness as a kite loner was dramatized by the oft-told tale of his making a cut-out figure of a boy which he staked to the ground so that to a distant viewer he appeared as a father-like instructor to his child . As a public relations man, he knew image was important. He began using a deep-sea reel to improve his handling and this became part of his persona.

And then there is the story of his defeat of Pablo Diablo, the legendary evil kiteflier whose razor-studded craft was the scourge of 110th Street. Yolen's knowledge of the winds gave him the advantage in maneuvering his opponent over some trees just when the wind dropped--causing disintegration of the "dirty" kite.

The same techniques served Yolen in the course of the most fabulous of all his deeds, his overthrow of the Maharajah of Bharatpur in 1959 on the grounds of his hunting palace in Uttar Pradesh, India.

Yolen begins, "One day I was sitting around in Toots Shor's" and we hear the way Yolen recruited new enthusiasts in the famous restaurant from among the writers and theater people there. It was in this establishment that he was invited on a tiger-hunting expedition. With the tigers out of the territory, an alternative diversion was chosen--a kite fight. In a previous trip to Nassau, Yolen had been proclaimed Western Hemisphere Champion among six kitefliers from diverse nations. The Maharajah was regarded as the Kite Champion of the East, and it was agreed that the victor would, obviously, become the World Kiteflying Champion. Yolen won, and the title was his. But it was not until Yolen had lunch at the Overseas Press Club with Red Smith, the noted sports writer, that his tale of derrring do became published news. Smith found enough to write about to fill a four-part series in February, 1961, in the New York Herald Tribune. Yolen was an overnight celebrity.

Although Yolen had essentially created his own title, he was in a curious position. A title can be strengthened but also threatened by challenges. And the first kiteflier to challenge Yolen was Baltimorean Edward Hanrahan at Compo Beach, CT, in 1962. Like Yolen, Hanrahan was an amiable, voluble public relations man of compact build. However, Hanrahan was 18 years younger than Yolen and had just brought out a fine Brazilian-type papagaio kite. He called it the Falcon kite and hoped to market it to sports stores. (This was before the days of kite shops.) The Falcon was a dueling kite but no cutting lines were used; one kite simply felled another with an overpowering dive. Sometimes, though, a pair of dueling Falcons would merely tangle in an indecisive spiral lock. In such cases, it was the tongue that had to move quickly to recover from the damage done to dignity. In these oral skills, Yolen and Hanrahan were very well matched. Hanrahan claims to this day that microscopic examination of the documentary photos will show his line to have been in a superior position. Yolen never relinquished his title, but Hanrahan counterclaims it anytime he is asked. Only the participants themselves really know who "won" the battle.

As time went on, Yolen thirsted for new glories. He sought to place his name in the record books for kiteflying. The Guinness Book of World Records handled only a limited list of kite records. For any others, there was no certifying body to either ratify or deny--or even to educate--aspirants to kite world records (a condition not yet cured today). Yolen designated himself sole arbiter in the areas he selected: most kites flown from one line and duration. In the first category, Yolen's 178-count attempt at multikiteflying in January, 1974, was demolished by William R. Bigge in October of that year with 261. Bigge had some help from the Maryland Kite Society, myself as Executive at the time, in convincing Guinness the category was important enough to add to their book. Bigge's subsequent listing in Guinness, though an important symbolic breakthrough was short-lived, for the Japanese soon smashed the record overwhelmingly and presently hold the record of 4,128 kites flown on one line in 1978 by Kazuhiko Asaba.

Yolen's second effort for a kite world record was duration. He used a team of fliers at an inn in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, for a week in May, 1977. Accomplished through periods of rain and zero-wind (by repeated pull-ups), the effort went to 170 hours, only 2 hours over Walter Scott's claimed record of the early 60s. But the trifling increase was enough to satisfy Guinness. Yolen had at last made the coveted pages.

Yolen's career, though marked with controversy, has also seen some very real triumphs. Signal among his acts was his November 2, 1965, arrest for advertising Lindsay for Mayor by kite in Central Park, New York City. On December 8, defended by the American Civil Liberties Union, Yolen was exonerated. Thus freedom of speech celebrated a victory and all the air spaces over New York's parks were opened to kiteflying.

Of equal publicity value for kiting was Yolen's coaching stint in the summer of 1976 as the head of the Yale Kite Team. The New York Times on August 9 of that year said of Yolen:

"At his team's table at Morey's, the 128-year-old eating club, he regales his followers with tales of his kiteflying exploits." It ended:

"`Kiteflying is a gentle sport, but the participants have to be tough,' said Mr. Yolen, a taskmaster who insists that his team members forego the fifth martini at lunch during periods of intensive training."

The hope was to encourage other colleges to field intercollegiate teams, each with its own uniforms and cheerleaders. There were real possibilities in that one. The only problem seemed to be that each team needed an inspiring coach and there weren't too many Will Yolens available.

Pet dreams in Yolen's recent years are to persuade the Olympics to include a kite competition and to establish a kite museum with himself as curator. But the years have caught up with Yolen and he says now, "I have to forget the things I still want to do."

I asked Will what he wanted to be remembered for.

His ready answer was, "I want to be remembered for my kiteflying trips. I got something out of every trip I've ever taken, other than just a story. It's very ego-satisfying."

Through good luck and bad, success and controversy, Yolen and the IKA (which he wryly calls "my monument") are the embodiment of two qualities every kiter requires: wit and grit. Or, as Yolen says, "Get it up and keep it up."

 

My sincere thanks go to John Barresi of Kitelife.com, who gave me the contact for the article's author, Valerie Govig, and to Ms. Govig for giving me permission to post the article on my web site. You'll find a copy of Kite Lines Magazine, Spring-Summer edition, 1980 at John's site in the link below (scroll down and click on "Go to the Kite Lines archives" after arriving at the site).

The only remaining item that was featured in Kite Lines Magazine is it's bookstore. You can go there by jumping on the book-kite next to Mr. Barresi's link. The logos are the properties of the webmasters of the respective sites.
To Kitelife's To the Kiteline Bookstore.
If you have any comments about this article, please contact me at: eric@biemiller.com
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