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June 14th, 2012

I am the man my father built.

“Now, people have their bat kites and their regular shaped kites,” Dad said to me when I was ten years old, “but the box kite, Mark, now there is the most aerodynamically sound of them all.”

He demonstrated by making a box kite out of balsa wood and brown paper. We took it to the park on the Air Force base where Dad was stationed, just behind the theater where I saw horror movies whenever I could get Mom to provide the parental guidance suggested.

“But it looks so weird,” I told him about the kite. “It’s just a box, Dad.”

MarkDad1984 “That’s the beauty of it!” he exclaimed, and he let out one of his big laughs, a roaring Santa Clause laugh that shook his whole body. He held the box high above his head, I at the other end of the string, and I ran across the grass, looking behind to see it climb high above the movie theater. The box soared for an hour as Dad stood behind me, explaining the principles of flight through the eyes of a B-52 bomber pilot.

Box kites became his obsession, and he engaged Mom and the family in his quest to build bigger kites capable of higher altitudes. Our next one stood six feet tall, made with wooden dowels and light fabric. Mom and my sister Nancy sewed to Dad’s specifications while the boys stayed in the garage, piecing together the frame with hot glue. The glue gun seemed invented especially for Dad, who used it liberally for every project. “Lots glue!” he commanded to me and my brother David, hard at work to bring the box kite to life. “You can never have enough glue, boys. Lotsa glue!”

We took the kite – placed atop a Volkswagon convertible – to the spring kite flying contest held in the fields behind Louisiana State University in Shreveport. They had a category for largest kite, and Dad intended for us to win it. One of the entries was an enormous bat shaped contraption made with layers of newspaper and a wing span of at least twenty feet. “Not aerodynamically sound,” Dad said, eyeing the competition. “Won’t fly. Can’t fly. Shoulda tried a box kite.”

Sure enough, the massive bat kite took one fast swoop upwards and then veered down again, demolishing itself. The contest rules stated that kites had to stay aloft for a full three minutes, and our box kite soared perfectly, winning the King family a sparkling trophy presented on the windy lawn of the college.

It made Dad hungry for more.

“Never worry about making a fool of yourself,” he would say, “if it means taking a risk, Mark.” He would recognize my adolescent need to simply fit in with everyone else and he would deny me of it, locking his eyes onto mine. “You gotta take the risk.”

DadDavidSplinter1968cropOver the summer the six foot kite became ten feet, built with heavier fabric and stronger wood. We tried it out on a field on the edge of the Air Force base, and I remember Dad forgetting the gloves that protected him from the slick nylon string, and the kite fighting for higher altitude and the nylon going whizzzzz! across his hands, cutting deep into his palm. He looked at his hands with a shrug and then, predictably, laughed. He had lost his grip in the process, though, and the kite escaped to sights unseen.

We jumped in the car and chased it across the base, both of us with our heads craning out of the car and shouting visual sightings to one another, only to find its taught nylon cord snagged on a nursery school swing set. The box kite had dragged the set twenty feet from where, until recently, it had been embedded into the ground.

The air force police would soon arrive to inform us that our “craft” had been picked up on base radar and was a “menace to aviation.” Dad (or “Colonel King” as the uniformed men called him) sheepishly explained and then laughed with the cops as we carefully pulled our menacing craft, foot by foot, back down to earth.

The following year the Kings would risk it all, creating what would become the mother of all box kites. We built it in the driveway for a couple of weeks, using yards of nylon material and cord strong enough for a box kite approximately the size of a Winnebago. We transported it to the annual contest by securing it to a chartered flat bed truck, and the driver – after taking the monstrosity across the Jimmy Davis Bridge to the university – swore he could actually feel the truck lift a little as the kite fought to respond to invitations from mighty spring breezes.

The fabled hush fell over the crowd as the kite was driven onto the contest grounds. Three eight foot box kites – all larger than our original entry – were brought along, and the crowd stood incredulously as each of the three were launched into the air. Then we secured the cords of the three airborne kites to the top of the Mother Kite, and the crowd watched aghast as the King family coordinated their efforts, releasing thick rolls of nylon cord, until the massive kite lurched off the ground and up to stronger winds that would carry it back and forth above the riveted, gasping spectators.

For two minutes and twenty seconds.

Later, on the evening news, Dad would stand amid the wreckage of a violent descent, knee deep in plastic, wood, nylon cord and innumerable remnants of hot glue. It looked like the aftermath of a commuter plane tragedy.

“And how do you feel, Mr. King,” the reporter would ask my Dad, “about your creation not flying for very long. Are you disappointed?”

“Of course not!” Dad replied in the midst of a belly laugh already begun. “Didn’t you see it? It was a spectacular crash!

Those days, and that glorious moment, are lost to time now, and so is my father. Not long after our kite flying adventures, our personas traded places. I embraced my sexuality and my misfit charms, while Dad struggled to understand a son who was turning out to be more different than he could have imagined. Worst of all, he was made to contend with a teenager who saw him as something abhorrent: typical.

We had many years, later, when our outlooks merged again and we reveled in his various projects and my work as an outspoken gay man. Ultimately, Dad raised exactly what he valued, a man who steps up and asks stupid questions and knows that to soar you must risk the occasional, spectacular crash.

On my best days I live happily as the man my father built, writing and living as an HIV positive queer for all to see and never afraid to take a risk. And on the worst of days, my mind’s eye conjures up a hearty laugh coming from nearby, maybe the garage, where something is being cobbled together that will solve absolutely everything.

Usually it’s a box kite, crafted from unlikely supplies and fatherly magic, that carries me far, far away.

(This story has been adapted from my book A Place Like This, which chronicles my life in Los Angeles during the dawn of the AIDS epidemic and which includes childhood flashbacks like this one. My late father is very much on my mind during Father’s Day weekend. I love you, Dad, and I miss you so much.)

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12 Responses to “I am the man my father built.”

  1. Anne Says:

    June 14th, 2012 at 10:23 am

    Thanks, son, for revisiting one of our great family adventures. Dad would be so proud of your work today, and we still echo his famous words, “And that’s the beauty of it!” When we have lost someone, we shouldn’t cry because it’s over, but rejoice because it happened.
    Love, Mom

  2. Anne Says:

    June 14th, 2012 at 10:28 am

    Loved the picture of Dad working on your foot. You asked him, “Am I gonna die?” Always the drama! Mom

    (Mother, might I simply point out that the photo in question is of Dad and another of your sons, David, who had a dart stuck in his foot [long story but funny because it was David’s foot and not mine] and who famously asked “Am I gonna die, Daddy?” I chose the picture anyway because of Dad’s gentle care evident in the photo, and was going to allow people to think the boy was me, that is, until you suggested I was such a drama queen. As it happens, straight sons are drama filled as well. Nurture over nature? — Mark)

  3. Mommie Dammit Says:

    June 14th, 2012 at 11:55 am

    Brilliant and wise words from your Mother, Mark: “…rejoice because it happened.” I can relate to much of this posting as I’ve been blessed enough to have three men who taught, inspired, and encouraged me – my father, step-father, and my grandfather. …and there isn’t a drag queen on the face of the planet who isn’t also a drama queen, dear. Denial, denial, denial… tsk, tsk!

  4. Donna Gore Says:

    June 14th, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    What a lovely story. My dad, who is 84, is recovering from open heart surgery. The only time in his whole life he was in the hospital was once as a kid to have his tonsils out……so this has been a very big deal. He is doing well, almost back to his ole self. But it scares me because I know that some day in the not-too-distant future I will have to learn how to live without him. And I just can’t imagine not having him in my life.

  5. Marna Says:

    June 15th, 2012 at 1:33 am

    I love these family snapshots, Mark, that you describe so well. We all are certainly our parents’ children, and your dad clearly was a master builder.

  6. Dianna Kemp Nussbaum Says:

    June 15th, 2012 at 5:59 am

    Beautifully written Mark! Your father was a larger than life kind of man who lives on in you and your siblings. You have much to rejoice about.
    (Thanks, Dianna. Hey everybody, she was my date to senior prom! We wore all white. Very gay. She was a very good sport, to say the least. — Mark)

  7. James Allen Says:

    June 16th, 2012 at 5:31 am

    Beautiful and powerful in emotional content. So much more than a kite story. It’s a metaphor for a person I have learned is sturdy and flight worthy in his own right. I’m glad you had those important and instructive memories of your father and that I did of mine as well. Super writing.

  8. Nathan Says:

    June 19th, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    Mark: Thanks for the great story. It reminds me of all the adventures my dad has taken my sister and me on over the years. I had a wonderful visit with him and my mom on fathers day and your story is one I will definitly tell him about as he is also the kind of guy who can always figure it out and make whatever project your involved in work. Gonna miss seeing you again this fall on the cruise as I will be attending Dad and Mom’s 50th wedding anniversary.

    Thanks again

    Nate

  9. Craig Svoboda Says:

    July 8th, 2013 at 7:01 am

    Great story Mark. I’m glad people are beginning to embrace the differences among us. Hell I wouldn’t want to hang out with someone like me but someone different…well there is somebody worth finding out about.
    Craig Svoboda
    PHS class of ’81’

  10. Carly Says:

    June 15th, 2014 at 10:41 am

    I had no idea that the base radar picked up the kite! Loved reading this brings back memories 🙂 Thanks Uncle Mark!

  11. Catherine Bass Says:

    June 17th, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Mark,
    Your Dad was a great craftsman. Do you remember the class ring he created (with some help from the PSH Jr. Class) that was tall enough to walk through? It survived several ring ceremonies after your class and was never equaled in later creations. My biggest problem was storing it from year to year. What great memories of him and your class! Jeannine Berry would be so proud of you and your writing skills. LOL

  12. Ann-Marie LeBlanc Says:

    June 19th, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    My One and Only Mark,
    You have always been so special and so unique! I feel so much joy in your successes. Your Dad was such a jolly soul and a great role model for you and your siblings. I was so blessed to be included in many of the King family events. It has been one of the great pleasures of my life knowing you and watching you develop from that skinny, freckled, fabulous 14 year old boy who felt lost in his older brother’s shadow, into the incredibly gifted, internationally respected and lovely man that you are today. You have used your gifts well and, admirably, in service to others. Much love, Mark!
    I know your Dad is shaking the heavens with that marvelous laugh.

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