Into the Blue
A biographical story by Lindsay Carlson
From a mile away on Vancouver's shore, you can see them. Three tiny specks of color weaving in and out of each other, trailing their long tails against the blue sky.
As in a dreamy dance, the colored specks twirl, float, line up, and dive, perfectly synchronized with each other. Moving closer, you can see they are three match sport kites, attached to the tanned torso of a man who appears to be in his own dance, stepping, running, waving his arms, twisting his body, nimbly moving the kites through the sky above Vanier Park.
Ray Bethell is polishing his technique for an upcoming competition in France. The seventy-plus-year-old world multiple kite champion who spends up to 12 hours a day flying in preparation for a full schedule of festivals and competitions. This year alone, he will be performing in Europe, South America, Canada, the US, Asia and Australia.
Ray is a leader in the world of multiple kite flying. He is known worldwide for his dramatic stunts and performances. He wins enough sponsorships to pay his way to more than twenty international kite festivals each year, he has been interviewed on national TV, and he has even modeled for Eatons jeans advertisements. But his home, a short drive from Vanier Park in East Vancouver, is modest and unassuming.
Photographs and awards from his seven world-records and the international competitions he has dominated for the past twenty years cover the wood-paneled walls in Ray's home. Kiting publications are stacked on the tables and floor and there are graphite rods and ground stakes on his desk beside the computer he uses to keep in touch with fans and kiters around the world.
Ray has been deaf for six years, but this is easy to forget when talking to him. You need to look him full in the face so he can lip-read your words, but he is quick to laugh and speaks warmly with a trace of an accent from his youth in England.
Ray is remarkably open. He is always pleased to give tips to new and fellow kite-flyers, and welcomes conversations with passer-bys. For Ray, his success is gauged by his audience, not his judges, and by the relationships he builds with the kiters and fans he meets in his travels.
Roughly three million spectators each year watch Ray perform his aerial ballets. And Ray delights in always having something new to show them.
"I try to do things with my kites that have never been done before in front of an audience," says Ray.
Ray delights in performing unheard-of feats. He has flown kites in parades, in a convertible, and from the back of a motorcycle. He devised a technique to fly 36 hyperkites set up in "stacks" controlled by his hands, and stomach muscles. He has even flown blindfolded, unable to hear or see his kites, relying on instinct, expertise and practiced skill.
"Other people rely on the kite's sound," Ray says, referring to the loud purring the kites make in the air. "I am better off this way because I'm in tune with the kites themselves. I can be anywhere I want to in the world when I fly."
Ray taught himself to fly hyperkites in 1980 after seeing them while on holiday with his wife, Les. Les is unmoved by the kites and has never seen her husband fly. With the exception on Video and TV coverage.
Ray was taken with the large long-tailed crafts, however, and he immediately bought a set from a kite store and spent weeks trying to learn the basics of flying.
"Today when somebody buys a kite, they walk across the field and get someone like me to show them to fly. But there was really no one to learn from twenty years ago," Bethell says, recalling the long weeks of trial-and-error learning.
Eventually Ray learned to fly his hyperkites and developed a kite-flying system that is now being copied by multiple kite flyers worldwide. Anchored to his hands, waist, and sometimes his feet, Bethell can fly kites in up to four different directions at once. Arms outstretched with wrists twisting the kite handles, hips veering and feet stepping in careful time, the six-foot Bethell flies his kites with slow and precise movements that reflect masterful focus and strength.
Ray's graceful performances are set to the live music of symphony orchestras. When he flies, he moves audience members to tears. But in flight, oblivious to the music, he relives times he spent with his father who died when he was twelve years old.
"I loved my dad, and when I fly I can be with him in the same place, the same time. I swear to God I can sometimes feel his hand on my shoulder. I can be there in my mind when I fly," says Ray.
As the oldest boy of seven children, Ray had to quit school to work when his father died at 35. Until the second world war, helped to supported his family on the meager wages of a young poultryman.
At age eighteen, he was called up for the army and severed his time in France and Egypt.
Ray worked was a poultryman after the war, and married in 1950. Soon after, he packed his wife and two children up and left England with $20 in his pocket.
"One day we just said 'hey, there's gotta be a better place in this world,'" Bethell explains.
Ray immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, and found work at a meat processing plant. At $1 an hour, Bethell says he felt like a king. A short time later, the Bethell's had their third child and Ray returned to school to train as a millwright.
At work, Ray lost some of his hearing, but it wasn't until six years ago that he woke one morning suddenly deaf.
"Its not done--losing your hearing so sudden like that," says Ray. What the doctor first thought was wax build-up turned out to be total and permanent deafness.
"I was totally devastated," Ray recalls. "I was sitting there in the hospital thinking why me? Why not you? I mean I am a good guy."
Ray remembers a small group of children in the waiting room with him, all in hospital outfits with bald heads, running around and play-fighting. He remembers being angry with them because they were so active, and he was sitting there newly deaf, waiting his turn to be scanned.
"I asked the matron 'what is wrong with the children?'" he says, remembering a moment that changed his life.
She said they were waiting also to be scanned. They were terminally ill.
"I said to myself, 'Ray, you're a big jerk. You've been around the world, done what others couldn't do.' And you are crying because you can't hear! Now every time I see someone in a wheelchair, or someone that is very ill, I just thank God for just taking my ears," he says.
This attitude is not surprising for one who refuses to be bound by obstacles.
A self-taught multiple kite flyer, he also taught himself reading and writing skills after leaving grade school to work at the age of twelve. More recently, he learned to type with one finger and surfs the internet using a Pentium computer given to him by a sponsor. Now, he communicates via email with hundreds of friends and admirers, and with the help of a friend he maintains a kiting website.
Ray also finds time to garden, winning Best Garden in his local show for three years in a row, and he does woodworking and carving.
Constantly coming up with new kite-flying stunts, Ray is currently negotiating a spot on the Guinness Book of World Records' television program. Later this year, he hopes to be flying fifteen kites for Guinness, in stacks anchored to different placements on his body.
So far in the kiting world, the placement of a fifth anchor is unheard of. Ray claims to have found the spot for it, but for the moment it remains a secret, should the information get out to his competitors.
On top of the world at more than seventy years old, Ray doesn't seem to be slowing down.
"They will have to shoot me to stop me," Ray says. "One day, they'll say, Ray you're 107!"
And he'll still be flying.
© 1999 Lindsay Carlson. Do not reproduce without author's permission.
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