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Bethell Makes Nylon Dance on the Wind

An article by Kerry Banks in Vancouver

 Copyright Graham Arnould Ray Bethell, the King of kites, stands in Vanier Park with his back to the wind. He is wearing blue jeans and a battered cap. His shirtless torso is tanned a deep bronze, nearly as dark as his tattoos. He is flying three kites, two controlled by his hands, the third clipped to his waist, He manipulates it by rolling and twisting his stomach muscles and twisting his hips. The kites rise and dip, circle slowly in perfect formation, then split apart and speed away in three directions. They cleave the air like angry bees.

Bethell, who is 70 something, has been flying kites on this spot near the Vancouver Planetarium for 20 years. He has become a tourist attraction. On weekends, hundreds of people gather near the water and watch him work the wind. When the conditions are right, he will fly all day -- eight, 10, 12 hours.

This eccentric senior citizen is the best multiple-kite flier in the world. He's won a slew of competitive titles and owns world records for endurance flying and most kites flown at one time. All of which are posted on his web site. He set the endurance mark in 1994 at Long Beach, Washington, where he flew three kites continuously for 12 hours and 12 minutes. The rules permitted him to take a 5-minute break each hour, but he flew nonstop. He set another record in 1996 in Belmont Shores, California, by keeping 12 kites in stacks of three lines of four, aloft for two hours and 41 minutes, a feat of remarkable skill and strength.

Bethell has flown with his feet, knees, and shoulders, he has flown kites blindfolded, and once, when there was no wind, while standing on the back footrest of a moving motorcycle. He travels about 240,000 kilometers a year, performing at kite festivals for millions of people.

Unfortunately, Bethell can't hear their cheers. He is stone deaf. He lost his hearing seven years ago to a rare virus and now converses by reading lips, "It was a one in a million case, "he says. "they told me, 'But don't worry: You are the one.'"

Having "no ears", as Bethell puts it, may be hell on other parts of his life, but it hasn't crimped his flying touch. One of his specialties is aerial Ballet, which he performs with three aerodynamic sport kites, each with a 100 foot tail. The kite move in time with the music. It's a beautiful sight, " Bethell says, " and their tails endlessly repeat the motion that you just saw."

How does he do it with out being able to hear? " I have some one tape me on the shoulder on the first beat of the music, then I just hear the music in my mind. "And what sort of music does he use? " Love songs," Bethell says, "I always do love songs."

This Beethoven of the beach moved to Vancouver from Salisbury, England, in 1956, He worked as a millwright in Canada until 1988, when he was forced to retire. By then, he was already working on his windy hobby. He began flying kites in 1980, after he saw some sport kiters in Hawaii. Today, there are always kites in the air over Vanier Park, but for the first 5 years Bethell was alone, "I started with one kite and one string, running my ass off all over the place." Self-taught, he built his own handles and his own kites and gradually developed and refined kite-flying techniques now copied around the world.

Bethell credits his background as a gymnast with giving the balance, timing and endurance to fly with such supernatural precision. Being deaf also helps, " I can focus 100 percent because I live in a silent world."

He says that kites impart an inner calm. "Stockbrokers, lawyers, they come down here all tense and wound up, and 5 minutes after they start flying all that tension melts away. Kite-flying may not help you solve a problem, but it will show you a way to live with it. When I'm out here my mind can roam. I can think of my Dad, who died at 35, or I can think about my first girl friend, or I can think about all the girls that got away."

It's also a way to connect with the inner child. In 1996 Bethell fulfilled a dream by returning to his English hometown to fly his kites. He had two specific locations in mind, the grounds of Salisbury's 700-year old Cathedral and Stonehenge. Bethell had played hide-and-seek among the ancient stones as a boy, before it became a protected tourist site. He was swiftly ordered to leave at both spots, but he managed to get his kites in the air for a few minutes. When the guards approached, he feigned ignorance, "I pulled a deafie!" Bethell says.

In Salisbury, Bethell put to rest another ghost of his past. The sight of his old school immediately transported him back to grade 5. "I can still hear the voice of my teacher, Mr. Simmons, shouting, 'Bethell you'll never accomplish any thing in this life.' " Mr Simmons, never left Salisbury, and the boy who would never be anything now travels the world on someone's else's ticket.

Bethell has just returned from a huge kite festival in Narbonne, France, where he was asked to perform an aerial ballet for the opening ceremonies, The event attracted 100 of European top fliers. Says Bethell: "As I walked past, I am sure a lot of these young guys were thinking, 'Who's that old bastard from Canada?'" When Bethell was finished, the other kite fliers came and lifted him onto their shoulders, and thousands of spectators waved and cheered. He carries a letter of appreciation from the Mayor of Narbonne in his pocket. The mayor says the white-haired Canadian brought his community a magical gift.

Bethell's art is magical. In his hands, kites become living things, When he makes them dance on the wind, they reach people, stirring memories of some perfect moment in there past, And later, when he's finished and has landed his bright nylon birds, people come over and thank him for touching that secret place in their hearts.

Written by free lance writer, Kerry Banks
Vancouver B.C. Canada

© 2000 Kerry Banks. Do not reproduce without author's permission.

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