flash nonfiction

Into the Stratosphere by Ken Szymanski

Into the Stratosphere | Ken Szymanski

Call me foolish, but I’m pulling up to Flynn Elementary School on a windy Sunday in March with two sons, two kites, and a dog. We’ve come in search of wide-open space and great gusts of wind and compared to the valley down below where we live, this place feels like Mount Olympus. Spring days like this—with 30-40 mph gales—are rare, and up here on the hill the kites should take flight with ease. 

We park on the road and walk out onto the open soccer field—the sweeping sky above us. I get Kite One up in no time. My thirteen-year-old son struggles with Kite Two’s tendency to nose-dive while my ten-year-old son runs with the dog on a leash. Before I even have a chance to admire Kite One and say something like “Gravity’s got nothing on us,” the dog has cut loose and I realize I’ve got one too many things to hang onto. Kite One is already at full height and going strong, so I hook the C-shaped plastic spool to the soccer net and help my younger son catch the dog. 

Once we’ve retrieved our dog, I hold the leash while the boys work the kites—now both sky-high. Acting as ground control, I shout instructions through the gusts of wind. “They’re going to get tangled! Pull back! Pull back! Move over!”

My younger son asks, “What would happen if I let go?” 

“Don’t,” I respond. 

“But what would happen if I did?”

“Don’t,” I repeat. 

I go help my older son, who is stuck with the slightly defective Kite Two. We make adjustments and get a better lift-off. Then he turns and says, “Look at Evan’s kite! Woah!!!!” 

It’s drifting—far past the string’s limit, 100 yards up and over the school. And it just keeps going. Forget about, “Houston, we have a problem.” I can guess the problem.  

“Did you let it go?” I shout into the wind. 

“I did but I tried to catch it!”

“Why did you let it go?”

“I tried to catch it!”

It’s only a four-dollar kite, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to send it into the stratosphere. Both boys run to the other side of the school to track it while the dog and I bring down Kite Two. 

I place Kite Two in the van and go check on the boys. My annoyance is replaced by the lift I feel from seeing them excited and collaborating. They’re under a tree in front of the school looking up, pointing, and laughing. The kite is still flying high in the air, but the C-shaped spool caught a tree branch. Now, in effect, the tree is flying the kite—with far less effort than we were putting into it. 

“With the wind blowing like this, that kite is not coming down,” I say. With the spool caught on a branch too high up for us to reach, that kite will be in limbo all day. Again, it’s a four-dollar kite, but if rescue is possible… 

“We could go home and get the ladder,” I say. “Or maybe if we stood on top of the van, we could reach it.”

“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” they yell. “Get the van!”

The dog and I return with the rescue van, which is parked close by on the road, and we pull it beneath the tree. I boost both boys up on top of the van. They’re not only lighter than me and easier on the roof, they’re also thrilled to be standing up there. From his new scaffold, the oldest is just tall enough to grab the spool, unhook it, and hand it down to me. 

When I was younger than both these boys, I once flew kites with a bunch of relatives in a Minneapolis parking lot. The string slipped out of my cousin’s hand; it shot straight toward the sky with the kite. But my uncle saw it, jumped up, and snatched the string —with the agility of a Labrador retriever leaping after a Frisbee. That looked like a superpower to me. Here, our kite rescue is clumsy by comparison, but satisfying nonetheless. 

“Can we fly the kite out the window on the way home?” my older son asks. I remind him of powerlines. “Oh yeah,” he says.

Then, on our way down Brackett Hill, back to the lowlands, my younger son asks, “What would have happened to the kite if the tree hadn’t caught it?”

“It would’ve just kept flying forever,” I say.

He thinks about it, then responds: “Imagine if in a million years some guy was flying to Mars and he looked out the window and saw it.”


I return home with two sons, a dog, and two kites: all intact. Ground control, mission complete. The kids soared like kites, and I was their string, keeping them tethered. And on this day, the winds—which are always beyond our control—gave us a lift for the ages. 

About the Author:

Author Ken Szymanski in Eau Claire on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. View more photos at

Ken Szymanski is the 2020-2022 Writer in Residence for Eau Claire, WI, where he was born and raised. He honed his craft through nights performing at poetry slams and even later nights writing concert reviews as a free-lance music journalist. He’s a long-time contributor for Volume One Magazine, and audio versions of his essays have appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio. With his wife and two sons, he lives in Eau Claire—where he teaches 8th grade English. He recently released a collection of non-fiction essays called Home Field Advantage. For more on Szymanski, visit