Issue 40: Remembering Cris Batdorff

In 1987 I was flying with Eric and Dorothy Wolff and Frank Fiesler for the first year of the Chicago Fire. We were all very interested and involved in Stunt Kite Flying, as were many fliers in the Midwest and all across the USA. I was the editor of the Chicagoland Sky Liners Kite Club newsletter, SkyLines at that time and Eric and I had talked at length about creating an insert for the Club newsletter devoted strictly to Stunt kites. Our initial ideas revolved around the working title of Stunt Kites Only. There were many stunt kite fliers in our club and we felt that a controllable kite section would be well accepted!

That same year we learned of a stunt kite competition being held in Manistee, Michigan, and was called The Western Michigan Stunt Kite Championships! This was the closest competition to Chicago, and would be one of the very first for the Fire! The organizer and coordinator for this event was Cris Batdorff. My first meeting with Cris out on that flying field was pretty interesting. He seemed to be a one man field crew and was involved in all areas of the event! Cris was also the primary (read only) sponsor for the event and had provided all the money to produce the entire event!

Cris talked a lot to Eric and I about our idea of a ‘Stunt Kites Only’ Skyliner Newsletter insert. He believed that stunt kites were the fastest growing segment of organized kiteflying. He talked about a series of stunt kite events across the country that fliers could attend. He frequently compared stunt kite competitions to Basketball circuits. I think that was the first time I ever heard anyone refer to Conferences connected with kiteflying. (Six years later I would use Cris’ term when I helped to create the AKA’s Conference ranking system)

Cris talked about this series of stunt kite events right there in Michigan, His 1987 event, The Western Michigan Stunt Kite Championships was cosponsored by Mackinaw Kite Company and Grand Bay Kite Company. The event was planned to be a ‘Traveling Competition’ meaning the first would be in Manistee, MI in 1988 the WMSKC was hosted by Grand Bay Kite Co. in Traverse City, MI and in 1989 by Mackinaw Kite Co. in Grand Haven, MI.

Note: In 1989 the event was held in Grand Haven, but Mackinaw Kite Co. changed the name of the event to the Great Lakes Stunt Kite Championships, and decided to hold it annually, thus ending the ‘three way’ partnership and the Western Michigan Stunt Kite Championships.

The Fire eventually went home with 95% of the WMSKC trophies, and Cris came away from the event with an Idea. An idea based on our conversations about a ‘Stunt Kites Only’ newsletter. Looking back I’m glad that Cris didn’t like Eric’s and my title for our newsletter, otherwise we’d all be talking about SKO (Stunt Kites Only) instead of SKQ (Stunt Kite Quarterly).

Cris and I corresponded all through 87′ and the spring of ’88 and he decided to make those earlier conversations about a stunt oriented magazine a reality. Cris asked me to write some ‘stuff’ for his new magazine which he would call Stunt Kite Quarterly, and I became the Associate Editor. The first issue of SKQ came out in the summer of 1988, and just prior to the AKA National Convention in Chicago. The first ‘Cover Shot’ was of Sue Taft solo flying at the ECSKC in Wildwood 1988.

For those of us that were ‘stunt kite addicts’ the new magazine was spectacular. There were SKC event reports from across the country. Some were written by Cris, but some by prominent fliers at those events. Cris did attend all of the events that were reported on in those first SKQ editions. There was flight testing reports of new stunt kites, an event calendar, I contributed part of my ‘No Secrets” handbook of Dual Line Stunt kites – How to booklet and wrote what would be my regular column called “Short Lines” There was also an article about power flying by Lee Sedgwick, which was to become Lee’s regular column called “The Sedgwick Tapes” The title was an insider joke about Lee who ‘never’ wrote letters, but always delivered his correspondence via cassette tapes!

The ‘Insider stories’ were a really big part of SKQ and Cris’ style of publication. Many of the articles really made perfect sense to all of us that were attending those events that Cris was reporting on. There were at times gimmicks and jokes included that you really wouldn’t clearly understand unless you were an ‘insider’ On the other hand Cris’ ‘insider’ reporting was gobbled up by everyone directly involved in the sport/hobby of stunt kiteflying in the 80’s and early 90’s.

Cris spent the week of the Windy City ’88 AKA Nationals in Chicago. Cris was quite a party guy, but in a very unusual way. Cris didn’t smoke or drink at all. (partly because of previous heart operations) but it always seemed that he’d be part of all the Big parties. Some of this was Cris’ natural “News Reporter” spirit, and he just didn’t want to miss a good story. (More then a few of us regret talking too much in front of Cris at those big parties) BUT more importantly, Cris liked the kitefliers parties, simply because he enjoyed being around and talking to kitefliers!

I recall one night at the ’88 Convention I was sitting next to Cris in the HQ Hotel bar and he said, “I really don’t usually like bars, mostly because of the dumb conversations you have to get into, but being in a Kitefliers Bar is one of the coolest things. Just look around, everyone is having a good time and all of these people are ‘Kitefliers’.  Now that’s my kind of Bar”!

By the 1988 Convention I was pretty tired of forty years living in the “Big City” of Chicago. Having 3.5 million neighbors was a drag to say the least! I was also just getting over a divorce and felt pretty strongly that I wanted to just “Get out of Town” and start over someplace else! Cris did a lot of ‘campaigning’ during Chicago Convention week, trying to persuade me to move to Manistee Michigan. He really had all the angles covered. He said that I could move into an apartment over his gift/kite shop “Sand Castle” until I could find a place of my own. I could work with him on SKQ and work in the kite shop as well. I knew that a kite shop wouldn’t make me a lot of money and said so! Cris had that covered as well, and he told me his brother in law owned the local newspaper, The Manistee News Advocate, and that he could get me a job running a printing press there.

I really couldn’t argue with Cris, he did have all the right answers! So beginning in November of 1988 I began making trips to Manistee with van loads of my stuff. And on January 30, 1989, I became a ‘permanent’ resident of Manistee Michigan! I moved into Cris’ apartment above Sand Castle, which really wasn’t a conventional apartment. Cris’ place used to be a doctors office and was ‘partly’ converted to living space. (My room had those large tinted glass walls that doctor’s examination rooms had!) Cris and I made pretty good roommates right off the bat. We were both ‘obvious’ kite fanatics, and had a lot in common in that area, but on a more personal level Cris was also working his way past a rather difficult divorce so we had other things in common as well!

We had many things in common. Sometimes we had ‘identical’ and simultaneous ideas about things. There were times when we’d both be sitting in that apartment and writing stuff for an issue of SKQ. We’d take a break and look at each others writing, we’d break into a laugh when we’d realize we were writing about exactly the same thing!

But at other times we had very different viewpoints about some kite related idea or another and especially what SKQ would be all about! We did differ on some of these things in a major way! Cris believed that SKQ should be about and for the fliers that are currently participating in the competitions across the country! (referring again to that ‘insider’ idea I mentioned earlier.) All the kite reviews that Cris picked were for ‘Hi Tech/High End”” kites being used on the competition fields. In the opposite direction I wanted to write some articles that would be of interest to beginners, in the hopes of encouraging them to become one of those ‘insiders’ Cris liked so much! We got into something of a disagreement over an article idea of mine on Trlby Kites directed toward beginner kitefliers. Cris decided not to print the article, and his answer was, “No one competes with Trlbys!”

Cris was, after all, the Editor and Publisher of SKQ so he did get to make those sort of choices! And I can always accept the “Bosses’ choice! But it does help to illustrate the “Mind of Cris Batdorff’ He didn’t think along the ‘accepted’ lines that many kitefliers thought in the USA. Cris had a lot of new and somewhat ‘radical’ ideas about the future of organized stunt kite flying.

One of the best examples was in his very first ‘Editorial’ in SKQ Volume One, Number One. (Read this Editorial in it’s entirety).

In that editorial Cris suggested that although the American Kitefliers Association was the accepted National Kite Organization in the USA it might not be the very best organization to control, and officiate over a stunt kite oriented series of national competitions. He proposed that an organization he called the American Stunt Kite Fliers Association (ASKFA) be created to serve the needs and support the stunt kite competitions in the country. Cris’ reasoning was that the AKA consisted of a very diverse group of all types of kitefliers (Fighters, Single Line, Rokkaku, KAP, Kitemakers, etc.) and as such cannot serve the needs of stunt kitefliers to the fullest. A new “Stunt Kite Only” organization would be better suited to provide for stunt kite competitors exclusively! He was not suggesting that the AKA wasn’t a good organization, Cris was suggesting that the AKA was too diverse, and Stunt kite competitors needed their own organization.

This was a pretty radical idea in 1988, one which I have to admit I did agree with. Keep in mind that in the late 80’s and early 90’s stunt kite competitions were growing, the amount of SKC competitors at the AKA Nationals was growing yearly. BUT other types of kitefliers in the AKA were demanding that Stunt Kite fliers limit the time allowed for AKA Grand Nationals. The AKA had to listen to the majority of their members, and that majority was not the stunt kite competitor!

Cris’ Radical ideas where a part of the style of SKQ, and he used the publication as a ‘soap box’ for his ideas. In SKQ Vol.1 #2 he wrote about helping to retain Novice Competitors by explaining an entire Novice Competition system geared to that beginner class. In the spring of 1989 Cris along with several other SKC event coordinators implemented and created the “International Stunt Kite Association” with the idea of creating a US stunt kite circuit, and a ranking system (Note: This circuit and ranking system was in direct competition with the American Kite magazine Circuit and predated the AKA’s Conference system by four years! See SKQ Vol. 1 #3) In SKQ Vol. 2 #1 Cris came down pretty heavily on event coordinators for what he considered the “relaxing of safety standards for the sake of completing competitions in adverse conditions”

Another interesting and very different concept Cris applied to SKQ was in the way he “Product Tested” kites. Cris would pick out a kite and a kite company product to test. He would then have me write out an order to that company for three of the same kind of kite Cris wanted to test! Cris wouldn’t allow me to tell the manufacturer that their kite was being included in a test. Cris always said, “What we test is what fliers will buy. We aren’t going to review special test kites, but actual consumer products!” We would fly the ‘review kites’ and then send a copy to the manufacturer before it was published, telling them we had reviewed their kite. This “Three of each” idea allowed us to look at construction and consistency, but ultimately it was a thinly disguised excuse for Cris to increase the size of his stunt kite collection.

Although not all of these ‘review kites’ ended up in Cris’ kite bag. My very first Revolution Quad Line Kite was the one reviewed in SKQ. Cris brought that first Rev back from the KTA Trade Show in San Diego about three weeks after I arrived in Manistee in 1989. When Cris gave me the kite he had no instructions and no video, there were no lines for the kite. All he gave me was two handles and the kite in a bag. Cris’ only instructions were “It goes backwards and stops sometimes?” Talk about “learning from experience.” for the first three weeks that winter I flew that Rev one with the vertical spars on the ‘front’ side of the kite, who knew??

Cris’ unusual ideas extended to the kite fields as well! He had a unique competition style, and I watched him practice a single routine at the Manistee Beach for days at a time simply to get the Choreography “just right”.  He had a “Zen” sort of look about him when he flew!  Innovative Competitions were a big thing in 1989 and Cris said he had a new idea and asked me if I wanted to create an “Innovative Team” with him. His idea was similar to Lee Sedgwick’s ‘Solo Flying’ (dog stake flying) only in our case we wouldn’t use a dog stake, but we would use each others lines? What we ‘attempted’ was to begin to fly standing side by side. We would attach a ‘carabiner’ around all of our flying lines. We would then move to the off wind sides of the wind window, flying each of our kites to the side we were moving to. With our lines attached with the ‘biner we would be ‘dog staking’ from the tension of each others lines! This ‘Innovative’ idea worked a couple of times, but ultimately we got hurt more then we got ‘innovative’ but Cris’ mind was always working, and coming up with new and different ideas, both on and off the flying fields!

Manistee Michigan was a great town in the summer when the tourists filled it to capacity, but no one ever told me about the winters there! It snowed 145 inches the year I was there. It snowed EVERY DAY from November until February. And during that winter I saw the 15,000 summer residents drop to less than 2000. It was, after all a pretty small town! Chicago with its 3.5 million people was way too big, but Manistee with 2000 in January was way too small! The economy was pretty bad there back in the late 80’s. Even the Publisher of the newspaper had a part time job!

So by the spring of 1990 I guess that I was ready to move on again! Things had changed for Cris Batdorff too. In March of 1989 Cris and I had driven his motor home to Galveston Texas for the 3rd annual Gulf Coast Challenge SKC Cris had met a kiteflier that would eventually change his life. He met the future Susan Batdorff on a kite competition field!

What did I learn in my year being Cris Batdorff’s roommate? I learned that there’s more then one way to look at the world of kiteflying! I learned that despite Cris’ somewhat gruff appearance he was a very generous, and kind hearted guy! I learned that Cris spent much of his awake time thinking about what he could do to advance the sport/hobby of stunt kite flying! Cris wanted everyone in the world share and to have the same level of excitement and enthusiasm about stunt kite flying that he did, and he worked hard through SKQ and his appearances on the kite field doing just that!

And one of the most important things I learned in my time in Manistee, MI was:

Kiteflying will get you through times when you have no money, but No amount of money will get you through times when you can’t fly kites?”

P.S. When provided with the opportunity to write this article about my time with Cris, I realized immediately that I had way to many stories to tell and not enough space to tell them in. I just condensed the year into a few highlights, and there are hundreds more I am omitting!

I will suggest to all of you that you read Cris Batdorff’s own words on many subjects and events written in Stunt Kite Quarterly which is archived here at Kitelife.

These issues of SKQ contain a really great look at an “era” of stunt kite flying in the USA that many don’t know about today! Some really good articles written by kitefliers like Lee Sedgwick, Robbie Sugarman, Dan Buxton, and Eric Wolff, just to name a few! Not to mention reviews of dual line kites that are no longer around today.

A tremendous Historical Archive of Stunt Kite Flying courtesy Kitelife!

Good winds,

Al Hargus