The Magician’s Oath: A Conversation with Pat Hammond on Magic, Science, and the Wind

Authors: 
Christopher Ornelas
Article type: 
Discourse

The walk up to Pat Hammond’s house is just as I remember it, a jungle of plants under a canopy of arching oak trees. Statues of lambs carved in stone guard the path leading to her home.

At the door, I am greeted by a set of numbers written in rusty old chains laid out on the ground: 3 1 4 1 5 9 2 6 5. It’s a chain letter. Literally.

My first visit to her home in San Antonio, Texas, was in 2009, when I came to do research for an article I was writing on Mexican kites. Hammond is an authority on kites. She penned a short book entitled The Book of Common Air: A Highly Irreverent Collection of Kites. And she is the inventor of “Kitechism,” her own theory of aerodynamics: “Name them, they fly better.” On April 1, 1972 – April Fools’ Day – she became the first woman to win the Smithsonian’s annual kite flying competition. After collecting kites for forty years, she has amassed an untold treasure of kites and kite ephemera.

On my previous visit, I was greeted by the letters “H C,” short for Heather and Chris. Hammond’s chain letters are her way of saying, “Welcome.” However, THIS chain letter is very different. I stare at the numbers at my feet, rather perplexed.

The bell hanging from a thick rope rings louder than I had imagined. I peer into the large glass window in the front door, and then I turn around to stare at the numbers again. What could they mean?

When I turn back to the door, Hammond is standing there to greet me with a warm smile.

I come into the house and head for the kitchen, but before I get there she stops me to ask about the chain letter.

I did see it. But, no, I haven’t figured it out.

“Well, it’s not for you. But it is a message,” says Hammond.

I go back out of the door to take a third look.

“It is pie in the sky,” she says with a grin.

I concentrate on the numbers intently. I notice that it starts with today’s date, March 14, but the significance of the other numbers remains a mystery.

“Come on now, it is as easy as pie,” she says, hands on hips.

I start adding up the numbers aloud. Three plus one is four. Four plus one is five –
“No! No! No!” says Hammond, getting impatient. “I gave you a big clue! Think pie in the sky!”

I stare sheepishly at the numbers and then look back at Hammond for help. “Come on now,” she says. “Think, today is 3-14.”

That’s when it hit me. It’s pi! [Pi is the mathematical constant that is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pi.]

I walk into the house – relieved that the test is over. Hammond stops me with an earnest look and says, “I say two things in the morning that remind me why I am grateful for being alive. 1) I can remember the speed of light, which is 186,000 miles per second. 2) I can remember pi to the ninth place. At the age of seventy five, I may have forgotten many things, but as long as I can remember the speed of light and pi – I know I am still okay!”

In this moment I am reminded of why I came to visit Hammond in the first place. She is a puzzle. She is a kite collector, but her interest is not in owning kites, it is in discovering them. She is a magician, yet there is logic behind her magic. She is fascinated by the infinite. The speed of light, the count pi, the pull of kites are indicators of reason meeting transcendence. Things that we can sense but whose true perception hinges on two modes of seeing happening at once, reason and beauty, science and magic – bound in one object, one form. Experience is the form and it comes before understanding. Magic comes first.

We move into the living room, past what I call the hall of treasures: a room filled to the ceiling with a menagerie of toys, bubble machines, and masks gathered from her travels to Mexico and Guatemala. Baskets overflow with so many masks and gizmos that I can barely make sense of them all. We sit down for a cup of tea.

***

The foyer is spacious. It opens to the rest of the house and there are no doors between the rooms. I can see into the hall of treasures and into the living room to the left. It has high ceilings, white walls, and dark wood floors. It is spartanly furnished with a single grand piano and a fanciful wooden sculpture made by her son, Robert, at the age of seven. There is a wooden staircase to the right, paralleled by a large blue border that snakes along the wall. Heritage oak trees shade the house, but the rooms are still bright. Large windows around the house give each room a soft glow. Hammond inscribed many of them herself with a small etching pen; only those who look closely can read the secret messages.

The living room looks out onto the verdant yard. A stately portrait of an anonymous matronly woman with the air of Queen Victoria hangs above the fireplace. But the books lining the walls from floor to ceiling draw my attention the most. They overflow the shelves, creating neat stacks along the floor. Old books, embossed with the seals of Tsarist Russia are tucked away under the end tables.

On a table in the middle of the room, a small herd of hand-carved sheep are arranged around a sign that reads “Lambscape.” To the left of the sheep lies a large book, slightly worn around the edges, written in Braille. The honeycombed texture of the book is strikingly beautiful.

“I found this book at the Book Cellar,” says Hammond. “I had no idea what it was, but I just had to have it.”

The book is Tenochtitlan en una isla, (”Tenochtitlan is an Island”), the Spanish account of the conquest of the Aztec capital by Ignacio Bernal.

We begin to talk about Mexico. Her husband, Hall, is fascinated by early sixteenth century Mexican architecture. In the mid-seventies, they made numerous trips to central Mexico and Guatemala to investigate old colonial structures dating to this period.1

“Well, you know about the story of my Mexican kite?” she inquires, eager to tell the story anew.

“We were on a highway traveling to Oaxaca when a boy wanders up from seemingly out of nowhere holding a kite. The kite is made from a raggedy cover of a comic book. The edges are frayed. It has holes in it, and the paper is pierced with two turkey feathers for struts – no tail. The string is made of pieces of thread tied together in a ball.

“I think to myself, ‘This poor kid. There is no way that thing is going to fly.’ Everything I knew about kiting told me that kite could not fly. The next minute the boy throws the kite up in the air and it went straight up!

“I wanted that kite – bad. But I couldn’t bring myself to buy it from him. It was his. He needed to keep it,” and from the tone in her voice, I can tell she still dreams about it. She tried to re-create the kite several times but has never been able to. “It is my favorite kite of all time,” she says.

On the coffee table, I notice another book written in Braille. The cover reads, “National Geographic August 2011.” In addition, there are three ordinary National Geographic magazines resting on the table. One is also dated August 2011. It includes an article about the High Line park in New York City entitled, “Miracle Over Manhattan.” Her son, Robert Hammond, co-founded Friends of the High Line, the non-profit that saved an abandoned elevated railway and transformed it into one of the most innovative public spaces in the world.

“I have all three National Geographic magazines memorized,” says Hammond. She holds them out and tells me to pick one. I pick one with dinosaurs on the cover.

“Now, turn to a page, any page,” she says. I turn to page 39. It has a picture of Peruvian women in hats gathered around a fire next to Lake Titicaca.

She holds up one of the other magazines. “It helps me to remember,” she says. She holds her hand to her head trying hard to concentrate. “Okay, are there craft vendors sitting by a fire on a big lake?”

Yes, yes, there are. Smiling, I read the caption out loud: “Craft vendors wait for tourists on an island sacred to the Inca.”

Oh, I’m impressed, and I interpret this show of bravado as an example of Hammond’s quirkiness. But of course, I should know better.

She gives a big smile and lets me in on the prank: they’re all the same! Each magazine is the issue of August 2011, but with a different cover on the outside. “It is good for getting the attention of teenagers and grandkids,” she explains.

“A few years ago, I hired a magic tutor to teach me magic. I wanted to learn simple magic to do with my grandsons, not fancy sleight of hand tricks, but simple magic tricks I could do with a five-year-old. It was great fun, but after the first lesson he told he me he couldn’t teach me any further until I signed the Magician’s Oath.

“’What is the Magician’s Oath?’ I asked. ‘You have to vow that you will not repeat and reveal any magic tricks,’ he said. The oath is an ancient tradition passed down from magician to magician for generations.

“I was so upset in the car ride home. ‘I can’t repeat or reveal?’ But that is exactly what I wanted to do!

“And that is when I realized: that’s science. If it is science, then you have to repeat and reveal.”

I did not understand this at first. But as I pondered the difference between magic and science, Hammond’s words became clearer.

The tricks of magic are only magical as long as they remain a mystery. They fascinate us because they seemingly defy the laws of reason and what we know to be real. However, once you repeat and reveal a trick, it ceases to be magic because it ceases to mystify.

Science, on the other hand, depends on one’s ability to repeat and reveal what has been discovered. This is perhaps the simplest definition of science. Any experiment must be replicable before it can prove or disprove a theory.

After leaving the magician that day, Pat stumbled upon an old truth. Magic and science are inseparable and contradictory. Science creates magic, and magic creates science. Science can make real the seemingly impossible: carriages that run without horses, pictures that move on their own, people who fly to the moon! Likewise, the mystery of the unknown is at the heart of scientific truth.

But is there truth in the Magician’s Oath? When we know the secret of the mystery, does it cease to fascinate the mind?

***

After this first meeting, I fiercely scribble copious notes. We conversed about so many things: Benjamin Franklin, Helen Keller, L’Abbe de L’Epee.2 We discussed the history of sign language and static electricity. We talked about the “Texas rainmakers,” and the use of kites in WWII.3 We looked at Audubon’s paintings of Mississippi and Swallow-tailed Kites – the birds from which the English word “kite” is derived – and examined a small box containing wings of real birds!4

I am bowled over by Hammond’s encyclopedic knowledge, but more so by the seemingly ineffable meaning behind the myriad things she knows by heart – a meaning both logical and absurd – that I sense to exist, but I am at a loss to explain. Perhaps she is Don Quixote, chasing after kites, believing them to be giants.

I have the clues to a riddle, but what is the question?

I return for a second visit two days later, eager to understand how things connect. I knock on the door with a list of questions in hand. Some of these are about the “little details,” questions about her family, her collection, names and dates. But, of course, I know these are not the things she wants to talk about.

But luckily there were other questions. Bigger questions. After pondering the numerous articles, artifacts, photographs, and stories, I’ve identified three things that seemingly link everything together. I want to know about magic, science, and the wind.

“Is that all?” asks Hammond. “Well, are you sure you haven’t left anything out?”

Then she looks at me in the eye and says, “Life is like licking honey off a thorn. This is one my favorite sayings.

“Did you know I have a honey collection?” she asks. The top of her fridge is covered in a plethora of glass jars filled with different shades of honey.

“I used to eat honey by the spoonful. But when I heard this saying, I thought, ‘Huh?’”

She pulls out a small container of toothpicks from the kitchen cabinet (Hammond also has a large collection of toothpicks). In the cabinet, I can see toothpicks of all shapes and sizes. Some are made of twigs; others look like small sabers. The crown jewel of the collection is a box of Le Négri goose quill toothpicks, sterilized and wrapped.5

“Here, give it a try,” she says. I take a small toothpick of honey, pinch my nose, and put the toothpick in my mouth.

“Close your mouth, and let the honey stay on the middle of your tongue. Then kind of swish it. Let the honey spread across your tongue to the back of your mouth. Now, open your nose and taste.”

The honey explodes across my taste buds. It has the faintest hint of blueberries.

“You see? All you need is a tiny bit,” she says.

She then pulls out two black and white pictures from a drawer. “This is what I find most fascinating about kites,” she says, handing the pictures to me.

The two photographs were taken one hundred years apart. A boy named Abdul Muhammed flies a kite in the first picture, taken at a refugee camp in Quetta, Pakistan. He and his family fled his village in Afghanistan in anticipation of the U.S. invasion. The photograph appears in the New York Times in an article dated September 30, 2001.6

“The Taliban banned kite flying,” she says. “If they caught you flying a kite, they would chop off your hand. And here is this ten-year-old boy, probably the head of his family, escaping from the atrocities of war. And what does he do? He creates this kite out of nothing. Out of nothing!”

A man and a girl fly a kite in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the second photograph, taken on September 25, 1901. The two photographs are nearly identical. However, the second one shows a ten-year-old Helen Keller flying a kite with Alexander Graham Bell. In her autobiography, Keller talks about experiencing the feeling of the wind, feeling the tug of the string.7 “Altogether, we had great fun...” she writes.

“This is all the kite is,” says Hammond. “It is the feel of the wind.

“You can’t see the wind, but we can feel it, we can hear it. The kite indicates something that is otherwise invisible.”

Hammond grabs a brown paper bag folded into a square. “I learned this in sixth grade,” she says. Suddenly, she whips the bag toward me and – “WHAM!” The bag snaps loudly as it breaks the wind.

“You see, all sound is just air being forced across a sharp surface.” The creation of sound via the telephone, a guitar, or a paper bag: these are all different ways of manipulating wind.

Surely, Alexander Graham Bell must have understood this. It is no wonder that Keller writes, “To Alexander Graham Bell, who has taught the deaf to speak and enabled the listening ear to hear speech from the Atlantic to the Rockies, I dedicate This Story of My Life.”8

Ultimately, science and magic are not at odds. They are not mutually exclusive. “The aerodynamics of flying a kite can be understood,” says Hammond, “but each time you fly a kite the experience is going to be different, because the wind is always changing. There is something unpredictable and magical about every experience.

“The kite itself is a pretty boring object. It only becomes exciting when you add the wind. Only then is it magical. And there is always magic in that moment, the moment it comes to life.

“The kite is very flimsy and delicate. It is made with just skin and bones. It is no different than we are, really. It is the wind that makes it come to life.”

I remind Hammond of my desire to know the connection between wind, science, and magic.

She looks at me for a moment and then says, “As long as we live, we will have all three. When wind goes, we no longer have need for magic or science.”

Notes

1. Hammond provided invaluable information and assistance for my research on the traditional kites of Mexico. She visited the Santiago giant kite festival in Guatemala in the early 1970s, and has preserved one of the earliest examples of barriletes gigantes still in existence. Christopher Ornelas, “Adrift in el Istmo: A Kite Journey to Juchitán,” Discourse: from the end of the line (Drachen Foundation) 1, no. 3 (December 2008): 23-31. Alison Fujino et al, Wings of Resistance: The Giant Kites of Guatemala (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012).

2. L’Abbe de L’Epee is the humble French priest who invented sign language in 1760. Before this time, the deaf were outcasts in society and considered little more than idiots. Many lived in abject poverty under the bridges of Paris, forming their own communities and communicated using primitive signs. L’Epee founded the first school for the deaf and developed their crude signs into a genuine language. Lane, Harlan, When The Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf (Random House, 1985).

3. There is a long history of kites used in military combat. In WWII, soldiers trained in anti-aircraft artillery for the first time using kites for target practice, and emergency rafts launched from airplanes came equipped with kites attached to transmitters detectable by radar. One of these rests in Hammond’s basement – unopened.

Hammond also owns an original copy of a Scientific American journal from 1892 exposing a hoax by Texas “rainmakers” who fooled the national media into thinking they could create rain by setting off explosives on the tail of a kite. “Nearly all the accounts of recent rain making experiments in Texas appear...in most instances, to be grossly exaggerated, and, in some cases wholly destitute of truth,” wrote the journal in an article entitled “The Texas Rain Making Experiments,” Scientific American,Vol. 66 (New York: Munn & Co, Jan 2, 1892): 5.

[This article can be read on the Drachen Foundation website: www.drachen.org/collections/rainmaking.]

4. Hammond uses the wings for educational purposes and has a permit to own them from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

5. Shakespeare makes reference to toothpicks in his final play, The Winter’s Tale, “A great man, I’ll warrant; I know by the picking on ‘s teeth” (IV.iii.751-753). Toothpicks were a foreign fashion, to possess one showed that the owner had traveled.

6. Douglas Frantz, “A Nation Challenged; Refugees From Afghanistan Flee Out of Fear and Find Despair,” New York Times: (30 September 2001).

7. Keller, Helen, The Story of My Life (Clinton, MA: Airmont Publishing Co., 1965): 157.

8. Ibid, above.

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