A rainstorm is the worst nightmare for a "carnie" (a carnival worker). The Ferris wheel won't turn. The bumper cars or tilt-a-whirl don't do well in the rain. The Reithoffer Shows carnival barely missed two violent downpours on their opening weekend at Springfield Mall.
"We're ready to open, but not with weather like this. We got completely rained out this Easter Sunday. If we get good weather, we do good. We're always fighting that element," Tara Heatherly said from inside the cotton-candy trailer.
But the show must go on, especially when the residents of Springfield are expecting it.
"When does it open?" said one lady from the comfort and safety of her car at the front gate.
Heatherly's from Florida, right outside Tampa, and is the girlfriend of one of the manager's sons, Bob Pugh Jr., or "Beau," as he likes to be called.
"My dad was in the business," she said, when asked how she got started.
Bob Pugh, one of the managers, in the parking lot at Springfield Mall, talked about the history of the carnival.
"This carnival was formed in 1896. This company takes care of their employees. Nobody has to live in a tent or the back of a truck. They have their own living conditions. We're like a whole city, self-contained," Pugh Sr. said. That included generators and sewage pumps. He's been with the carnival since age 24 back in 1967.
Beau added to the history.
"We have fairs we've played for 75 years, like Watertown and Reinbeck, N.Y., or Essex Junction, Vt. The average route is 250 miles between each fair," he said. At the end of the season, they load everything on a barge and head to Puerto Rico for a tour.
The "unit" in Springfield was called "the blue unit" by Heatherly. They also have an orange unit, which travels separately, and the two units will become one in Philadelphia.
Sara, who ran the dart game, left home at 14 for reasons she chose not to explain. She's been with the carnival since they went on the road in the winter and seems to have found a comfortable setting. She talked about her sleeping accommodations, which are trailers linked together she called "bunk houses," at a campground in Maryland.
"A lot of people describe it as big as a prison cell," she said, with accommodations like refrigerators, televisions and VCRs. It's a cell that she shares with her "significant other," she said, with no further explanation. She's glad the summer is coming.
"Money's usually better during the summer. During the winter there's a lot of Ramen noodles," she said.
She seems at home though.
"It's a completely different life style," she said.
In a corner of the mall parking lot, a culture filled with bright lights, music, generators and cotton candy took up residence from April 18-28. At 4:30 p.m., the awnings popped out, and people seemed to come out of the woodwork. Although 5 o’clock was the official starting time, things were running behind schedule due partially to the fact that a majority of the crew was from Florida and not used to the Washington traffic on Friday afternoon, but no one was getting excited.
Weatherly manned the cotton-candy trailer on Friday night, bagging a three-colored creation of aerated, melted sugar. It was a hit among the carnival-goers that night.
"You always need to be ready. You never want to run out," she said, as she bagged up the $3-a-pop delectable that the kids were faced with. Eating cotton candy at the carnival may have been more of a thing you just do in the parents' minds. Weatherly continued to tie the bags on the ceiling of the trailer in anticipation of a huge rush. One of the fellow workers told the cotton-candy joke during a spate of customer barbs.
"She used to get a bag, fill it up with air and sell it as sugar-free cotton candy," one of them joked.
There were a lot of tattoos and tans among the workers, who seemed to come and go. Pugh's cousin, Zach, did cite the rules.
"No beards, earrings, no long hair," he said.
There were three men that showed up on Friday after the rain, who seemed to be casing the place. They donned Reichtover shirts moments later, taking up residence at one of the games. They were weekly hires, according to one of the crew.
One of the wandering managers described the carnival crowd.
"Teen-agers, and adults that haven't grown up yet. It’s usually pretty quiet," he said of the crowd.
One Springfield resident, Bruce Decker, is giving the carnival life a try and joined up with them.
"I never traveled before. I wanted to try it," he said.
Parents and youngsters dominated the early evening crowd, but after dark the teens were decked out in the anti-establishment garb dominated by black T-shirts and blue jeans. At the water race game, the announcer droned out the same line, which seemed to fill up the gun positions.
"We got Sponge Bobs here, any prize any size," whatever Sponge Bobs are. The father that spent $6 to win his son a stuffed animal brought on a feeling of sympathy. He never won.
They loved the mystique of the light and smells, though.
Arlington resident Allison Pond went on the rides with Kyler Kronmille and loved the "Firewall," which is basically a loop-the-loop roller coaster without the roller coaster, just the loop. Other rides included the Super Himalaya, the Scooby Doo House and the Giant Slide.
"Definitely the Firewall, sitting next to Kyler," Pond said.
Kronmille liked the slow-moving Ferris wheel more.
"I wasn't liking it [Firewall] so much," he said with a sneer.
Alexandria youngster Jason Woltahuis liked the roller coaster and the slide.
"It went fast," he said.
Kingstowne resident Jeff Wood spent a week with a carnival in the early ‘70s as a teen-ager. It was somewhere along the Ohio River. The atmosphere was unforgettable.
"The police were always around asking if I'd seen so and so. The carnival always attracts strange people. They would live in conditions I wouldn't live in," he said.