In the morning the sun shone, growing carnivals out of the wet land.
At Ninth and L streets NW, and in Palmer Park and Capital Plaza too, the hydraulic petals of the Reithoffer Midway's semi-trailers unfolded into the spring air objects of wonder and terror; the gentle merry-go-round, the towering Ferris wheel and the diabolical Rolloplane and Superloop, rites of passage and Pepto-Bismol for the young.
Richard Reithoffer watched his crazy garden with detached fascination. He is 30, lives most of the year in a trailer and is fourth-generation carny. His great-grandfather started the family business in 1896; his grandfather saw it through the Great Depression; his father, a B-24 pilot, returned from Europe to expand the carnival's tour, and now it is Richard's turn.
"After I got out of the University of Tampa, I tried teaching drafting," Reithoffer said. "After three months I quit. I've been running rides ever since I was a kid and had to sit on a box to reach the controls. There's no job on the lot I can't do."
So began, on the first of May, the Reithoffer family's annual eight-month voyage. The traditional starting point is the Washington area, after which Pennsylvania, New York state and Vermont, crossing and recrossing a land of fairs and parking lots that ages, as the trucks roll on, from muddy spring to dusty summer and into the dry leaves of fall.
The ritual is not only the Reithoffers', but America's. There are this week more than 500 carnivals set up across the country, hawking pizza-on-a-stick, nausea on $300,000 thrill machines, and stolen kisses on the darkness of spookhouse rides.
By season's end, if the projections are accurate, 2.25 billion tickets to rides will have been sold, and 150 million tickets of admission -- an audience, as carnival people like to point out, larger than those of pro football, basketball and baseball combined.
Even so, it is an industry for which disaster looms, since it runs on petroleum-powered trucks. "We're going to lose 20 percent of our carnivals this year, just watch," said Rolly Larson, director of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association in Minneapolis. "The recession's going to get them."
But for Richard Reithoffer, the immediate problem was mud last week as he set up at Ninth and L. Other members of his family, running the units in Palmer Park and Capital Plaza, had pavement, but he had to make his own.
A large truck roared into the carnival lot, dumping tons of sawdust onto the tons of straw already there. "They make adobe huts out of mud and straw, right?" said Reithoffer. "Now the sun will bake us a pavement."
He is a soft-spoken and easygoing person whom the cloak and carny seems to fit improperly. His 50-man task force, however, is more traditional in appearance; burly and tattooed, heavy-booted against the perils of mud, and educated in the gangwork of setting up and tearing down.
"The crowds won't see them this way," Reithoffer said, conscious of the carnival's public image. "The people with me get haircuts and watch their language. The old days of the graft games are over; carnivals today survive on their thrill rides. That's what it's all about."
With that, he stepped up onto the steel entrance of "Star Wars," a "dark" ride in carny jargon. "These tubs run on a track," he explained, ducking into the secret regions into which patrons pay to venture. "As the tub passes an electrical switch, some big noise goes off and a gimmick light up." He paused next to an unplugged ghoul, which looked forlorn as a scarecrow in a basement. "Too bad it isn't hooked up yet."
"That ride's mildly scary," he said, "but here's one that's more social." It was the Flying Bob, a $300,000 affair derived from Swiss bobsledding by way of American discotheque. "The bob plays popular music, and the sound system is really sophisticated," he said. "The kids get involved because the operator makes them.He says, 'Want to go faster?' and they yell, 'Yeah,' and he says, 'I can't hear you!' and so on. You have to know how to get the interest up."
Reithoffer strolled past the Superloop, ruminating on his thrill-a-minute world. The Superloop is a new ride -- retail price $320,000 -- in which a wellpadded train of cars, after rocking back and forth several times, carries its customers through a complete loop. Nobody, thanks to the miracle of centrifugal force, falls out.
I'll tell you what's attractive about this ride," Reithoffer said. "It makes a pecular noise, caused by about 3,000 nylong bearings. People hear it swishing, and they're drawn closer and closer.
"Noises are important," he added. surveying the Hurricane, a circular ride in which pods -- or "tubs," the carnival world for any people-bearing capsule -- periodically shoot upward on long steel arms.
"They actually named the Hurricane after its noise. The tubs go up because of air pressure, and when it's released there's a big psssst! The psssst! is what draws the crowd."
The toughest ride, as far as he is concerned, is one called the Loopoplane, which derived form the bullet. "But the bullet is blase," Reithoffer said. "The Loopoplane is sometimes called the salt-and-pepper shaker, because the passenger compartments both hang down next to each other, and they they starting zooming in opposite directions. The Loopoplane G-forces are the greastest of all." He pressed the skin away from his face with both hands. "You feel like an astronaut."
Reithoffer confirms that hoses are usually part of such rides. Or at least a bucket of water. "Sure, people get sick. The operator try to judge it so that they won't get sick in the ride, because nobody likes cleaning up.
"However, it is all part of the fun. We hose the tub out, and a couple of rides later it's dry again. No big deal."
Not to Reithoffer, maybe.
"Really, it's all a help in building the tip."
The tip is the crowd gathering before a carnival booth. The idea is to build the tip, and then turn it. "You turn the tip right, and there'll be enough people waiting so when a ride empties out, it'll be refilled right away, with some people still waiting. If everybody can get on at once, that's called blowing your tip. That's not so good.
"Yeah, the lingo is kind of fun," Reithoffer said. The roustabouts (a circus word) are called "gazoonies," a universal term the origin of which is unknown. Any booth on the lot is called a joint.A stand-up food concession where customers carry purchases away in their hands is known as a "grab joint." The bigger the show, the more joints.
Rolly Larson, out in Minneapolis, knows them all.
"If a guy on a carnival makes a lot of mistakes, you call him a first-of-Mayer," Larson said. "He's a greenhorn see. The carnies all start on the first of May, and it means he's new." The tradition is long, and youth must await recognition. "Sometimes a young person maybe he thinks he knows it all," said Larson. "Maybe once he was sent into another state to help set up, or do advance work. That makes him a Transcontinental Kid. It's a mocking term used by the gazoonies."
Richard Reithoffer, as management, does not qualify for gazooneyhood. In fact, for his engagement at Ninth and L streets (the carnival will be there all week), he turned away 500 applicants for the job.
"In a city, you get lots of people wanting to work," he said, relaxing in his trailer, which has the only fold-out extra room in the carnival. "But then, they don't like mud. In a farm area, nobody cares -- they've been working in it all day anyhow. But in the city everybody's got $50 shoes on."
But he has found people to have much in common. "In the early evening, the crowds are families, having a good time. The whole area of a carnival, unlike a circus, is to participate -- not just watch. Then later on, after 10 or 11, the crowd turns. That's why we close up at midnight or before.
"We always have off-duty policemen for security. We don't like to get in fistfights. We have found that if we fight with someone, he goes and get 30 of his friends and comes back to fight with us."
In his off-duty hours, of which there are few between May and October, Reithoffer reads spy novels in his trailer, near his gunrack -- which happens to be the first thing a visitor sees. It holds three shotguns, a high powered rifle and a Colt AR-15, a weapon with Vietnam heritage. "I like to hunt," Reithoffer explained.
There is another diversion available, too.
"Sometimes when I just need to get away and think, I ride the double Ferris wheel," he said. "you go up 115 feet in the air, and feel the summer breeze, and the quiet, and look around the countryside."
Does Reithoffer get to ride for free?
"For free?" he said. "That Ferris wheel cost $375,00."