When the rain came in Hagerstown, Md., the Big Top crew turned grim.
The giant tent, seven tons of canvas, got drenched in a downpour Saturday, so wet that it weighed maybe 15 tons. Pulling it down took many men and the assistance of a crew of cooperative elephants.
After two hours of sleep, the crew of the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus was up again yesterday morning and in a meadow at Tysons Corner erecting the tent all over again, five stories high, big enough to cover a football field.
"It's easy once you get used to it," said Roger E. Pinard, 18, groggy from lack of sleep. A month and a half ago, Pinard was looking for a job at home in Connecticut when he noticed the newspaper ad: "Join the circus, see the country." He did.
There is an element of drama to witnessing a small army of cooks and acrobats, mechanics and lion trainers, watermen and jugglers -- none of them having enjoyed a day off since the season began in March -- pull into a site and build a makeshift town just like that.
The Big Top buzzes with knots of men performing a hundred tasks at breakneck speed with a deadline to meet. It takes more than five hours to put up the tent, rig the high wires and raise the bleachers, the grandstand and the lion tamer's cage. And all must be ready by early afternoon.
The support systems of the circus surround the Big Top like spokes. In the cookhouse -- a traveling kitchen aswarm with flies -- Tim Webster was whipping up lunch for 110 circus workers, having just hours earlier fixed them a breakfast of omelets and grits.
"I love traveling," said Webster, a wiry man with a wit that's quick. "I've cooked everywhere -- carnivals, motels, circuses. My brother said, 'What are you lookin' for,' and I said, 'I don't know, I'll know it when I see it.' "
Webster's cookhouse, which also houses the tiny cabin where he lives, generally arrives first at each site. Behind him is a caravan of circus vehicles: 26 heavy trucks, dozens of campers and an array of assorted vehicles. Bringing up the rear is the head mechanic, Charles J. Rex, whose rig is equipped to repair nearly anything that can go wrong with a truck on the highway.
Rex's family, like so many of those under the Big Top, is a circus family. His daughter, pregnant with her fourth child, dons a gorilla suit and sells tickets. His wife has held a variety of jobs with the circus.
"There's no time clock here; you don't have to punch in," he said. "That's what it is I like. That's why I stay in this business. If you were off the road, you'd have to put out a schedule, have the work in and out on time."
The workers say they love the family atmosphere of the circus. Although the performers tend to stick to themselves, the various crews point to their dependency on each other. Almost all work more than one job; performers commonly tip workers who help them with their acts. For the working crews, the pay is not much, but they get room and board.
"There are a lot of lifers in this business," said Kathy F. Daniels, the daughter of Rex and the wife of a concessionaire. "It's okay with me if my kids stay with it, but I tell them it's a commitment, it's like marriage, you got to stay with it."
Just outside the Big Top, Bobby Cline led an elephant along the grounds at a stately pace. For 30 years, he said, he has worked in circuses; nowadays he cleans up after elephants.
"Look at that giant elephant!" said a parent to her small child.
"Is that what that is?" parried Cline. "Somebody told me that was a horse."
The line has been around a while, he admits, but so has almost everything about the circus.