Sheena Bailey and Severn Jackson waited.
Sheena's shorts were bunched around her thighs and her shirt around her shoulders. Her neighbor, Severn, sat beside her on Buckner Road in Manassas's Georgetown South neighborhood and flicked his shoulders with a green towel. The ice cream truck -- carrying a strawberry shortcake bar for him and a toasted almond for her -- was running late.
"I try to stay seated in the shade," Sheena, 14, explained matter-of-factly.
Severn flicked. The air conditioning inside his house was "acting up," the 16-year-old said.
"The breeze helps you some," Sheena added, into the still air.
In Georgetown South and across Prince William County yesterday, searing springtime heat drove people to air conditioning, the shade and the saving grace of ice cream. They flocked to the cool shopping malls, gave extra water to their dogs and worried about their curling crops. Two schools let out early. Firefighters sweated more than usual under their equipment. In Manassas yesterday afternoon, the mercury hit 96 degrees.
Although intense heat can cause complications for county police and fire officials as well as hospitals, yesterday's high temperatures did not lead to an unusual number of emergency calls or heat-related incidents.
For some area businesses, the heat has jump-started the busy summer season -- even if it's still spring. "We're very busy; a lot of people are calling," said Charles Huff, service director at Air Tech Inc., an air conditioning and heating contractor in Dale City, whose daily trickle of about 15 customer calls has flooded to about 35.
On the other hand, some found their leisure time increased yesterday. Children at two alternative education schools in the county got a lucky break when their schools shut down at 11:30 a.m. because of the heat. Students and teachers at PACE West School in Haymarket and New Dominion Middle School near Manassas suffered without air conditioning Monday, and school officials decided one day was enough. "We're in the process of getting air conditioning, but it's not quite done yet," said PACE West Principal Mary Ellen Garduno.
And those with air conditioning seemed to have no qualms about running it full blast, a fact duly noted by energy providers. Officials at the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative and Virginia Power reported an increase in service, though not to record levels. Virginia Power estimated yesterday's peak demand to be 14,600 megawatts, well below the record of 15,399 megawatts set July 22, 1998.
Mike Curtis, spokesman for the cooperative, said heavy usage usually comes a few days into a heat wave, not at the very beginning. Frank Cox, assistant director of electric utilities in Manassas, said the high temperatures have just begun. Because it's "this hot, this humid, this early in the summer, July probably will most likely be hotter -- and our customers will experience an increase in their monthly bill," Cox said.
And for some tourists on vacation, the unusual June weather made leisure seem a lot like work -- if only because they were sweating so hard. Solveig Hagelstein, of Germany, was spending the entire day inside the Potomac Mills Mall, and then rushing back to the air-conditioned house where she is staying.
"The weather is horrible today," she lamented. "We don't have this humidity in Germany."
Guenna Hartman, who visits malls between here and Lancaster, Pa., for her job as a visual coordinator, was dreading a road trip from Potomac Mills to Hagerstown and back to Lancaster yesterday.
"I don't care about spending gas money. . . . There's no way I can keep the windows down today," she said desperately. "How far is it to Hagerstown from here?"
At Manassas's Stonewall Park pool, hot residents and happy schoolchildren flocked to the water. Usually, when the pool is open in late spring, only three or four people might be found there, said Jo Ann Higgs, recreation and parks director. Yesterday, there were as many as 50 at any one time. And Monday, the pool pulled in as many swimmers within three hours as it did in a full day during Memorial Day weekend.
Meanwhile, dogs hugged the cool concrete at the Prince William County Animal Control's shelter. Stray puppies, cats and sick animals all get air conditioning, but alas, said administrator Gary Sprifke, the room for dogs does not.
"We make sure they have plenty of water, and they don't seem to mind too much," he said.
Water was on the mind of many residents. Manassas Water and Sewer Superintendent Don Echols said he has been getting calls from people worried whether they should stop watering their plants and washing their cars. Echols said that so far, all is well. The water level in Lake Manassas is still high, thanks in part to the large rubber bladder the department added to increase the lake's capacity after last summer's drought. But, he said, the water situation is worrisome because the extreme heat is occurring so early in the year. "Last year this was well into July before we actually started to detect the problems on the horizon," he said.
For those whose work is hot to begin with, the heat made a tough job tougher. A fire on Ridge Road on Monday night, compounded with the heat, forced firefighters into working short shifts, and a temporary cooling station was set up to allow workers to recover after battling the blaze. Prince William County Fire and Rescue spokesman Steve Strawderman said the suits and equipment fire officials use to fight blazes are both heavy and hot, making their jobs that much more grueling.
Of all those affected by the recent temperatures, the hot, dry weather was hardest on those who work the land. "We're not talking about making any money here," said Jerry Silver, a farmer who raises cattle, corn, soybean and barley in the White Oak section of Stafford County. "We're just talking about minimizing losses. My mind set right now is that we're farming this year for the insurance money."
Silver has been able to plant only 50 of a potential 250 acres of soybeans, and if there isn't a day or two of steady rain in the next two weeks, the rest won't go into the ground. The corn, which was planted in April, is starting to curl up. And just this morning, Silver sold 70 of his approximately 450 cattle because he didn't have enough corn to feed them.
Droughts are not unusual or entirely unexpected for farmers. But the dry spells usually come late in the summer, after crops have been planted, so if they're not too severe, farmers can work around them. This year's planting season drought, which has produced less than one-half inch of rain since mid-April, has caught many growers by surprise.
"I've been here since 1972, and I'm retiring next month," said Ray Simms, a cooperative extension service worker in Stafford. "We've had some major droughts in my tenure, but I haven't ever seen it this dry for this long early in season."
Manassas horticulturist Myron Carlson also has been working against the weather. His job is to make sure that the flowers, trees and shrubs on public property -- such as those in front of City Hall and in those hanging baskets around old town -- simply survive. He has two 1,000-gallon tank trucks watering the plants all day long and pulled his workers off weeding and mowing.
"Last year I just hoped so much that I wouldn't have to go through this again," bemoaned Carlson. "There's nothing like a nice wet spring to make the city horticulturist look good."
Staff writers Steven Ginsberg, Amy Joyce, Christina A. Samuels and Josh White contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Four-year-old Andrew Craddock performs one of his best stunts, the standing swan dive, while playmate Slade Wylie, 4, watches in Montclair's Dolphin Beach.