Earleigh Heights Fire Company carnival is fun for all

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This is the week of the deep-fried Oreo cookie.

It?s one of the highly specialized culinary offerings of the Earleigh Heights Fire Company carnival, which rolls into Severna Park every July. Like Thrashers French Fries in Ocean City and crab balls at Suicide Bridge Restaurant in Hurlock, fried Oreos taste best in their unique environment ? and should be enjoyed in moderation.

And they?re just one of the good reasons to celebrate when the carnival comes to town.

These nostalgic carnivals, with their mini-midways, barking hucksters and artery-clogging cuisine, have outlasted drive-in theaters and the circus trains. The Earleigh Heights version, which runs through Saturday, has meaning beyond the bright lights it brings to Ritchie Highway.

That?s because volunteer fire stations are a lot like the summer carnivals held on their property: They are both throwbacks to the good old days but still play important roles in Maryland life.

"A lot of people in this community don?t realize we?re a volunteer fire company," said Bill Weitzell, 79, a member of the Earleigh Heights Company for 65 years. Weitzell joined during World War II, when fire companies accepted 15-year-olds to fill the ranks vacated by soldiers. He still puts in 10 to 15 hours a week helping run the station.

Nationwide, about 72 percent of firefighters ? more than 820,000 men and women ? are volunteers, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.

The Earleigh Heights Fire Company is celebrating its 90th anniversary. When it opened in 1918, it had 14 members, no station or equipment and $2.50 in the bank. Today, the company handles 7,500 to 8,000 fire and ambulance calls a year. It?s a "combo station," with two paid paramedics and two paid firefighters on at any given time. More than 150 volunteers supplement that staff, responding to fires, car crashes and medical needs, handling administrative duties and raising money. Another two dozen form the ladies auxiliary, which cooks meals, helps with fundraising and provides other non-firefighting support.

Members of the community, said Fire Chief Paul Demasky, just know that "they dial 911 and someone shows up." They don?t know or really care if the firefighter is career or volunteer, he said.

The summer carnival allows the firefighters and community to connect under happier circumstances than when they usually meet. And it?s part of a money-raising package that funds the $300,000 to $400,000 annual budget. The county contributes about $50,000 a year, according to fire company Treasurer Ken Walker. The company still runs weekly bingo games ? long the staple of fire station fundraising nationwide ? and hosts bull roasts, shrimp roasts and pit beef highway stands. The company rents its building for parties and its yard to Christmas tree sellers. It also sends an annual mailing to the community for direct donations.

"We own everything in here but the ambulance," Weitzell said. "We buy our own equipment. It?s always up to date. We don?t let it deteriorate."

The carnival, though, is the fundraiser that touches the widest range of people.

Within minutes of opening Monday night, the kiddie rides were under way, with cars, helicopters, dragons and bears ferrying the littlest carnival-goers in circles. The Ferris Wheel, Zipper and Street Fighter were under way with older kids, although most of the teens arrived closer to sunset.

Although a concessionaire runs the rides and game booths, the fire company operates everything under a red-and-white tent ? mostly gaming booths and food ? stuff like a $3.75 clam platter, a $4 sausage with peppers and onions and a $6 crab cake meal. The company lets the concession company prepare funnel cakes and those Oreo delicacies ? because they?re no fun to make and too good to miss, said Michael Sohn, president of the fire company.

For Sohn, vice president Charlie Disney, Demasky and dozens of others, the fire company is a home away from home. Many have full-time jobs but spend up to 40 hours a week at the station. For Sohn, firefighting is a family affair ? his wife, Pat, and daughter, Nicole, 20, help with the auxiliary, and his son, Bryan, 26, fights fires for another station.

They all enjoy the carnival, which runs from seven to 10 days and engages all the official volunteers and other friends of the station.

Weitzell remembers the early days of the carnival ? it?s been part of the Earleigh Heights tradition for 28 years. "Back then, all the tents were two-by-fours with a piece of plastic over them. We had a dunking booth, but the rides were nothing like now."

Fortunately, these types of carnivals ? and the volunteer companies they support ? show no sign of drifting toward extinction.

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