Hurled beads are still the crown jewels at Chasco Fiesta

NEW PORT RICHEY — The Budweiser pirate boat spewed them out, hurled by dudes chomping cigars, some lobbed underhand, but many overhand, like a shortstop throwing home. The strings of cheap, shiny beads shot off the boat like cannonballs, and the onlookers scrambled for them as though they were gold. A royal blue one took a line drive at a senior citizen in a lawn chair. At the last second, her left hand shot up, like the coma patients in Awakenings, and snagged it. Then Gail Engelschjon, 63, calmly put it around her neck.

"That was a good catch though, wasn't it?" she said, giggling. "And left-handed!"

Beads — and other trinkets and candy thrown during parades — have become somewhat controversial in the past year, after a boy in Plant City died while reaching for candy. Jordan Hays, 9, walked the Christmas parade, and his foot was caught by a float's wheels and he was dragged underneath. The city has now banned throwing beads and candy during parades.

New Port Richey officials are considering similar bans. So this year's parade at the Chasco Fiesta, which runs through April 6, might have been the last time onlookers caught beads. The trend is thought to have started with Mardi Gras in New Orleans, though beads are no longer glass, but plastic.

"I think throwing beads is okay," Engelschjon said. "But I don't think they should throw candy. That could hit someone's eye."

Nearby, John Gates, a 21-year-old in a white tank top with a tattoo saying "40 oz." on his right bicep, had strings of beads around his neck. He said if the city bans beads, he won't come back to Chasco.

"It wouldn't be as fun," he said.

Tiffiny Gerhardt, a parent of two girls, said "beads are 100 percent better than giving kids candy."

Gerhardt lives in Chicago, but she and her children come to New Port Richey every spring break to visit her parents. She said that beads are not the problem. It's a parent's duty to watch their children.

Back in her chair, Engelschjon tried to explain the allure of beads. She doesn't think it's the jewelry itself. "I think it's just the excitement of reaching out and grabbing that prize," she said.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4609.

>>If YOU GO

Chasco Fiesta

The event began in 1922 and has been held continuously since 1947. Proceeds benefit local nonprofit organizations such as the Lighthouse for the Blind, Sertoma Speech & Hearing, Gulf High School, United Way, Alzheimer's Family Organization and others. The festival, which has food, music, American Indian dances and more, runs through Saturday. For information, call (727) 842-7651 or visit www.chascofiesta.net. The boat parade is at 1 p.m. April 5.

For a schedule of events today and Tuesday, see Page 5.

The faces behind the festival

Nancy Downey, a 19-year-old golden blond, jogged up and down Washington Street on Saturday afternoon, ponytail swinging. "Park here! Five dollars!" She wiped sweat off her face. Her tank top and jean shorts were damp. She and her father, Keith Downey, 48, had been parking cars of people coming to Chasco Fiesta on their lot all morning, as well as on their rental property down the street. "It's for my daughter's college fund," Keith said into windows, as drivers searched through pocketbooks for cash. When Nancy was a toddler, her mother left, leaving Keith alone to raise her. The women at her preschool taught Keith how to potty-train her. Nancy grew up into a pretty young woman, with a healthy, athletic build. She dropped out of high school because she didn't like her dad's girlfriend. But then Nancy went back to get her GED. "I got a 98 percent in math. A 92 in science. An 82 in reading and an 89 in writing," Nancy said, as a lull in cars gave her a brief break. "I am a smart person. I work fast and I work well with others." She worked at Wal-Mart for two years and recently left to work at a tanning salon. She's saving money and wants to go to school to be a nurse, because she loves helping people. She wants a real career. She doesn't want to work late at night anymore. "I've got to get out of these dead-end jobs," she said, her voice quaking. Then she spotted another car moving slowly down the road and held up her sign, $5 parking, and jogged away.

— Erin Sullivan, Times Staff Writer

Hurled beads are still the crown jewels at Chasco Fiesta 03/30/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 31, 2008 3:58pm]

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