Meet city employee Keith Arnold. Occupation: clown.

VIRGINIA BEACH

In the auditorium of Baylake Pines School, Buckets the Clown surveys his audience.

From the floor, about 40 fidgety kindergartners and first- and second-graders gaze up at him.

The clown's blue hair pokes out from underneath a white fire helmet. Large orange shoes with the letters T.G.I.F - short for "toes go in first" - extend from bright green socks. Suspenders support a pair of fire pants, a toy horn and a city ID badge.

"Who's going to be my helper?" he asks the group of kids plopped down in front of him.

Dozens of hands shoot into the air. Buckets points to a girl, who springs up from the floor, steps over her classmates and shakes his hand.

"Have you ever been on stage to perform in front of an audience before?" the clown asks, bending to greet his new assistant.

She shakes her head as Buckets hands her a blue plastic pail.

From a silver pitcher, the clown pours a stream of water into the bucket, tipping the carafe until it empties.

"If you burn yourself, what do you do?" he asks the group.

"Tell an adult and cool it with cool water."

Then the clown tips the seemingly empty pitcher and a surge of water flows out.

"What about if I burn my big toe?" he asks.

"Cool water," the kids yell as Buckets again sends water cascading out of the trick pitcher and into the blue pail.

A wide-eyed boy sitting cross-legged in the front row stares up at the blue-haired creature standing in front of him.

"That's magic," he gasps.

From the floor, tiny mouths hang open. Even teachers watch with amusement, not just at the tricks, but at the whole strange spectacle.

Who is this clown?

Dressed in a T-shirt and hairnet, Keith Arnold plants himself in front of a small table mirror in the break room of the city's fire training center.

He smudges white face paint across his forehead and around his cheeks. He draws on an oversized smile with a red makeup pencil - but not too big. He made that mistake when he first became the fire department clown almost 10 years ago.

Firefighters passing the room's large glass windows glance in. If Arnold notices the attention, it doesn't show. He has other things on his mind.

"Who am I today?" he asks, drawing on thick black eyebrows and perfecting his cherry-red nose.

It's a practical question for a man tasked with balancing multiple personalities. Tokens of Arnold's lives - past and present, man and clown - decorate his small office. Balloons are at the ready in filing cabinet drawers. Photos of two Ronalds - Reagan and McDonald - adorn his walls.

For most of his life, he was Keith, who's a husband and a father. He spent more than 23 years in the Navy, serving as fire chief at two military installations, including Camp David, where presidents go for some R&R.

Baseball fans might recognize another one of his identities: Kleatus, a clown with a dash of country flair Arnold dreamed up for his private clowning business, including clowning around at Tides games.

And then there is Buckets, the clown that started it all.

The fire-safety clown isn't your typical jester. He doesn't work birthday parties. He won't do balloon animals.

He's a clown with an agenda, a city employee who combines the lessons of Smoky the Bear with the novelty of Ronald McDonald.

Every year, Arnold travels to schools peddling stickers and handouts and fire-safety lessons in a type of educational magic show.

Arnold thinks he's one of only two fire-safety clowns in the state, but there are hundreds across the country. Several cities even employ quartets of clowns, like Blaze, Bleve, Higbe and Res-Q in Mansfield, a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas.

But it was in Virginia Beach about a decade ago that Arnold, already a fire educator in the city, met "Chiefo." At a local life-safety conference, Arnold watched the clown from Baltimore County dazzle kids with oversized foam props and lessons on stop, drop and roll.

Arnold was sold. He knew what was at stake. While a volunteer with a fire department in the early '80s, he'd responded to a call for a fire set by a child. The blaze was only minutes from the station, but by the time firefighters arrived, it was already too late. The boy was dead. Arnold had to help remove the body.

"I just knew, here was a life that was lost," Arnold remembered.

He hasn't forgotten, more than 30 years later.

Any educational tool, even a seemingly silly one, was worth trying if it could save a life.

So in 2003, at the age of 46, Arnold became a clown.

It wasn't a flawless transition. Buckets' initial long, straight hair wasn't quite right. Neither was his tie. Sometimes his smile came across as scary.

Officials hesitated as the clown took his first, oversized steps into the classroom.

None of that shows today in the break room, where a final cloud of white powder fills the air, covering Arnold's newly made-up face in a fine chalky dust.

"You gonna be here all day?" a colleague asks Arnold, now in costume, as he walks back to his office to collect props.

"Keith will be back," he says. "Buckets is leaving."

Like every great performer, Buckets has an assistant.

In elementary school dining halls and auditoriums, his helpers - often rookies from a nearby fire station - are stripped of last names and subjected to well-intended teasing at the hands of their colleague-turned-clown.

"Do you have your good socks on?" Buckets asks his assistant, known only as Firefighter Chris, at Baylake Pines.

"I do," the firefighter says, showing off his white socks with a showgirl-style kick before stepping into his boots and bunker pants.

"Everyone say, 'bunker pants!' " Buckets yells, eliciting screams and giggles from the group.

The goofy narration is all part of the lesson. After nearly a decade of clowning, Buckets knows the youngsters in his audience. He knows they're likely to spook at the shrill beep of a smoke detector. He also knows that the pint-sized pupils are more scared of his colleagues, with their steel-toed boots and voice-altering masks, than they are of him.

So Buckets transforms the firefighter into something relatable, something silly. The soft beeping of an air tank sounds like chirping birds. A mask becomes a window. A protective hood is the chain mail of a knight in shining armor.

From the floor, Buckets' audience offers up ideas of their own.

"He's going to look like a ninja," squeals a boy as Firefighter Chris prepares to put on his hood.

Buckets points out the firefighter's thick knee pads, flashlight and suspenders. He tells the kids never to hide during a fire.

"In a minute, you're going to see it's the same person in there," the clown explains.

For about 20 minutes the clown runs through his arsenal of tricks, including several he picked up at the two safety-clown conferences the city sent him to in Arizona.

Buckets pulls out a smoke detector that seems to have sprouted a large red nose to "smell for smoke."

"This is important, and a lot of grown-ups don't know it," the clown will tell them. "If your smoke detector is as old as you are, tell your parents to replace it."

And they do.

"It's your fault," more than one parent has told the clown. "My kids wouldn't be quiet until I changed my smoke detector batteries."

And so it goes in nearly every school. Buckets pretends to bake a magic cake to talk about the dangers of matches and candles. He uses a trick scarf to impart lessons like stop, drop and roll.

He makes three ropes - representing a child, parents and siblings - all appear as equal lengths as he asks kids to go home and share the skills they learned with their parents, "making them all equally safe."

Buckets' show is small-scale, which works well when you're a clown operating on a tight government budget.

He drives a city car. He's even been stopped by confused police officers while driving in costume.

The city pays for Buckets' makeup and wardrobe. It costs less than $100 a year, officials said, and Arnold has found ways to do it on the cheap. Instead of professional clown shoes - the kind he bought for his private business - he opted for a pair of bright orange, size 19 Adidas he found on clearance.

The kids can't seem to tell the difference.

They also don't seem to notice that the clown's gaffes and games are disguising real lessons.

Just look at the city statistics, officials said. In the past six years, the city has had 18 fire fatalities, said Battalion Chief Tim Riley. Only one of those deaths has been a child.

And if there was hesitation among city officials when Arnold first became Buckets, it seems to have disappeared. Today, Buckets is lauded as "an overwhelming success," Riley said.

The city has even expanded its cast of characters. Today the department has a nationally recognized Life Safety Brigade of four characters and a puppeteer. Along with Arnold as Buckets, there's Kathleen Gill as E.D.I.T.H, a Raggedy Ann-type character whose name stands for "Exit Drills In The Home," Frances Ostroth as rapper MoSafeT and John Hallman as Stryker the Safety Clown.

Every kid who has gone through elementary school in the city in the past 10 years has seen Buckets or another one of the Life Safety Brigade characters, Riley said. Last year alone, the office performed 109 shows.

"You can see learning is taking place," said Battalion Chief James Ramsey, Arnold's boss. "There's no question on my part that this is going to continue."

Even Arnold's family members, who once were embarrassed by their patriarch's newfound love of clowning, are on board. His daughter, Chesapeake kindergarten teacher Heather Murphy, even puts in requests to borrow Buckets for school events.

"Now I'm proud to tell people my dad's a clown," Murphy said.

And while fire-safety clowns haven't caught on in Virginia the way they have in other states, officials in some neighboring cities said it's not because they don't want them.

In some cities, funding simply won't support enough staff to create a character. Virginia Beach has a life-safety staff of five, Ramsey said, and the department hasn't lost any education positions during budget cuts. That's good, he said, because demand for the characters continues to increase.

So year after year, Arnold paints his face, packs up his props and drives to his front line.

"Are you a firefighter?" kids will ask, eyeing his helmet.

"I'm a fire safety clown," he'll tell them. "And in a minute, I'll tell you all about it."

Sarah Hutchins, 757-222-5131, sarah.hutchins@pilotonline.com


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