The gauge on the 4-foot tall helium tank, tucked in a closet at Port Discovery Children's Museum downtown, is nearing empty. Maybe one-sixteenth of the tank is left. And that means that, soon, the balloons will not fly.
"We laugh about this a lot at work," says Magan Ruthke. "It's like the tragedy of no balloons . . . and what about the parades?"
As director of guest services for the nonprofit Port Discovery Children's Museum, Ruthke averages about a dozen children's birthday parties each week. She supervises a staff of 34, coordinating the juice, pizza (but not the cake), and entertaining activities required to keep 10 or so kids (and their parents) happy and busy for two hours at a clip.
Ruthke "did a lot of scene design in college," she says, to earn a bachelor's degree in theater arts. In seventh grade she acted in a dinner theater rip-off of Beauty and the Beast that got busted when a Disney employee stumbled into a lunch performance. The media giant excised a good chunk of the music from the show, and Ruthke and cast were forced to rework the production just hours before that night's show. She laughs at the memory and exclaims, without a hint of irony, "It was fun!"
This is the perfect attitude for someone at Port Discovery, an enormous industrial hive of children doing science experiments, climbing on steampunk-ish walls festooned with light-up buttons and mysterious dials, and running, running, running everywhere-from the indoor soccer field to the "The Oasis" story room and up to a pharaoh's tomb, an installation partly designed by Disney's Imagineers.
But none of things is the star attraction. "This is what separates us from the other children's museums," Ruthke says, waving to the kids in the 50-foot, enclosed climbing tower that dominates the facility.
"It's totally safe," she adds. "We get audited all the time."
Ruthke, an Edgewood native with a map of Harford County tattooed on her right wrist, took a part-time, entry-level job here 11 years ago, before graduating from Towson University. Later she went back to Towson part-time. "I wanted to get some rounding in business but didn't want an MBA," she says. So she earned a master's in human resources. Two years ago she was promoted to her current position.
In that capacity, Ruthke is also in charge of the colorful balloons that, heretofore and apparently by constitutional right, wafted to the ceiling during the parties, were lashed to the wrists of the celebrants afterward and, finally, got loose to float off toward the stratosphere.
But the balloons are about to be kaput. "It's very exciting," Ruthke says, laughing at the absurdity of it all. "I called our supplier, Airgas, when we had a quarter-tank. The rep was like, 'We can't supply that right now.' I was like, 'Excuse me?' He said 'Due to an industry-wide shortage, we will not be supplying helium until further notice.'"
Ah yes, the international helium shortage, spurred by the U.S. Congress' privatization fever of the 1990s, plus the usual unintended results of that impulse.
The story breaks down like this: In the early part of the last century, helium-the second-lightest gas (after hydrogen) and helpfully non-flammable, but also rare on Earth, mostly coming as a byproduct of natural gas extraction-was a nationally strategic substance. In 1925, the government established the Federal Helium Program to manage the supply needed for military blimps. In 1960, with helium needs for NASA projected to, ahem, balloon, the U.S. government established a strategic helium reserve just north of Amarillo, Texas, called the Bush Dome. The price of the gas was set according to the $250 million cost to create the storage facility and pipelines leading to refineries in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas, where private drillers would sell the helium left over from their gas refining. And everything worked fine. NASA and physics researchers got their liquid helium, welders got their gas helium, and clowns got their balloons filled and little kids all over the nation got to talk like Munchkins.
But NASA never bought as much helium as the New Frontier-era planners estimated it would, and so the cost of the program was higher than the revenue from sales. By the 1990s, Rolling Stone's house Libertarian P.J. O'Rourke was turning it into laughing gas. "The helium program is incredibly stupid," O'Rourke wrote in 1991, "even by government standards."
The Helium Privatization Act was born to shutter the Federal Helium Program. "Millions of Americans," said then-California Congressman Christopher Cox, the bill's lead sponsor, "are amazed that it actually exists, appalled that it has survived for so long, and outraged that past Congresses never took action to kill it," he told a congressional hearing. It took a few tries, but in 1996 Congress passed the act, decreeing that the Bush Dome should be emptied by 2015 so that, as God and Ludwig von Mises intended, the free market should supply helium to all who need it. Good ol' capitalism!
And that didn't work at all. Basically, no capitalists came to supply helium, which presents a challenge to Ruthke and her crew.
"We've been looking for balloon alternatives," she says. "We'll have hand-pumped ones on sticks and in buckets. That hopefully will satisfy our guests." She's less worried about the children than about the parents who shell out $300 or so per party, but it's not really right to say she's worried. "We have theater backgrounds," she says of herself and her staff. "We know how to sell stuff."
At the end of the pharaoh's tomb, a little girl has managed to solve the technical puzzle controlling access to the pharaoh himself. The God-like voice thunders from a slit in the rock. "How does it appear?" asks the girl, who appears to be a bit younger than the 7-to-14 age group the exhibit was originally meant for. "Is it an illusion?"
"It's magic," Ruthke says with kind authority. "I can't tell you, I'll ruin the magic."