THE AVERAGE Marylander would probably prefer to have brimstone -- or even nuclear bombs -- falling out of the sky rather than snow.
As far as four-letter words go, S-N-O-W is probably about the dirtiest epithet that can be uttered by a denizen of the Free State -- at least after Labor Day. Say it loudly and strong men weep while strong women run shrieking from the room.
As we discovered anew last week, no other word can send such paroxysms of panic rippling through the populace. No other word can force weather forecasters into more contorted verbal gymnastics to avoid saying it. No other word can whip milk and toilet-paper shoppers into a more furious buying frenzy.
This type of shared hysteria in a region where it has snowed during every winter in recent memory seems rather strange. It's not like Maryland is a Brazilian rain forest, where a light dusting of flurries would cause no small amount of unease, or even Seattle, where last week's snow was genuinely unusual. Marylanders have seen snow before.
So what's the problem? Why do the goofy local weather folks call the frozen precipitation "that white stuff"? Why are schools closed when snow is forecast?
I come from New York state, so I don't know what all the fuss is about. Up there -- way, way north of New York City, where it gets hTC cold in September -- when it snows, it snows. Lots. As in feet, not inches. If you could push the front door open, you were going to school because the big yellow buses were running.
Maryland customs are a seasonal source of wonder to me, especially after I've lived here for about three years, because I've seen what the weather is actually like.
I love visiting the supermarkets after a snow shower has be forecast. The refrigerated sections are stripped clean of milk -- often, even the buttermilk is snapped up -- within hours. I see people with three or four gallons of milk streaking down the aisle where they keep the toilet paper, lobbing family-size packages into their carts. What are these people thinking? I've always wanted to ask one of these desperate souls for the reason behind their madness. What could they possible do with 11 gallons of milk and 32 rolls of toilet paper, even if the snowstorm actually does hit -- no guarantee -- and roads are covered for a few hours?
And about those roads. The most dangerous thing on the highways and byways following a storm is not the snow; it's the drivers. There seems to be two types of after-snow drivers: the kind who think they must inch along the roadway like ruptured snails, and the kind who imagine they are Richard Petty in the Daytona 500. The proper way to drive on snow is to reduce your speed a moderate amount -- don't halve it, and don't double it. And don't snuggle up to the bumper of the car in front of you -- the drafting effect is negligible. Treat the snow flakes with respect, not like little crystal demons gnawing at the undercarriage of your car.
All that salt on the road, however, should be treated like little crystal demons gnawing at the undercarriage of your car, because that's what it is. In some places, the blanket of salt on the road is thicker than the snow it was spread to ward off.
When I was a kid, the snow in New York would pile up chest-high. And after my little brother, Mike, and I would get done shoveling out the driveway and sidewalk at both our house and our grandparents', the snowplow would come by and throw up a blockade of slush and ice across the entrances.
If you hate the snow, be thankful you live in a region where it snows only two or three days each winter -- and even then only in reasonably small amounts.
I like to believe that if the local faint-of-heart types were to visit a real snow-belt state, where it really snowed -- and there are places that make New York look like Miami Beach -- they would turn as white as . . . well, snow.
Joe Diliberto, a copy editor for the Suburban Editions of The Sun, especially likes that wet, packing kind of snow that makes great snowballs.