Why a big March snowstorm creates such vivid memories


March 23, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

Late March snowstorms rank high in the memories of rTC Baltimoreans.

Every snow in my childhood was invariably compared with the Palm Sunday Blizzard of March 29, 1942, a storm so important it requires an upper case B on Blizzard.

People never forgot that snowstorm. The snow, 22 inches, wet and deep, blanketed the city.

Never mind the events of World War II, Baltimore had a bad snow on a Palm Sunday. The storm became something of a joke because the next day, normal spring temperatures returned and melted the snow.

As a child, I heard people talking about the Palm Sunday Blizzard as much as they talked of the burning of Oriole Park in 1944, the opening of the Bay Bridge in 1952 and the closing of O'Neill's department store in 1954. Nothing, however, matched the Colts' first professional football championship for endless conversation.

There was no local television camera to record the Palm Sunday snowstorm, but the local newspaper photographers certainly did. The Sun's A. Aubrey Bodine went to an upper floor of the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street and shot determined worshipers coming out of the Basilica of the Assumption. A News American photographer stood on the Edmondson Avenue Bridge over Gwynns Falls and captured an image of stalled automobiles and a big green Baltimore Transit Co. streetcar trying to push through the snow.

Talking about the 1942 snow storm was a favorite topic of my grandmother, Mary Louise Bosse Kelly. On Sunday afternoons, many years after that Palm Sunday, she'd talk and talk about the storm.

Her brood of grandchildren would be playing dominoes or tormenting the cat somewhere in her Poultney Street rowhouse. Mamie, as we called her, was an accomplished storyteller and entertainer. But when she rolled out the Palm Sunday chronicle, with all its subplots, I thought the afternoon would never end. When would she ever get around to opening the refrigerator and serving her famous strawberry Jell-O? Christmas, Easter and especially Palm Sunday were the days that were always ripe for yet one more account of her favorite snowstorm.

I never paid too much attention to her stories until March 1958 rolled around. I was about to turn 8 years old. It started to snow and kept up. It was wet and freezing. Baltimoreans thought it couldn't happen. We'd already had a number of bad snows that year. The sun, by the way, did not come out the next day to melt it.

I soon learned why a substantial March snow gets etched in the collective memory. It was the only snow that ever scared me. Live electric wires snapped all over the city and in the counties. Many majestic old trees fell. My family never lost electricity or heat, but many did. Newspaper photographers had a field day shooting pictures of families baking potatoes in fireplaces.

I recall the reports of radio broadcaster Galen Fromme coming over a Bakelite kitchen radio. A shed collapsed and killed a farmer. Live wires were crackling all over Forest Park and Catonsville. Frederick was cut off from the rest of the state. I wondered when our cozy kitchen would be plunged into darkness as I looked out the window and saw the wet snow weighing down the electric wires.

You knew the city was paralyzed when the intrepid streetcars stopped running. Nothing ever seemed to get in the way of the big yellow cars that ran on Greenmount Avenue and Belair Road and Fayette Street. But this snowstorm did.

To clear a path, the old Baltimore Transit Co. had a few snarling, snow-sweeping vehicles that resembled mean gray boars. These big

electric sweepers had spinning bristle-brooms that created their own blizzards as they clattered along the rails.

But the danger passed and conditions returned to normal.

And now, 34 years after that snowstorm, I realize why old tales of snowstorms, such as Grandmother Mamie's tale, don't die easy deaths.

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