Baltimore's string of impotent winters Where are the snows of yesteryear?

March 03, 1993|By Henry L. Mortimer Jr.

FRENCH poet Francois Villon must have been living in Baltimore when he pined, "Where are the snows of yesteryear?" Although it's miraculous that some snow remains on suburban and rural lawns from last Friday's piker of a storm, recent winters have been impotent, and this one is no exception.

Where are the great storms now?

As a kid growing up in the late 1970s and early '80s, I thought every winter had an enormous amount of snow. And in fact, according to the Weather Almanac, the winter seasons from 1977 to 1983 produced more than a few above-average snowfalls.

Moreover, the greatest snowstorm to hit Baltimore in the last 30 years occurred in February 1979. That storm buried the city under 24 inches of snow and caused most of the residents of the Land of Pleasant Living to have to shovel out.

I remember that storm vividly. School was closed for a whole week, and the entire landscape was transformed into a giant playground.

I left the house each morning wearing long johns, corduroys, a hat and gloves, a down jacket and plastic bags in my boots. My friends and I played in the snow all day, building forts and digging tunnels -- the snow was even too deep for sledding. We had snowball fights with my dad nearly every day, too, it seemed, because his office was closed almost as long as were the schools.

When the plows arrived and cleared the way for normal life to return, everyone was disappointed, even the adults.

It's a romantic vision, but in reality, a snowfall of that magnitude is as devastating as it is beautiful. For instance, while some people are riding snowmobiles on the downtown streets, others are in peril because emergency vehicles can't navigate the snowbound roads.

The lives of the elderly and handicapped are jeopardized by such storms, as well. Or, when heavy snow brings down trees and knocks out power lines, people can be stranded for days without heat or food. And the homeless, always at the mercy of nature, are hurt the most by a paralyzing winter storm.

For these reasons, the recent paucity of severe Baltimore winters is a blessing.

But mild winters may not be something to cheer about.

In his book, "The End of Nature," scientist Bill McKibben predicts that climate changes, such as an increase in average winter temperatures, will permanently alter the natural world as we know it. As winters become warmer, for instance, snowstorms will occur less frequently and with greater intensity, and native trees will die off and be replaced by other varieties more accustomed to warmer climates.

Don't sell your snow shovel, however. This apparent mild trend will likely be short-lived. Over the last 30 years, Baltimore has experienced nearly as many harsh winters as tame ones. People simply tend to remember the extremes.

My suggestion is that we throw caution to the wind and hope for one real snowburst every year. I'm talking about a ferocious, blinding, school-stopping, city-choking, winter tempest. And it doesn't need to last a week, either, just a day or so.

Besides, if record-breaking snowstorms occur only every 10 to 15 years, too many children will miss the opportunity to bean their fathers with a snowball.

0 Henry L. Mortimer Jr. writes from Baltimore. Last Thursday I heard on the radio that Baltimore was going to have a snowstorm.

I already knew that, because when I had gone to the Super Fresh, it was all out of bread, milk, kitty litter and toilet paper.

So when I awoke Friday morning, I was looking forward to what the papers always love to call a Winter Wonderland.

Even while the shades were drawn, I could hear the beautiful sound of the big plows snorting down the street, scraping at the pavement.

It took me back.

When I was a kid in northern New York, we would usually get our first snow by Thanksgiving, but it was just a foot or two.

Once we had 30 inches overnight: a true howling blizzard, which drove the snow so hard you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. The storm left one side of the tree trunks plastered white.

It was almost enough to close the schools.

I took the bus to school that morning, and the worst part was

getting out to Norton Road. Our driveway was 100 yards long. This was in the country, you understand. I was supposed to shovel my way out to the road, but my father let me off this time. It was hard enough just climbing through the drifts.

There was an orchard on one side of the drive, and a big sprawling lawn on the other (which in the summer it was my job to mow by hand), so the wind came through there as though it were a Russian steppe. When I saw we had 30 inches, I didn't count the drifts in the driveway. They were up to my chest.

Albert Maier didn't make the bus that day. He lived on top of the hill, and his driveway was 200 yards long.

But most of us got to school and spent the rest of the day chattering excitedly about our adventures. The hall floors were covered with little puddles of water.

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