The salt index is the best gauge of winter storms

January 20, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Forget about sub-zero temperatures, the wind-chill index and the inch-count of precipitation.

The one barometer of Baltimore's weather that can be trusted is the sacred word of a neighborhood hardware store owner.

"I opened the store Tuesday morning at 8:45 and had sold out of rock salt by 9 o'clock," said Craig Strohmer, whose family has operated a hardware business in the 2000 block of W. Pratt St. for more than 100 years.

"I knew it's a real bad storm. Everything weather related has been going out the front door. Look, there's our last electric heater," he said yesterday afternoon.

All day Tuesday and yesterday, Strohmer got extra salt and snow-melting chemicals from the warehouse. Some customers bought the materials in 10-pound bags. Others lugged away 100-pound sacks.

"Sand is selling good, too," he said.

Baltimoreans are a pretty funny lot when it comes to a snow storm. They buy out the inventories of grocery stores and abuse employers' liberal leave policies. They operate under an inverse proportion rule. The lighter the snow fall, the more they complain and avoid work.

An ice storm, however, is a different matter. Baltimore rarely gets 2 or 3 inches of solid ice. And when Baltimoreans move speedily to a hardware store, this decisive action means something is seriously wrong. The Strohmer Salt Index is the barometer I live by.

Also, the ice coating city streets today has forced our citizenry to become very creative.

For example, one of South Streeper Street's most fastidious housekeepers got very annoyed when her white marble steps got the Arctic treatment over the course of Monday night and early Tuesday morning.

The lady of the house took one look at this dangerous mess.

"I attacked it with an ax but all I was doing was sculpturing my white marble steps," she said. So I took the round end of a ballpeen hammer and chipped away at it. I got two steps done but had to go to work."

Another lady watched her neighbor's violent arm action with the ballpeen hammer -- the instrument is typically used in metalworking but this is Baltimore and we've got to play the hand we are dealt -- and offered this opinion. "What we need is buckets of coal-furnace cinders, ash and clinkers," the lady said, obviously a veteran of winters past.

What words of wisdom. I'd like to have the concession to sell the gritty outfall from an old coal stove or furnace. They produce the finest traction ever when spread over ice. A frozen pavement overlaid with a generous carpet of coal ash, making it easy to walk safely on ice, is an orthopedic surgeon's greatest enemy.

Walking the streets of Baltimore is dangerous business these days. I have watched people take more spills than the actors in a two-reel silent comedy. It isn't funny except that people come up with such lame excuses for being outside when they do not really need to be.

A few years ago I bought a coal stove to help out with heating my own drafty house. The cast-iron stove came with a name. It was a Warm Morning. Once loaded with anthracite, it produced good dry heat and made my kitchen feel like Southern California. My only problem was keeping the fire going overnight. I couldn't, and that made for very chilly mornings.

But after the coal was burned, great cinders, ash and clinkers were left behind. They also made good garden fertilizer. Their best use was when they were sprinkled over ice. Nothing has ever worked so well to provide sure footing.

There is really no sure way to fight the ice. You can attack it with Strohmer's salt or Streeper Street hammers or cinders, but it's not really going away.

Walking on the frozen pavements was like stepping out onto a surface greased with banana oil.

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