Colors, smells and activities point to winter's end

February 08, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Will someone make the winter of 1993-94 go away?

It turned cold in October and got worse after Christmas. Come January, the Ice Age arrived. So did weeks of having to stay inside -- and the cabin fever and depression that resulted. This is not supposed to happen in Baltimore. What happened to the January thaw, that usual week of balmy temperatures and high humidity that wrecks the sinus passages but feels so good?

The cold weather's got to be coming to an end. Dull though it is, there's light at 6:45 these mornings and some sun rays hang around until about 6 at night. That's something to pin a springtime hope on.

Each day I tell (or delude) myself that the back of this winter has been broken. I swear there will not be a March 13 snow and ice storm as there was last year.

I'm counting the days until Feb. 22 when my own private barometer says that winter is history, finished, out the door, gone, old business. That date seems convenient because it's George Washington's birthday and there's warmth in the early-morning air.

I also point to other signs:

* The color of the water in the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River is changing from winter's steel gray to light blue-purple.

* The late-winter flu and other maladies going around, a sure sign that we're entering a period in Baltimore when the season is changing.

* The first whiff last week of that strange odor that rises off the harbor when we are in for a break in the weather.

What does the odor seem like? Here's the way Evening Sun writer Francis Beirne described it nearly 40 years ago -- "a composite odor of decayed fish, tankage, decomposed animal matter, sulphuric acid, sludge, rendered bones, molasses waste, oil waste, cocoa-bean hulls and so called trace odors. These last include among other things nitrogen, phosphates and potash."

* The angle of the sun is different. There's some real light these days not like what we had in December and January that made you think you were wearing a pair of Foster Grants when you were not.

* The birds that stay here for the winter begin acting crazily. I watched some sparrows break through the ice on my backyard pond and take a very animated bath. Some determined black bird also worked over my backyard lawn in search of worms, turning over every fragment of leaf, coming up empty and starting over again.

* Ash Wednesday, which is next week. Some religiously observant Baltimoreans like to carry on about their fasting and personal privations during the 40 days of Lent, but we all know better. Sure, you may do without beef, but it is the season when people load up on their favorite seafood.

* The season of oyster roasts arrives. Many a placard and poster announces some Sunday afternoon gorge-and-stuff session in a church hall or assembly room.

The oyster roast is perfectly suited to late-winter weather. What else is there to do except eat, sit and hibernate. Gaining a pound or two after the pound or two gained over the Christmas season seems insignificant, like adding $300 or $400 to a deep-in-red-ink charge card.

A friend of mine once explained that Baltimoreans do not so much as attend oyster roasts as belong to them.

The oyster roast as a rite of early spring is a like a club that is governed by all sorts of invisible but real membership rules. But it only meets a couple times a year, once for the oyster roast and maybe again for the bull roast or spaghetti dinner.

Membership in this club involves a bookful of rules that are never written but are fully understood by the players.

For example, you gather with old friends and family at an oyster roast. You maybe speak to people you normally hate or like to think you hate. It's a seasonal meeting of people who share some common tie -- church membership, family associations, geographic proximity, social or ethnic ties.

You always buy tickets with your sister and cousins for some church's annual event even though you may not be on great terms with these family members and you may be on less good terms with the clergy and church rules.

Oyster roasts reassure. Going to one in the same place year after year is like receiving an annual Christmas card from an old friend. It's reassuring. And it also means we're nearly finished with winter.

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