Mostly a contented season Summer: After a winter of discontent, summer gas been a breeze with butterflies and Botsford. Even the weather was charming.

September 02, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Erin Texiera, Fred Rasmussen and William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

From the June 21 solstice to the edge of the equinox, the summer of 1996 was blessed with butterflies, marked by the Macarena, forsaken by crustaceans and simply golden for one Timonium teen-ager with a mighty backstroke.

But perhaps more than anything -- the Olympics in Atlanta, the arrival of the Ravens, a scarcity of crabs and the tamale-tinged dance craze -- this Maryland summer likely will be remembered for weather that was most unlikely.

Often, it didn't feel like summer at all. Last July, the state suffered through 20 consecutive days of temperatures at 90 and above. This year, the heart of the season scattered only five such broilers.

"One of the most pleasant I've experienced in 25 years -- it's been comfortably warm with enough rain to keep my lawn from turning brown," said Amet Figueroa, a meteorologist at Baltimore-Washington International Airport whose pleasure was dampened by the closing Aug. 1 -- after 46 years' service -- of the airport weather station.

Nary a heat inversion brought the Mohave to Middle River, and Baltimore was exempt from those exquisitely miserable midnights when the temperature hovers around 90 with humidity to match -- nights that invariably give way to mornings so cloaked in haze that droplets of humidity cling to window screens.

"You weren't sweating the whole time," said Brendan Walsh, who with his wife, Willa Bickham, has run the Viva House soup kitchen on South Mount Street for 28 years and served an average of 280 people each day they were open this summer.

It wasn't nearly hot enough -- no weeklong runs of furious white heat -- to send the stench of rotting crab shells wafting from backyard garbage cans even if there had been enough reasonably priced crabs to fill those cans.

This summer's harvest of the Chesapeake's finest has been one the most dismal in recent history, with tens of thousands of mature crabs dead before the season began because of the severe winter.

With cold fronts from Canada bringing average temperatures nearly 3 degrees below normal and pounding rain that caused a week of floods in mid-June, even the Baltimore harbor smelled pretty good on most days.

And to the wonder of almost everyone, butterflies with wings of purple, yellow, orange, black and white alighted on blossoms from the inner city to suburban sprawl. Their numbers -- unknowable, yet greater than anyone could recall -- was credited to cool, wet weather that extended the flowering season of plants and literally duplicated spring through most of August.

"I don't remember seeing this many since I was a little kid," said Rosemary DiStefano of North Baltimore. "Everywhere I've gone this summer I saw those flies of butter."

For the same reasons, it was also a good year for lightning bugs.

The only thing that came close to making the asphalt gooey on Charles Street was a three-day heat blip in May, before summer formally began. Hurricane Bertha skirted the coast on July 12 and 13, and a week later a 180-mph tornado ripped the town of Gamber in Carroll County.

Altogether, the weather was great for late summer rafting on the Shenandoah (tubing is about all the shallow riverbeds of August usually accommodate), good for corn and rotten for cherries. And in back yards across the state, tomato gardeners waited for green to turn red.

"Even though my tomatoes were late, I got a huge bounty. I'm getting so many now I'm tempted to hurl them over the neighbor's fence," said Elmer Lippy, the 76-year-old mayor of Manchester. "My string beans are a marvel to behold, but everybody's good at string beans. Grapes have been the big disappointment, so many of them rotted on the vine. I guess it was too much rain."

It was the rain that caused the rot: powdery mildew and other fungal disease that preyed on Allen Baugher's peaches and will rocket the price of hay up to $200 a ton this fall.

"Some folks out here in Carroll got nine or 10 inches this summer -- that's practically unheard of," said Baugher, who farms 1,500 acres just outside Westminster and this year realized about half of the 46,200 quarts of sweet cherries he harvested last summer.

Sour cherries, on the other hand, thrived with the rain -- their soft, tender skin expanding as the rain swelled the fruit. Baugher got 70 tons of the sours this year, more than 10 tons ahead of 1995.

Still, he's seen enough of rain. "With a hot and dry September and October before the hard frosts come on, you'll have a lot of happy farmers. Whether it's tomatoes, cantaloupes or pumpkins, more money has gone out to produce crops this year."

Money was the measure of two of the summer's biggest !B legislative stories out of Washington: the 90-cent increase in the minimum wage and welfare reform.

And there was no tragedy greater than the July 17 explosion of TWA Flight 800 bound from New York to Paris, killing 230 people, at least four of them Marylanders.

In local politics, Gov. Parris N. Glendening's summer was a wipeout.

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