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Md. 'Leaplings' mark their quadrennial birthdays on Feb. 29

Allie Hammond turns 28 Wednesday, when she can celebrate her actual birthday. It's a bright spot in what can be an annoying circumstance — being a "leapling."

Take renewing your driver's license. "They could not find a code for my birth date," said Hammond, an athletic trainer at Wilde Lake High School. She said the experience took hours.

"Leaplings," or those born on Feb. 29, often find themselves explaining the oddity of a quadrennial birth date to the Department of Motor Vehicles, corporate America and bartenders. Though their legal age is calculated like everybody else's, leaplings get far fewer official birthdays — and a few more headaches.

But for Hammond and others, the distinction is a conversation piece and in a way keeps them young.

"I won't even be in double digits until I turn 40," she said, choosing to count only her Leap Year birthdays. "My family just celebrated my seventh birthday with me, and I am already taking care of high school athletes."

Janet Cunningham, a Crofton resident born on Leap Day in 1960, recalled a rental-car agency rejecting her application for giving a "bogus birth date." Ryan McSorley, a McDaniel College sophomore, once had to argue to gain entry to an amusement park that would not accept Feb. 29.

"They kept telling me that I had my own birthday wrong," said McSorley, who turns 20 today, or 5 if you only count Leap Days.

Janet's daughter, Erin Cunningham, shares the unusual birthday. She turns 24, or 6, today.

When she earned her driver's license on Feb. 28 on a non-leap year, she was told she would have to wait until March 1 to officially get behind the wheel. On her 21st birthday, friends took her out for a celebratory drink. The bartender checked her ID and refused to pour. She wonders whether the date will create problems when she applies to law school.

Though individual leaplings may face questions, most people will pass the day like any other.

For example, the broader technological challenges of handling a month with an extra day have been addressed, said Tom Loveland, head of Mind Over Machines, a software and technology consulting firm with offices in Owings Mills and Bethesda.

"Most of the world's mundane coding issues have already been solved," he said. "The trick for software developers is simply to leverage what's already built and tested. But for developers who prefer to roll their own, well, watch out! That's where mistakes sneak in."

While the looming Y2K sparked fear a dozen years ago in many industries that relied on computers, leap year presents no issues for commerce, said Kathleen M. Murphy, president of the Maryland Bankers Association. She said the extra day won't impact timed financial transactions or other calendar-dependent banking.

"There is nothing any different about a month with 29, 30 or 31 days," she said. "It is business as usual."

The additional day is needed to accommodate extra hours not accounted for in the internationally accepted Gregorian calendar year, which improved on Julius Caesar's system for marking time centuries ago.

Most countries accepted the calendar centuries ago, but a few took a little longer. Sweden lagged a few days behind the rest of the world in the early 18th Century. It caught up with the addition of two days to the 1712 calendar. Children born there on Feb. 30, 1712 never had another official birthday and couples who married on that date never marked an anniversary.

Britain and its American colonies waited until 1752.

Worldwide, thousands will be born today and will be able to boast that they will never grow old. Leap year actually postpones aging for everyone, if only by a day. Since it falls on a Wednesday this year, it means one more work day — possibly without pay for those whose salaries are computed annually. Feb. 29 adds another day to the gross national product and gives renters reason to rejoice in an extra day on the landlord.

Leapling Paul Gibbons, born in 1972, said he has rarely encountered birthday-related problems and hopes his streak continues when he gets in license-renewal line at the DMV today. The date actually saved him from a traffic ticket once. An officer had pulled him over for driving past a stop sign, but would not write a ticket until he found his birth date in the computer.

"The officer gave up and told me it was my lucky day," Gibbons said.

Most leaplings prefer to celebrate in February, their birthday month, and are used to the playful teasing that surrounds them. McSorley remembered his 16th, or 4th, birthday when friends gave him a box of toy trucks.

"I don't worry about age much," he said, adding it's a guy thing. "Women put much more emphasis on age than guys do."

Fellow McDaniel student Hollie Cunningham, who is not related to the Crofton Cunninghams, said her parents will likely arrive from Washington today with a pinata, imprinted with a bold "5," and birthday cards written for a 5-year-old.

"My birthday can be a great conversation starter," she said. "I tell people that I age with every presidential election year."

For Erin and Janet Cunningham, Feb. 29 is always a double celebration. Janet made the news as Baltimore's first leapling baby of 1960, born at what was then South Baltimore General Hospital. She gave birth to Erin in the same hospital, now known as MedStar Harbor Hospital, on Feb. 29, 1988, but competed with another mother for the top news spot that day, she said.

"There was a leapling giraffe born on the same day at the zoo," she said. "There was a bit of competition for the news story, and for a while, we weren't sure which mother would be in the paper."

They still celebrate every year late in their birthday month, but every fourth year, the mother and daughter organize a grander celebration. They are going to the Kennedy Center this weekend with several other family members and then out on the town in Washington.

"Why wouldn't we celebrate?" said Erin. "We are never going to get old."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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