The four letters Marylanders fear most Let it snow?: When the funky, homespun Hagers-Town Almanack talks, people listen.


CALL IT the winter of '94 flashback syndrome. Even on an Indian summer day in October, you hear that the venerable Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack is predicting above-average snow in Maryland this coming winter and you've all but got your car pointed in the direction of the grocery store for milk and toilet paper rations.

The logical side of your brain tries to remind you that long-range weather forecasting is a fragile art. In fact, over the last five years, the almanac has been wrong as often as right. You could have measured the stripes on a woolly bear caterpillar to fortell the winter, and your record would be nearly as good. The Mount Saint Mary's College instructor who's been making the almanac picks since 1969, Bill O'Toole, does so in the swelter of June when the first flake isn't even a gleam in Old Man Winter's eye. How prescient could he be? Besides, the National Weather Service, which pays no heed to backsides of insect larva, is calculating above-normal temperatures and normal precipitation through February. What's to worry?

Yet the winter-phobic, Marylanders-can't-drive-in-snow side of your brain gives pause. The almanac folks, after all, correctly called that nightmare of a winter two years ago. That season brought the coldest temperatures in 123 years of record-keeping and a numbing succession of slush and ice storms, and ravaged snow-removal budgets. So impressive was the almanac's prophecy that TV's Willard Scott and Peter Jennings noted its accuracy on the air. Mr. O'Toole says that Western Maryland will see 45 inches of snow, eight more than normal, and the Baltimore region will total 25 to 30 inches, nearly five more than normal. So the emotional side of the brain says "hunker down." And the logical side says: Invest in toilet paper futures.

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