Snowballs With Syrup

Terry Mulcahy

© Copyright 2022 by Terry Mulcahy

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Although I do not remember the exact dates, my parents moved one last time as a family in 1960, when I was about to turn ten. The snowball stand existed for two or three summers between 1961 and 1966. Our parents taught us how to make the sugar syrup. They bought our first set of flavor concentrates to help us get started. We added more as our business took off.

Sometimes it feels like I have a snowball's chance in hell of remembering events from a long, long time ago, but I still remember building and running a snowball stand with my brother John. Summers in Baltimore, Maryland are as hot and humid as a rain forest. Not only does the Chesapeake Bay intrude directly into the heart of the city, but the ocean is only a hundred miles away. Hurricanes have hit Maryland often over the years, bringing heavy rains and flooding. Ocean storms bring lots of moisture all the time. So, before air conditioning, summers in Baltimore left us sweating buckets in the sweltering heat. Our parents, happy to have us all, were nevertheless always broke providing food, clothing and medical care for seven children. We survived OK. There was always food on the table, even if, occasionally, it was only potato pancakes.

None of us were over-fat or undernourished. We all walked a couple miles a day for school, and played, bicycled and climbed trees the rest of the time. But summers – summers could feel like trying to walk under water. We craved relief. Sodas were good, and although cheap, not a regular part of our parents’ shopping list. But there was plenty of water or Kool-Aid, and occasional watermelons. But my brother and I also wanted to make some money. Watermelons grew too far away, and everybody had their own Kool-Aid. In winter we shoveled our neighbors’ sidewalks, usually for small change. Most people cut their own lawns, and John and I had to cut ours, but it was miserable work in that humid heat. So we went into business.

It seems like it was three summers, but I can't be certain. We cooked sugar down into syrup and added flavors to it. I tend to catch myself now when I start to mention a "snowball" stand because no one outside of Baltimore calls it that. People always get this kind of dumbfounded look on their faces, and I add, "snow cones". And only old folks know about shaved ice. Even when we were growing up it was rarely done that way anymore: it took a lot more effort and time. But even when there was a rival stand somewhat near, people said they preferred our finely shaved ice over the ground stuff. Ice shavings are smoother. We never made much money, since it was a word-of-mouth business. People also loved the scoop of vanilla ice cream we'd add on top for a nickel. John told me he often made a chocolate-covered snowball with marshmallow topping for twenty-five cents. Chocolate was our most expensive flavor.
Man, it was boring sitting there sometimes, sweating, trying to read while we waited for customers. We had built our stand in a space between the front porch and the driveway. We had to make ourselves snowballs to cool off. Shaving that ice had its problems though. We had to get the block of ice out early so it could melt a little into the upside-down bottle caps we nailed to the bench to hold it in place while shaving. Start shaving too soon, and the block would move around. Once in awhile it would slide right off the bench onto the ground, then we had to scramble to clean it off. We threw the first shavings away.  Photo courtesy of the author.
Old fashioned ice shaver.  Photo courtesy of the author.
Another problem was the sun, of course, so we covered the ice with a bath towel. Unfortunately, if the ice was fresh from the freezer, the towel would stick to it, so when we pulled it off, fibers would stay stuck to the ice. Had to shave those off. I hope we never gave anyone a snowball with towel fibers in it! We'd get a little woozy out there sitting in the sun long hours.

Sometimes we'd run out of ice, which meant trying to get every last shave out of the thinning melting chunk left late in the day, without cutting into the bottle caps. It was a long walk to the store with our wagon to buy and haul home two big cubes of ice we'd cover with a towel all the way home, from at least a mile away. Sometimes water would be running out of the wagon by the time we got home. Eventually we got the idea to freeze some tap water in big pots, since our parents had a deep freezer in the basement. But it was only a few inches thick, hard to get out of the pots, cracked easily, and didn't last long. And mom needed the pots anyway.

Day selling was slow -- a kid here and there. But evenings! Evenings we were busy. We took quite a few shaves across the ice with the heavy-duty blade in our little cast metal shavers. Shave, back off, shave, back off, shave, back off, shave, and much faster than it takes to say that. We had strong arms. People sent their kids over to our house to buy several at a time, because there was nothing close, and walking a mile for a snowball was no one's idea of fun in that heat. People drove less then. It cost money to pay off a car, maintain it, and buy gas. Stayed hot all evening. We even sweated lying perfectly still in bed. So we had plenty of business as long we stayed open at night.

But that brought problems too. We had rigged up a big bulb in the stand. That brought flying insects, but snowballs were worth it. So was making money. It also brought lots of people, so there was the bright light and lots of noise. We lived in one half of a duplex. We got in trouble with the other half for that. It was odd, because the other half was where my mother had grown up. Her mother died when I was two years old, and Granpop (or Pop-Pop), her father, died while I was still in grade school, still an altar boy, so I got to serve that funeral mass, and for Grandpa, my other grandfather, as well. Both men had lung damage from either mustard gas on land, or stifling conditions aboard ship in Granddad's case. For some reason he also spent a lot of time cleaning the sides of his ship while underway. Probably swallowed a lot of seawater. During prohibition he made beer in his bathtub.

I'm drifting from my story about snowballs, but I remember both men well. An electrician, and a cop. Good men.

So, sometime after my maternal grandmother died that house was sold. My mother had married, her brother George had joined the navy. My grandfather lived with his other son Charles, a sailor in the Merchant Marine, and their kids. We were close with them until Granpop died, soon after he’d moved in with us. But, that's another story.

So, as my parents kept bringing more kids into the world, we kept moving. My birth certificate says their address was in an old Baltimore neighborhood, on Gay Street, near the famous Lexington Market. But they moved to Florida for a bit, which is where my grandmother died when I was two. I don't recall where we lived in Baltimore at first after that, but I was in Kindergarten the year we moved into a very small house, briefly, in a development in northeast Baltimore called Armistead Gardens, north of Pulaski Highway and east of Erdman Avenue. I was surprised the day we drove up because the grass was so high. John had been born a year after me, but while we lived there Pat was born. So we moved again, to Evans Chapel Road, near the Roland Water Tower. The first of my sisters, Kathy, was born there, and then Karen next. I managed to complete my first four years of grade school there, at Saint Thomas Aquinas school before we moved again, out of room.

So, that was how we ended up on Frankford Avenue, between Belair Road (U.S. Route 1) and Harford Road, next door to the house where my mother grew up. This time we stayed put for the four years it took me to finish grade school at St. Anthony of Padua school, and the five years it took me to complete four years of high school at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. Another story there.

Meanwhile, on Frankford Avenue, an old crabby woman lived next door with her middle-aged son. She wasn't happy to live next door, just a cinder-block wall apart, from five loud rambunctious kids, and then my parents had two more, Brian (back to boys) and then Mary Elizabeth, aka Betsy.

I asked my father once why he never used birth control. He claimed the Church wouldn't allow it. He drifted away from the Church after my mom had to have a hysterectomy to save her life, and the parish priest had sanctioned it. My mom says my dad, strongly influenced by religious patriarchy, wanted to have more kids, and had initially forbade the hysterectomy, because she would no longer be a woman if she couldn't have kids.

And that is why we had to shut down the snowball stand late that first summer we ran it. Not due to the hysterectomy, but because of the crabby woman next door complaining about the noise, and the light on all evening. My parents resisted, but gave in, probably due to a noise ordinance, and hell, we were running a "business" in a residential neighborhood. But, that didn't stop us.

Next summer was better, for us at least. We didn't have as many customers, hidden as we were around the back of our house, since we rebuilt our stand by the back door, and we could retreat a few steps into the cellar when it got too hot. And, the deep freezer was right there, with the ice, and the ice cream, for an additional cost of 5¢ a scoop on top of your snowball -- sorry, snow cone. Someone wrote about Baltimore snowballs recently, claiming that snowballs were in a cup, and really, you could bring your own cup to our stand for a slight discount, but a snow cone, he claimed, was a snowball served in a cone. A snowball, drenched in brightly colored flavorful syrup, even with ice cream on top, cone or not, is a snowball to me. Always will be.

You may wonder what we spent our profits on. Clothes. At first it was socks: thick, comfortable Adler brand socks. We did a lot of walking. Having grown up with hand-me-downs, or wearing Catholic school uniforms until they would no longer fit, or could no longer be patched anymore, we wanted clothes that were fresh and new without patches – clothes we picked out for ourselves. We also bought small Christmas presents for the younger kids and for our parents.

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