Sugar Babies

Terry Mulcahy

© Copyright 2022 by Terry Mulcahy

Photo courtesy of Atahan Demir at Pixels.
Photo courtesy of Atahan Demir at Pixels.

Frequently, hurricanes and tropical storms passed near Baltimore City where I grew up. There would be high winds, sometimes hitting 100 miles an hour along the Maryland coast. One such hurricane passed by in 1960 causing severe flooding. It was just before my parents moved from our house in downtown Baltimore to a location a bit higher in elevation. There was heavy rain in Baltimore, but we had our yellow raincoats and black galoshes - those rubber boots that buckled up from the toes halfway up our calves. They did keep our feet dry, and warm in deep snows as well. Sometimes there were hailstorms, with hailstones as big as golf balls. No one went outside then, and the hail was rough on vehicle windows. At the time, few people bought car insurance, and many houses came with a garage anyway. Hailstorms like that were costly for people without one.

Hurricanes with 100 mph winds were unusual, but, as luck would have it, it happened again, in 1961, after we’d moved. The house we moved to, even though it was only half of a duplex house, had four bedrooms and an attic. There were four kids in our family then, with another on the way. Two more would follow. It was the same time of year, in September, when school starts in the eastern part of the United States. Hurricane Esther was moving parallel up the East Coast. It had started from the Cabo Verde Islands, known for hurricanes. It developed into a tropical storm on September 11, then became a Category 3 hurricane for four days. By September 17 it had become a Category 5 hurricane with sustained winds of 160 mph. It continued up the East Coast until it fell to a Category 3 hurricane after it moved north of Baltimore and approached New England on September 19. Before it did so, it dumped tons of water along the east coast, including the Maryland coast, battering us with high winds.

While it sounds horrendous, it was just another big storm to those of us far enough inland to not feel the worst of it. Which meant, hurricanes or not, my brother John and I were going to go to school. My mother had her old radio in the kitchen, and she listened to the weather reports as we ate a typical breakfast of oatmeal or dry cereal. Schools were open. The news reports talked about damage to the Ocean City seawall and boardwalk. It is close to the coast, about 150 miles away, roughly a three-hour trip by car back then. The speed limit on major roads was 50 mph.

My brother John and I had only a three-quarter-mile walk to school, so my mother was confident we’d be safe. The storm had brought heavy rain, but we were prepared for that. We both had on our brown corduroy pants. Brown pants, brown shoes, and white shirts with brown ties was the required uniform, to which we added our rubber galoshes and stiff yellow raincoats. Those coats were made of heavy cotton or wool, covered with urethane. Urethane is ethyl carbamate, a chemical compound now known to be carcinogenic. Despite its name, it is not found in the widely used polyurethane. But its rubber-like properties made it impervious to water. The jackets, however, barely reached the tops of our boots.

We set out for school, marveling at the deep water flowing along the street. Water splashed up onto the sidewalks, and we had on our rubber boots, but the boots were not high enough to keep the fast-moving water along the curbs out. We did our best to hop up onto the sidewalks as we crossed the side streets. We were not so young as to want to get our feet wet - that would make school uncomfortable all day. However, try as we might, we couldn’t keep the energetic water splashing against us from getting in our boots. One thing about waterproof boots - they retain water, which meant out boots soon filled up. Our shoes were full of water as a result. We hadn’t gone more than a few city blocks when we decided to turn back. By then our pants were soaked to the knees as well.

Mom was surprised to see us, but she understood when we showed her our wet shoes, socks, and pants. We were shivering from the cold water and high wind. But getting a day off was wonderful to us, so we didn’t care about that. We stuck our wet school shoes under the steam radiators to dry. The storm moved on that night, so, in the morning we were able to make the short trek to school.

I was certainly surprised to hear the nun who taught our class make fun of those students who hadn’t made it to school the day before. She called us sugar babies, but with a smile on her face.

I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, but I understood it to mean she was saying that we were afraid we’d melt in the rain like candy. (At the time, Sugar Babies were delicious sugar-coated caramel candies that sold for a nickel in movie theaters and drug stores.)

However, we were not going to be marked absent for that day, so that made those of us who never missed a day of school sigh in relief. One thing I knew was how important attendance was to those nuns, and I wanted to graduate. Poor attendance often resulted in summer school, and could delay graduation from eighth grade. Fortunately, I did graduate on time, and was able to attend a strict, but well-respected public high school. Heavy rain was no longer a problem, because the school was much further away, and getting there required a city bus ride, with a transfer to another bus route.

The busses were very crowded when I left school each day, so I always stood, hanging onto a pole, or a grab bar above me. It was better than walking in downpours. Waiting for a bus on winter mornings, however, required a heavy coat, and two pairs of pants. For rain, there were umbrellas. Umbrellas were ubiquitous in Baltimore. I never carry one. I live in a warm and
very dry desert climate now. There isn’t much rain, and I’m OK with that.  

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