It was already 70 degrees at 7 a.m. when the Lawn Squad pulled up to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's brick colonial in University Park yesterday. Air quality: Code Yellow. UV index: 7.
Our purpose was clear. Across drought-stricken Maryland, neighbors were cheerfully squealing on neighbors over lawn watering and other alleged violations of the emergency water rules.
But who was keeping tabs on the personal moistness habits of Glendening (D), the author of those rules, and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend?
Were the governor's "beloved azaleas"--whose parched moribundity he cited while imposing the water limits--in fact lushly feasting on the torrential bounty of a secret executive sprinkler system?
Was the lieutenant governor's front lawn thick and green amid the Saharan acres of her constituents?
We deputized ourselves the Lawn Squad and hit the arid trail.
Nobody was home at the governor's except a state trooper. The beloved azaleas planted on either side of the front door indeed looked sick. By August, azaleas are past their prime, but these specimens were particularly shriveled--more stick than leaf. "Some shrubbery will die, including my own beloved azaleas," Glendening had predicted.
But wait. Here was a sprinkler system! Then we examined the sprinkler heads: Bone dry.
We bagged a small soil sample for later examination.
Flowers drooped, their blossoms closed like fists. A hirsute tuft of ornamental grass was going brown around the sideburns. Rest assured, citizens of Maryland: Your governor's landscaping is as pathetic as your own.
Then we turned our attention to the lawn itself. It still looked rather . . . green. Hmmmmm.
Our suspicious reverie was interrupted by a neighbor rushing from the house across the street. "Excuse me for being nosy," said Deanna Rundell. "But are you checking on the governor's yard?"
She had seen us staring at the grass. "I can explain," she said. "We have had some spot showers" recently.
Ah. The old spot showers dodge.
"He has not watered since he suggested mandatory restrictions," Rundell insisted. "The Lord must like Glendening."
We told her we believed her absolutely. Then we called the National Weather Service.
"Entirely believable," said a meteorologist. There probably have been spot showers around University Park.
But down on our knees--the Lawn Squad's devotion to protecting natural fluids is undying--we could tell that the governor's green was a deceptive front, a bit of horticultural spin. In truth, the lawn was under attack. Thatchy brown growth was threading through the pale verdure and forming incipient ugly patches.
As the Squad sped toward the lieutenant governor's house, the shoulder of the Baltimore Beltway was ablaze. Smoke hung apocalyptically over the highway. The small fire could have been caused by a discarded cigarette in the grass. Or spontaneous combustion. In extreme drought, anything can happen. The Lawn Squad pressed on grimly.
It was 77 degrees at 9:10 a.m. when we turned into the curving drive in front of the gray Victorian with a big porch. The lieutenant governor was already at work, but her husband, David Townsend, graciously acquiesced to an inspection.
On the porch, we noticed telltale wet spots spreading from the base of pots of impatiens, petunias and zinnias. We demanded an explanation.
Townsend said the lieutenant governor had just watered these before leaving for work. By hand. With a watering can. Legally.
"That's the only thing we water," Townsend said. "Everything else has to make do on its own."
Just then, Kerry Townsend, 7, piped up, "Daddy, how am I going to water my back garden?"
"You can water by hand," her father said carefully.
Kerry showed the Squad her beautiful little flower garden, which also gets a boost from the drippings of adjacent air conditioning equipment.
The family's golden retriever puppy, Cinnamon, splashed in a swimming pool beside the house, then dashed about shaking water wantonly--but legally--over everything.
The front lawn was a disaster. The Squad would have guessed it had been set on fire, only the stubble was too blond. We mentioned the spot showers theory, and the governor's neighbor's notion about the Lord's special relationship with Glendening.
"I guess you can see what our relationship with the Lord is," Townsend said dryly.
He lent us the lieutenant governor's trowel to obtain a soil sample. We poked around in the grass and discovered it was . . . drenched!
We glared at Townsend.
"It's dew," he pleaded.
Actually, this seemed plausible. Part of the lawn was still shaded, and the dew clung to the fried blades of grass. Anyway, what idiot would water this lawn now, after it was already dead?
As a general rule, soil that can be packed into dirt balls is soil that has been watered, perhaps illegally. Back in the Squad's makeshift lab, the governor's soil proved as dry and formless as sand. The lieutenant governor's soil, however, was more humid, richer. It formed excellent dirt balls--permitted under the dew exception.
The Lawn Squad retired for the day, planning an evening consisting of a quick, efficient shower and a tidy glass of water. Then, back onto the byways of the Free State, checking for moistness near you. Also, we're working on this spot showers thing.