In hotel's ruins lies a story

Novel: While vacationing in the Bahamas, a Baltimore County engineer stumbled upon ruins beneath a garden, and an idea for a book.

January 09, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

In his day job, Baltimore County chief buildings engineer John Reisinger examines foundations with a technician's eye. Can they hold enough weight? Do they meet code requirements?

Away from the office, Reisinger looks at those same foundations more fancifully. Can they tell stories? Do they hold secrets?

Vacationing in the Bahamas in 1994, Reisinger stumbled upon ruins hidden beneath an overgrown tropical garden. His travel books offered no clues.

After doing some research, he learned that the garden covered what was once the Royal Victorian Hotel. Built in 1860, the hotel flourished briefly during the U.S. Civil War, then quickly fell on hard times.

Thus came the idea for a book.

A few months ago, Reisinger, 54, published "Nassau," a historical novel set in the Bahamas. Its hero is a young British shipping agent who is transferred to a tropical port on the eve of the Civil War. The prospects of John Crane and those around him skyrocket when the sleepy port becomes a bustling center for blockade runners delivering weapons and manufactured goods to Confederate coastal cities and taking cotton out.

"It was such a brief but flashy event," Reisinger said. "The danger and live-for-today prosperity of those times was a lot more interesting than anything the guides were telling the tourists."

The hotel that caught Reisinger's attention held champagne dinners and grand dances during a period when pockets were lined with cash of dubious origin. When the war ended, so did the parties. "They put the hotel up for sale the next year," Reisinger said. "There were no takers."

At first blush, Reisinger's avocation seems odd. After all, the worlds of trigonometry and treachery, of vectors and villains, don't typically intersect.

On closer examination, the combination is entirely logical. Like any good engineer, Reisinger is maximizing efficiency: His vacations become the grist for books, his hobby becomes a modest money-making venture.

When colleagues in the Baltimore County Department of Permits and Development Management learn that he writes novels in his spare time, they react "mostly [with] amazement and surprise," he said. "I had one person say, `That makes sense, because you write pretty good memos.'"

"I wouldn't have picked him as a writer at all," said Arnold Jablon, the department head and Reisinger's boss. "Who ever heard of an engineer being a novelist? But we have one, right here in River City."

Returning home to Sparks after his vacation, Reisinger, a former Coast Guard officer, immersed himself in books about blockade runners.

Digesting ship captains' memoirs at the Nimitz Library at the U.S. Naval Academy, he culled details for the novel's climax - a hair-raising run into Charleston, S.C., to rescue the book's heroine.

Many details - such as a crew burning turpentine-soaked cotton for fuel after their ship ran out of coal - are based on real events.

The novel is packed with facts from a colorful chapter of U.S. history. Blockade runners were the first ships to be painted gray. That was done, Reisinger says, after it was learned that the color provided the best camouflage in fog and low light. Black, it turns out, is too visible. Gray remains the Navy standard today.

Union ships blocking Confederate waterways were the first to employ "wolf pack" techniques perfected by German U-boats during World War II, Reisinger says.

"Nassau" is Reisinger's second novel. The first went unpublished. His wife is proofreading the third, a tale of a German sailor who escapes from a Canadian prisoner-of-war camp and tries to warn Third Reich military leaders that the Allies have seized German encryption devices.

"I think it's wonderful," said Barbara Reisinger of her husband's hobby. "He asks me my opinions on things, and that's a lot of fun."

"Nassau" is sold primarily through the Internet, having been published by a company that keeps an electronic copy and prints books as they are ordered.

A pragmatist, Reisinger acknowledges that he probably will never quit his county job of 23 years to pursue writing full time.

"I got a royalty check," he said, "but I'm not going to retire on it."

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