A ship, bridges, fruit flies, midshipmen

Books of the Region

January 19, 2003|By James H. Bready | By James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

If you didn't stop by Chestertown between 1997 and 2001, you missed a great show. The schooner Sultana was built then, not in a private shipyard but on a dirt parking lot three blocks from the water -- as crowds watched, and 99 volunteers helped. Sultana was built from the same plans as a yacht that was constructed in Boston in 1767 and also named Sultana. This first Sultana was later sold to the British and retrofitted for smuggler-nabbing. Once, plying the Chesapeake, Sultana's two top officers dined with Washington at Mount Vernon. Before the Revolutionary War, damaged and delisted, Sultana drops from the records.

The modern Sultana is a 59-foot, 68-ton two-master, able to bunk 25 seamen and to fire four swivel cannon; a short, high vessel with old-time harem-inmate figurehead, working brick fireplace, 7-foot-long steering tiller and auxiliary diesel.

The launching, by means of an Army Transportation Corps barge derrick, was immense.

For years, the Western Shore has fancied the Pride(s) of Baltimore, and voyages to faraway ports; Sultana's builders had in mind the young and the nearby -- for a floating classroom.

What will also get around is Schooner Sultana: Building a Chesapeake Legacy, with photos by Lucian Niemeyer and text by Drew McMullen (Cornell Maritime Press, 184 pages, $35.95). Niemeyer's eagle-eye cameras followed the whole process; McMullen was the project director. It was Shorepeople all the way: John Swain, master shipwright; Michael Thielke, fund-raiser; Joyce Huber Smith, patron. And Shore trees -- whole groves of Osage orange, to form 39 U-shaped hull frames.

Book, ship: each worthy of the other.

Maryland today is what it is, in large degree, thanks to some 2,500 vehicle bridges. No way to know now which was our first man-made water crossing; but the oldest surviving ones are all there, with road directions, in Historic Bridges of Maryland by Dixie Legler and Carol M. Highsmith (Maryland Historical Trust Press, 136 pages, $38). Bridges, a production of the state and national highway administrations, is on a par with trade publishing's many coffee-table books. Legler provides text-block data; Highsmith, sumptuous color photography.

They define "historic" as 50 or more years old. Luckily, the coverage includes a few photos of bridges no longer spanning. What calamities of fire and flood, in the 19th century's struggle to bridge the Susquehanna! The very language of design and engineering is a pleasure: open-spandrel arches, king-post and half-hip trusses, bascule and tied-arch bridges. Several of our pontine ancients -- Casselman River, 1813; Thomas Viaduct, 1835; Cabin John Aqueduct, 1863; Bollman Truss, 1869 --- have international renown. This is a basic Maryland book.

Question: which subdivision has the most old bridges? Well, yes, and it might do for the title of a romantic novel: The Bridges of Frederick County.

Admix an accomplished, factual newspaper man and the worlds of microbiology and biochemistry, and -- shazam! -- you have a tomorrow's-news novel by Gwinn Owens, Carpenter's Heaven (Xlibris, 195 pages, $20.99). A scientist, Marcus Carpenter, is onto something big: prolonging the lives of fruit flies indefinitely. Could his mysterious dietary additive work for humankind, too?

Professor Carpenter (Johns Hopkins, naturally) has an assistant, one Jeffey Ziegler, young, amorous, nonscientific and a bit of a dope; he has only just learned that something is being added to his daily orange juice. (Promise not to tell? Molybdenum). He may be young indefinitely.

Carpenter decides to go public. The author, thanks to his decades on the news and editorial staffs of The Evening Sun, does a riotous press conference. Nation, world, religion and the pharmaceutical industry palpitate.

Carpenter's Heaven is brief on drosophilae, long on conversation and action, as young women somehow strew Jeffey's path, from Ruxton to Rhode Island (the latter, in an author photo, is on the jacket). Owens is a consistently entertaining writer. Are some people still nervous about flying? Carrying a copy of this novel, they could meditate on longevity.

Is the Naval Academy's four-year endurance test worth the strain, or does it turn many young men (and now women) into martinets? One answer is in the title of P. T. Deutermann's latest thriller, Darkside (St. Martin's, 352 pages, $24.95). The Dark Side, it seems, is midshipman slang for the administration, most members of which are alumni.

Last year, a midshipman went to his death out a window high in Bancroft Hall; as this novel starts, a plebe goes off that dormitory's roof. The Dark Side would sweep it under the rug as suicide; but was it really murder? Could this unseeing, hidebound bastion of conformity be harboring a psychopath?

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