Plebes, farms, autism, kidnapping


To burble a pea, put it between your lips and tilt your head back until you are looking at the ceiling. Then, "ever so gently," blow. Now keep that pea there, and inch into space, for "an interminable ten seconds." As performed by plebes to upperclassmen orders, pea-burbling has been one of many mealtime entertainments at the Naval Academy.

To sail through shoeshine inspection, loosen your belt. With your trousers extending further down, only your brilliant shoe tips will be visible. On the other hand, when the stench of the Navy goat pervades Bancroft Hall nearby, the well-directed pail of water from an upper-floor dormitory window will probably get you put on report.

Escapades abound in "Tales From Annapolis: A Ring-Knockers' Bedside Companion," compiled by Rich Zino '67 and Paul Laric '49 (Omega Resources, 286 pages, $19.95, softbound). How sweet it is to relive hardships survived together, in these recollections by 60-some former midshipmen. Most of the tales go back several decades; a few are dull; or soppy; few are classroom-related. In one, the word purile enters.

But some bits of language are nifty, e.g. "cadets, middies and zoomies." Somewhere in an aging Navy household there is likely to be a gallery of framed testimonials or an I Love Me wall.

The thought of ordering plebes to close upperclassmen's upper-story dorm windows against the cold, silently, in the dark, every day at 4:30 a.m. will bother many a parent. But "Tales from Annapolis" may well inspire their teen-age children to apply for admission. Even more so, the inevitable sequel volumes.

For generations, agriculture predominated in Maryland; but then we became a commercial-industrial state. Ever since, farmland has been giving way to population increase and urban / suburbanization. Nonetheless, once the soil was for tilling. Nor will that memory ever wholly fade, thanks to people such as George Grier.

His book, "The Old Family Farm: Farm Life 100 Years Ago" (Tree House Publishers, 168 pages, $14.95, softbound) sets out to record the fullness of rural work and play, of beasts and crops, of life and death.

Grier himself was born and grew up on a family farm in Harford, and now at 82 lives on one in Carroll. In between, he went to college and became a county planning director; he is still a pillar of the Carroll County Farm Museum. For his book, Grier interviewed dozens of old-timers, and hunted down period photos. So the action can revolve about a single figure, he invents George Shaffer, born in 1894, who then grows up "on an old family farm in northern Maryland."

The wooden pump, hog butchering, Saturday night bath, Grandma's funeral, the country store, two- and three-holer outhouses, the big red barn, horse-trading, the ice house, gees and haws, church on Sunday, butter prints, "ante over" at the one-room school, hunting with a shotgun from age 10 on, peddlers and tramps, mail-order catalogs, hordes vs. mules, summer heat, the potato patch, the spring house, Christmas -- George Grier writes about what he knows about.

Some photos reproduce dimly, some aspects of the daily round may be romanticized. But many a reader of "The Old Family Farm" will hold it dearer than the present world's traffic jams and tax deadlines.

Autism -- absorption in fantasy, to the exclusion of reality -- is big in today's medical news. Parents are only too aware that one in every 500 births is going to be another victim of poorly understood genetics.

The latest book on the subject, "Breaking Autism's Barriers: A Father's Story," by Bill Davis as told to Wendy Goldband Schunick (Jessica Kingsley, 399 pages, $19.95, softbound), is as graphic as any Public TV special, or hospital ward visit. This book is a message from Bill and Jae Davis, their daughter Jessica and their autistic 7-year-old son Chris: it ain't easy.

Bill is a tattooed bartender in Lancaster, Pa., and an activist in autism advocacy. Jae and Bill have become a "working unit," either one doing whatever needs to be done, at home or in the cause. Wendy Schunick is a Baltimore writer and TV news producer who became a daily witness. The autism household presented has no room for a parent whose career comes first, or a parent who lives for romance or an egocentric sibling. Devotion to an autistic child means being tired, hard up, at odds with medical bureaucracy (at first Johns Hopkins Hospital's Kennedy Krieger Institute staff sidetracked the Davises; now they're partners) and, again, tired.

For his part, Chris is no movie-style idiot savant; mild to moderate retardation occurs in half the cases. But the boy who used to shut down for days at a time is now more and more with it. He uses a computer; better, he is increasingly capable of feeling and showing affection. It ain't ever easy, the Davises and Schunick testify, but it is worth it.

Some screwball Caucasian phone caller notifies Leigh Ann Warren that he has kidnapped her foster parents. What he wants, he says, is the Silver Star that was awarded in Vietnam to her father instead of him. Leigh Ann, a peppery yet cheerful African-American detective on Washington's police force, has been the central figure in previous thrillers by Chassie West, of Columbia.

Bad enough that Warren knows nothing of any medal. Worse, as clues develop in "Killer Riches" (Avon, 294 pages, $5.99, softbound), the uncertainty becomes subjective. Is Leigh Ann Warren her own true name?

Her parents died long ago in a Baltimore house fire. The trail leads to Ourland, a housing cluster near Highland Beach, on the edge of Chesapeake Bay. The FBI enters the case; so does Warren's steady, Duck, or Dillon Kennedy, a fellow officer. But the caller has given her only a week.

Chassie West's standing among the six or eight top Maryland authors of crime-detection novels (this is her 23rd title) will be reinforced by "Killer Riches." With its undertone of genealogy -- some spell the original surname as Ritch, others as Rich -- her latest book could engage the family-tree audience as well.

Ed Okonowicz's career as "professional storyteller" and author-publisher of Delmarva ghost stories began in 1994. At the pace of more than a book a year, he and his wife Kathleen, in Fair Hill, have become a family business.

This year's first but not last title is "Terrifying Tales of the Beaches and Bays" (Myst and Lace, 122 pages, $9.95, softbound) -- a variation in that Okonowicz says he made up its 10 feature stories.

In "Trash Rat: Ocean City, U.S.A.," a restaurant writer is assigned to periodic trash bin duty. Fishing around there for discarded trays, silverware and unopened steamed crabs is bad enough, but one night a voice from inside the trash starts calling him by name.

James H. Bready writes a monthly column on regional books. Previously he worked as a reporter, editorial writer and book editor for The Evening Sun.

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