I'VE ALWAYS thought there was something faintly comical about Maryland's role in the Civil War. Deeply divided in its sympathies and looming much too close to Washington, the state was placed under martial law by the federal government. Union soldiers occupied Baltimore and Annapolis, rendering both cities powerless. "If you can't play nicely together, then just don't play at all," the government might as well have said. And so Maryland, willy-nilly, didn't play.
What brings this to mind is Maryland Lost and Found, a collection of articles by Washington Post writer Eugene Meyer. His subjects range from a little company called Maryland Airlines to the hard-scrabbling life in Garrett County to the watermen of Smith Island, but his general theme is the state's diversity -- a diversity that's sometimes carried to extremes.
Maryland Airlines, for instance, flies the very, very rich to Talbot County estates so secluded that most other Marylanders don't even know they exist. In Garrett County, just a few hours' drive from the stylish boutiques of Baltimore, the ginseng bootleggers compete with the whiskey bootleggers. On Smith Island, the language is Elizabethan English, and the government (which is, basically, the United Methodist Church) is Maryland's closest approximation to a theocracy.
"We don't give a damn for the whole state of Maryland," a group in a restaurant sings, "we're from the Eastern Shore." Cecil Countians, on the Pennsylvania border, root not for the Orioles but for the Phillies. And a Garrett County car dealer says, "Maryland don't want us, West Virginia won't have us, and we don't want Pennsylvania. We want a state of our own."
There's a certain appeal in such partisanship, but Meyer doesn't let us forget the underside. As recently as 1979, black citizens of the gracious town of Cambridge lived in utter segregation. Picturesque little Oxford not long ago campaigned to outlaw children. (Step 1 was a curfew, Step 2 a no-swimming ordinance, Step 3 a $10 ticket for parked bicycles.) And one of the book's more spirited battles -- involving a "guerrilla raid" that took place in 1979 -- arose from a charming backwater hamlet's refusal to let women and blacks join the volunteer fire company.
"In reporting the material contained in this book, I assumed the stance of the proverbial fly on the wallpaper," Meyer says in his introduction. But luckily for his readers, he does allow glimpses of his own slant of vision. The most arresting passages are those in which he departs from dates and statistics to give his personal reaction to a scene. Watch him enjoying a waterman's sunrise, for example, or traveling through the eerie night mists of old Route 1 with its "vintage motor courts and roadhouses of another time."
And what wonderful voices he's recorded! There's an elderly woman recalling her life on an island now sunk into the Chesapeake Bay, a Crisfield crabpicker extolling the joys of her job, a 25-year-old so bemused by the rapid changes in Annapolis that his reminiscences sound like an octogenarian's, and an 86-year-old describing Fort Meade as it was when she saw her husband off to the First World War.
Probably the most entertaining piece is a whole chorus of voices from Baltimore's Harbor Tunnel, where the worker's routine tends to be one of suffocating monotony abruptly relieved from time to time by flashers, gunfights, gatecrashers, and childbirths. Here's the tunnel's director, Bernie Jedrowicz, with an ingenious solution to traffic slowdowns: "I had an idea we should send an employee dressed in a scuba suit with tanks on his back and a flashlight into the tunnel, as if he were looking for a leak, to speed the drivers through. That idea was rejected."
Meyer's prose doesn't always flow easily. (For instance: "[The state's] variety has always astonished, its people often delighted, me.") But he more than makes up for that by his alertness to the eloquent detail -- to the TV dinner trays that serve as ashtrays in West Friendship's last segregated tavern, or the black-lung widow's 1945 Silvertone floor-model radio decorated with a photo of her minister and his wife. And you can see why people felt they could talk to him freely. Just watch him reporting on the kindly mining-town doctor who was arrested for illegally selling barbiturates to an undercover agent. The tone is temperate, forbearing, sympathetic. The interviewer has not abused his subjects' trust.
Nor has he, in painting this composite portrait, blurred any of those interior distinctions that Maryland clings to so fiercely. The state emerges entire: colorful and passionate and full of character, a collection of gritty, indomitable individuals.