Monday, February 20, 2017

In a Father’s Place - Christopher Tilghman

Once again this anthology delivers a surprise that I can only interpret as a sign from the universe towards motivating me to write.

For the last 20 minutes or so I feel that I have been transported back to the relationship I had with this project around 2009.
Honestly, I had a difficult time with this story but I felt that if I was going to get back into this project earnestly, that I needed to establish some of the practices that I would follow for each entry.
Many of the previous entries of BASS 1990 were not composed with my full head and heart.

I’m tired.

I’m tired most of the time (who isn’t?) and I made a decision that my energies would be aligned towards other directions. I am working on finding a way to skillfully divide these energies without slacking on any one thing or person. I referenced 2009 …I was in a different world then.

I had a wife, work and myself to deal with – that’s about it.
I would wake up in the mornings, run, go to work, come home relax, take a nice evening stroll, read, watch TV and then sleep…repeat.

Things are much more complicated now. I have two jobs – sometimes putting in 18 hour days between them…I have two boys…and I struggle but do OK at fitting time in to run (still married!).

It’s not that I don’t have time to read these stories and write about them and the thoughts that they stir – it’s just that I haven’t made this project a priority in my life.

I hope to change that – and this story is driving me faster towards picking up where I left off in 2009.

I had trouble with “In a Father’s Place”.

I have lost the ability to focus and hold my attention towards the completion of a story. I make excuses to set it aside and read it in periods.

I wasn’t fair to this story. – But it didn’t care – it delivered something much more.

As many of these stories have and as I have outlined many times before in previous posts, sometimes these ramblings will not be at all about these stories but about what arises within me after reading these stories. This story falls within that category.

This is my first encounter with Christopher Tilghman.

I will meet up with him again in BASS 1992 and BASS 1994. (He got his New Yorker story published and included in a BASS!).

I typed Tilghman’s name into the search box and visited his wiki page. A mention that he served in the Navy caught my attention and down under the stories heading a link to his short story -  "Norfolk, 1969", Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 1986.

That caused me to sit a bit straighter. – And look at that – it’s linked to the VQR page – and you KNOW what I did next.

So this entry about “In a Father’s Place” will actually be more about “Norfolk, 1969”. 
I live in Norfolk. In my work as a researcher at a newspaper in the archives, I deal with Norfolk in ... 1969 quite regularly.

I’ve digitized photo negatives and prints shot by our photographers on 35mm film of Navy homecomings and deployments…in 1969.

 I’ve seen the faces of the women and children pier side – images of the sailors passing binoculars down the line to see their loved ones on shore. The light summer dresses of the young wives and the heavy winter coats protecting children from the winds whipping down the Elizabeth River.

 I read clipped yellowed archived stories told by sailors about their deployments to exotic foreign ports. I’ve written about the restaurants, bars and taverns frequented by these servicemen. I live in the oppressive summer heat and I was on Military Highway (not Blvd.) just this past weekend.

I lived in Ghent – ran through West Ghent yesterday – my old running route took my down Mowbray Arch daily and I’ve worked and still work at the newspaper with reporters working on novels.
It’s incredible…this story hit about as close to home as possible.

Combine that with the atmosphere Christopher lays out along the Chesapeake Bay (In “In a Father’s Place) and my countless summers spent on the Susquehanna – the mother of the Bay – with family dynamics in play (although nothing like in this short story…but still there were some “interesting moments”) – and I cannot think of a clearer sign from the universe that the time is NOW to get along with this project.

A sign across time.

So thank you universe - for introducing me to professor Tilghman.

Pasted below is what Mike D’Orso, former staff writer here at the Pilot, wrote about “Norfolk, 1969” back in 1990.


Virginian-Pilot, The (Norfolk, VA) - May 15, 1990
·         Author/Byline: Mike D'Orso, Staff writer
·         Edition: FINAL
·         Section: DAILY BREAK
·         Page: B1
IF ONE THING is clear both in the voice and the veracity of Christopher Tilghman's newly-published and critically-hailed collection of short stories, ``In a Father's Place,'' it is that the writer has been there.

And he has.

He spent his boyhood summers on the Eastern Shore, where three of his book's seven stories are set. Two others take place in Montana and South Dakota, where Tilghman worked as a young ranch hand. A sixth is set in New Hampshire, where he began his writing career.

But it is the story titled ``Norfolk, 1969'' that should hit closest to home in Hampton Roads. Especially for anyone connected to the Navy, as Tilghman was when he arrived here that year as a newly commissioned ensign with a newlywed wife.

Tilghman is 43 now, no longer in the Navy. He is no longer married to his first wife. But the memories of the three years he spent stationed in Norfolk remain, and they are the seeds of a story that begins as harshly as the oppressive August heat in which it is set:

. . . he remembers the day they arrived, young, frightened, as if the possibility of going to war was nothing compared to the certainty of calling this place home. They were lost on those miracle miles and plastic strips, returning helplessly again and again to an immense Pontiac dealership floating on a sea of asphalt. They drove past shopping centers, garden-apartment complexes, bungalows with brown lawns, all of them locked tight against the hot air. They did not need to ask each other, How will we survive here? They were sure they would not. Each time they completed a fruitless circle he could feel the accusation rise: This, out of all the alternatives, this is the choice you made. This is Norfolk.

It is not a pretty picture - not of the city, nor of the strains put on a young marriage by the demands of a man sent to sea, nor of the ultimate disintegration of the particular marriage described in this story.

It is not a pretty picture, but it may well be a familiar one to many readers in a Navy town - painfully familiar, admits the writer.

``If people feel pain when they read through this,'' says Tilghman, speaking by phone from his home outside Boston, ``well, it's probably good for us all to take a look at what hurts us. And that's what a story does. Stories begin with trouble - they don't necessarily end there, but that's where they begin.''

Tilghman is remarried and the father of two young sons. His short stories have been steadily published since ``Norfolk, 1969'' first appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review in 1986. ``In a Father's Place'' is his first book, and since its release late last month, it has brought rave reviews, including a front-page piece in the New York Times Book Review written by Charlottesville novelist John Casey, who praised Tilghman for, among other things, his ``precise evocation of place.''

Place. The word peppers Tilghman's sentences as he talks about his boyhood in Boston, the summers spent on his family's Eastern Shore farm, his years as an undergraduate student at Yale in the late 1960s and the letter he received from his draft board upon graduation. That sent him to Officer's Candidate School and on to Norfolk as a gunnery and deck officer in 1969. He was 21. His wife was 20.

In reality, Tilghman talks of that time like this:

``It was a very difficult time to be a woman, married as young as we were and having so many other things happening around us. That year was the first time I heard the phrase women's liberation. I mean, it was all hitting, it was pretty confusing, it was a tough time to be a brand new wife, and it was an especially tough time to be a brand new Navy wife.''

In his story, in fiction, Tilghman talks of that time like this:

Six, seven months apart - the thought had been catching them both at odd moments for weeks, a slow suffocation. Soon they were making plans for weekends and then realizing the date fell into a dark hole.

And this:

In small miserable groups, Charlie Martin and his friends tried to ridicule the spluttering excitement the lifers could not conceal. Did you see the captain when we cast off the last line? said one. He had an orgasm.

There is the cruise's beginning:

As perfect as his memory was for these details, they were not enough to keep her whole in his mind. Two months, three months, she began to break up under the swells; she became foreign, a vision no longer completely believable.

And its end:

So perhaps it wasn't so curious that this same Navy that had seemed to be the cause of such pain to Charlie also gave him the most sustained period of joy he had ever experienced. For it was during those ten days that a bursting lump of ecstasy settled in his chest and kept him breathless. It was Julie, he told himself again and again, the return to Julie, so loved and missed, that was now opening his heart to spirits he'd never imagined. But he was not telling himself the truth, just as he did not tell her the truth when finally they were together again. Because Charlie had fallen in love, given an unfamiliar pledge, an unspoken vow to this voyage almost done, and - how he would have resisted this eight months ago - to this ship.

There is the homecoming:

. . . he wished, for this one moment, that she could forget how she hated the Navy, that she could welcome him back as the Sailor's Wife, that strange and precious creature he had created and had been living with throughout the cruise.

The awkwardness:

They were nervous when they met.. . . There was a strange echo in their voices as they drove home, a hollowness to the mundane chatter that, after so long, seemed outdone by the waiting. . . And their first lovemaking was tentative, as if they were afraid of finding changes or the fingerprints of others.

The adjustment:

One by one - a chance meeting on Mowbray Arch, beers after an opening at the museum - a whole new group came into his life, and by degrees Charlie began to understand his Julie and the time she had spent alone.. . . There had been no lack of people in her life. They were artists and Old Dominion University faculty members, newspaper reporters working on novels, hippies planning disruptions at the Navy base, black sheep from old Virginia families, a few pleasant but confused souls who didn't know what they were.. . . Julie denied it angrily, but his return from the Mediterranean was an irritation to them and his presence was tolerated only because of her.

And, finally, the truth:

They sat on their bed, beside a large silver-framed wedding portrait, and she said she had wanted to die during the first months of separation. She said she had hated him for abandoning her in Norfolk. She said each time she addressed letters to the ship, and each time she received his from the ship, the word Jupiter made her retch. And then, she said, she had decided to survive, and she had found these friends far away from the Navy and they were good to her. She said that when it was all said and done, his ship had come back too soon, that she was just beginning to find herself, the self that had been buried by him, by their young marriage, by the Navy.

Tilghman was living that story when he had his first thoughts of becoming a writer.

``Basically I was sitting on a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean, standing watch and wondering what I wanted to do, what would make me happy. And I began to think I'd be happy trying to write about what was going on in my head.''

Unlike the couple in his story, Tilghman and his wife stayed together. He left the Navy in 1971, moved to New Hampshire and set about writing a book: ``I worked on it for years, a wild sort of novel about writing a novel. You can picture it. It never went anywhere, but I sure as hell worked on it.''

At the same time, he was working on what he now recalls as ``a hippie sort of life.''

``Back to the land stuff, you know, building a house alone out of trees I cut down myself. The whole thing. We just took on all sorts of hardships, and after a while everything got pretty rotten. That was what really ended my marriage.''

That was in 1976. A year later he moved to Boston, still groping to find himself as a writer: ``I had plenty of chances to sort of quit with honor and just never did. You know, they say the first thousand pages is just clearing your throat for a fiction writer, and I certainly did my thousand pages before I started to write something good.''

In 1985 he decided to put the novels aside and try a short story. ``That's when this strong image of this place, of Norfolk, came to me. So that was the first story I wrote.''

He had never been back to Norfolk - ``Still haven't, although I've often been within 100 miles or so and thought I'd run over just to take a look.'' But when he sat down to write, the place came back to him more vividly than he imagined.

``That's part of being a fiction writer, I guess. You get used to probing as you go along, and details end up coming back to you that you didn't know you remembered. After all, the truth of the matter, I guess, is you don't really forget a thing. It's all back there, stored in the neurons.''

And now it is out here, rendered on the printed page - seven stories packed with what John Casey calls ``details that are not only immediately vivid but that also imply a character's accumulated life.''

As well as the writer's.

And, in the case of ``Norfolk, 1969,'' every man and woman who have ever said goodbye on a pier.

``There is such an ancient quality to this,'' says Tilghman. ``This is marvelously primordial stuff, the wives at home and the men at sea. It's very exciting to me. It's chilling.

``Those of us who have experienced it know what that separation and that reunion, home from the deployment, involves and how deep it runs. I mean, the Vikings went through it.

``It can hurt, but in some ways these conflicts and hurts are a way of knowing just how human we all are, and understanding that none of it's new.”

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