The Vietnam War and American Culture(s), Part 1

A Review of

Loren Baritz, Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did (1985); and

 Christian Appy, American Reckoning:  The Vietnam                                                   War and Our National Identity (2015)

 [Note:  The “page” devoted to posts on “The Vietnam Era” at this blog charts a defining period in my life.  Four posts are devoted to “Growing Up with Vietnam” [Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV], a lecture I wrote to present the history of the war to my students, from a personal perspective. Two posts originated as editorials during my time as editor of the my school’s History Department Newsletter. [here and here]  Another dealt with “Teaching the Vietnam War as History,” a talk offered to a group of local history teachers at a conference.   In 2015, I combined a book review with a concise account of “My Vietnam War and Welcome to it.”

In other words, from my years at “My Old Graduate School” (MOGS, 1968-1973), through my career at “Atlanta’s Finest Prep School” (AFPS, 1973-2010), and on into retirement (2010-present) I have pondered the Vietnam War and its legacies.

Before I could write “Growing Up with Vietnam,” I delved into the history of our involvement in Southeast Asia after World War II.  A very helpful volume I encountered during those early years at AFPS was Loren Baritz’s Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did (1985).  A generation later, after I’d been retired for five years, I read another scholarly effort to explain our involvement in Vietnam and what it wrought, Christian Appy’s American Reckoning:  The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (2015).

In this post and the next, I want to revisit our Vietnam adventure and its consequences, in light of both Baritz’s 1985 volume and Appy’s take on the same subject a generation later.]

* * * **

In Backfire, Loren Baritz asserts that we never understood Vietnam, or even tried to.  He is especially harsh on the influence of our continuing belief in the myth of “American exceptionalism” that he traces to Governor John Winthrop and the colony of Massachusetts Bay: that the Puritan colony was a “city upon a hill” which the world would watch to see how a group of religious people organized a society governed by the ordinances of God.
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Baritz pursues the idea that the United States was a special, God-given, and God-protected nation into the twentieth century, including the beliefs of President Woodrow Wilson, whose idealism (e.g., that America’s role in World War I was to “make the world safe for democracy”) met bitter defeat when Congress refused to support American membership in the new League of Nations at war’s end.  Baritz argues that this notion of “American exceptionalism” was also held by President John F. Kennedy and his chief advisors five decades later.  American altruism was absolute in the 1960s, Baritz contends, and we were convinced we could prevail militarily in a “limited war” anywhere in the world, buttressed by our superior technology, which supplied the tools; and our federal bureaucracy, both civilian and military, which provided the procedures and trained and led the men and women who used those tools to attain our desired aims.

 

To Baritz, our involvement in Vietnam was a product of the Cold War.  He creates a metaphorical “Chain to Vietnam,” comprising ten “links” between the issuance of the Truman Doctrine in March 1947 and the situation in Vietnam in September 1960, near the end of President Dwight Eisenhower’s second term, when we were paying 70% of the budget of the newly-created “nation” of South Vietnam.  One underlying premise in the forging of this “chain” was the Truman Administration’s acceptance of diplomat George Kennan’s policy of “containment,” the theory that the Soviet Union was an expansionist power, but that, if the West resisted, the USSR would collapse, the victim of Soviet Communism’s internal contradictions.  Containment seemed to work in Europe immediately after World War II, but, by the 1950s, the doctrine was fading, because the Soviet Union, frustrated by American efforts at “containment,” began to work through proxies, including the Communist regime under Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam.

To Baritz, the myth of  Governor Winthrop’s description of  the “city upon a hill” fitted snugly with “containment” and helped to impel America’s God-given mission to build democracy around the world. Fortunately for that “city upon a hill,” President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was “Woodrow Wilson’s most direct and natural heir.” (78)  (And, though Baritz could not have known this, Dulles’ sunny take on Wilson’s outlook on world affairs would live on, into the early twenty-first century, when President George W. Bush and his administration viewed the prospect of American intervention in Iraq in the aftermath of 9-11 as a sort of “cake-walk,” with a Texas twang.)

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In Christian Appy’s American Reckoning, the “reckoning” was produced by false pretexts used to justify our intervention in Vietnam; the indiscriminate brutality of our warfare; the stubborn refusal of elected leaders to withdraw from Southeast Asia, despite public opposition; and the military’s failure to achieve its objectives.  Appy’s thesis is that our involvement in Vietnam “shattered the central tenet of American national identity—the broad faith that the United States is a unique force for good in the world, superior not only in its military and economic power, but in the quality of its government and institutions, the character and morality of its people, and its way of life.  A common term for this belief is ‘American exceptionalism.’” (xi-xii)  Thus, Appy agrees with Loren Baritz that the idea of “American exceptionalism” was at the heart of our involvement in Southeast Asia, a part of our cultural DNA.

Although Professor Appy, like Baritz, reviews the Cold War background of our involvement in Vietnam, he basically reduces it to the perceived need for the United States to “save” Asia, and, because we were the United States, he argues, we believed we would succeed.  (On the other hand, race relations in the U.S. at the time did not reveal a lot of love for people of color.)

To Appy, the key to our involvement in Vietnam was President Eisenhower’s belief in the “domino theory.”  “For U.S policymakers, supporting capitalism and building anti-Communist alliances were indistinguishable goals; they were ‘two halves of the same walnut,’ to use [President] Harry Truman’s phrase.” (94)  But, Appy argues, the key was to cloak this economically-oriented rhetoric in language calling “for global freedom and democracy, not global capitalism.” (95)  (By the 1990s, for example, the United States had established diplomatic relations with Vietnam, which, though Communist, “was now open for business.” [114])

* * * * *

Baritz and Appy agree that the war in Vietnam was fought “by the numbers,” as the administrations of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were determined to stave off the angry right wing of American politics by claiming—and supporting with all sorts of statistical information, no matter how wrong or misleading—the success of “superior” American forces against the “inferior” armies of North Vietnam, from 1965 to 1968.  Yet, our general at the time, William Westmoreland, evidently understood the importance of winning battles against the entrenched American military and governmental bureaucracies better than he did the armies of North Vietnam and the Vietcong.

When, in 1968, the North Vietnamese and their South Vietnamese allies launched the Tet Offensive, the result was an American “victory,” but one from which we never recovered.  The “credibility gap” between what a President said and what he actually did came home to roost, with a vengeance.  President Johnson was so stricken by Tet that he declined to run for re-election in 1968.

* * * * *

Both Loren Baritz and Christian Appy criticize the operation of the draft during the Vietnam War.  Baritz, in a treatment I drew on for my “Growing Up with Vietnam” lecture, points out that, of 27 million Americans eligible for the draft, 2,215,000 were drafted; 8.7 million enlisted, some to avoid the draft; 500,000 evaded or resisted the draft; and 16 million had deferments, exemptions, or disqualifications. (Baritz, 287)  By Appy’s reckoning, poor and working-class Americans formed the bulk of the American war effort:  “About 60 percent of the Vietnam generation’s men were able to avoid military service, most of them simply by taking advantage of the rules created by the draft.” (Appy, 134-136)

There’s a sense in which both historians play fast and loose with that figure of sixteen million Americans who had deferments, exemptions, and qualifications.  A sizable number of those individuals were granted deferments for college, but with the obligation to enter the military once college, or in some cases graduate school (e.g., law, medical,  or dental school), had been completed.  True, some of those students abused that deferment provision (with prominent names among them); but others, including me, played by the rules and did our duty.  [In my case, two years on active service (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps, 1966-1968), followed, once I entered graduate school, by two additional years in the active Reserve, most of it in a Quartermaster unit in Rome, GA, north of Atlanta.]

* * * * *

An interesting difference between the coverage of the “war at home” in the two books is that Baritz, writing in the mid-1980s, scatters his references to the antiwar movement throughout the text.  Appy, on the other hand, delivers a solid chapter on the domestic responses to the war: the antiwar demonstrations, of course; but also the role of the civil rights movement—and its face and voice in the 1960s, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—in trying to shape popular opinion about the war.  Appy also examines the efforts of President Richard Nixon to use the idea of a “Silent Majority,” whether hardhats in New York City or Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio (1970), to build a pro-war constituency.

With thirty more years of hindsight than Baritz to draw on, Christian Appy also has a better appreciation of the significance of technological changes in television coverage of the war, which showed Americans on the home front, who viewed bloody small unit engagements each night over dinner, the nature of modern warfare, and, thus, helped turn them against it.  While Baritz certainly did not neglect efforts by GIs in Vietnam to resist the war, Appy seems more attuned to it, as well as more aware of the work of the antiwar “Vietnam Veterans Against the War.”  Finally, Appy notes that even prominent historian Henry Steele Commager, “who had come to national prominence in the 1950s as a prolific champion of American exceptionalism,” argued in a 1972 article that Vietnam was “not only a war we cannot win, it is a war we must lose if we are to survive morally.” (217)

End of Part 1

Next:  Short and long-term consequences of the Vietnam War, according to Baritz and Appy.

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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

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Jim Crow and his Minions–the New South, the Lost Cause, and Confederate Monuments: a Review

[Note:  2020 has rapidly become a “Year of Discontent” in the United States.  The coronavirus–and our government’s seeming inability, or unwillingness, to bring it under control–has produced much of the pervasive anger and frustration currently testing the strengths of the American social contract.

But there are other strands contributing to the current gloomy atmosphere–political, economic, social, and cultural. One of the bitterest of these has been the latest flareup over the continuing legacy of racism in this nation, its roots in our history, and the best way(s) forward in light of it.   I’ve been studying and teaching about the intersection of race and history in the United States for over half a century now, so I take this personally.]

* * * * *

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

As I was growing up, I lived through landmark developments in race relations and civil rights, including the Supreme Court’s epochal Brown decision in 1954, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.  The televised coverage of these  events helped determine the way I viewed the world and, once I began to teach American History, shaped the emphasis I placed on the significance of southern and African American history in the nation’s past.

Voting Rights Act (1965)

A decade before I retired, I inherited a one-semester course in the History of the Civil Rights Movement; the need to revise and restructure it led me to rethink the parameters of the story.  A key decision I made was to devote considerable time to the precursor of the Movement, the so-called “Age of Jim Crow.”  I felt that, unless I considered in some detail the period that established the “ground rules” for the post-Reconstruction world of African Americans living in the South (and in much of the rest of the country), my students would not receive a well-rounded picture of what the twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement had achieved.  Without a knowledge of Jim Crow America and its tentacles on the nation’s African American citizens, the triumphs of the King era might have seemed inevitable.

Age of Jim Crow (ea.wikipedia.org)

So, I immersed myself in a study of the origins of the Jim Crow South.  The result was a series of lectures I used throughout the Civil Rights course–and in my Advanced Placement U.S. History survey–to provide context for the material provided in texts, supplementary readings, and videos.  This interest in the Jim Crow era accompanied me into retirement.

* * * * *

Since leaving the classroom, I have continued to “do history,” primarily through this blog.  Look at the top of this page; under the picture, you’ll see links to various “pages,” each of which organizes relevant posts topically.  One of them is “The South/Civil Rights.” Click on that link and you’ll find a list of more than thirty posts.  Scan this list;  notice how many of the posts are related, not to the Antebellum South, the Civil War and Reconstruction, or the modern South of the Civil Rights Movement, but to the Jim Crow years.

Reviewing this page recently, I realized that the lectures I created to supplement material assigned in the Civil Rights and AP U.S. History courses provide a concise overview of the road from the end of Reconstruction through the early twentieth century, AKA “the Age of Jim Crow.”  In this seminal period are buried the origins of issues that still roil our society, politics, and culture.

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Below are links to those posts, along with a brief description of each.  I have appended a list of suggested readings to each essay:

The New South:  Myth and Reality–a sketch of the economic and social worldview of a group of influential Southern journalists and promoters after the end of the Civil War, whose ideas amounted to a contract, whereby southern whites would allow their states to be made over in the image of the victorious North, if they were permitted to handle race relations themselves.  This post also mentions the origins of an important cultural adjunct to the “New South Creed,” the Lost Cause, which remains a controversial trope in our current wrestling match with the legacy of the Jim Crow period (see, for example, here and here).

The Road to Jim Crow, Part 1 and  Part 2–I used to tell my students, when teaching about the Jim Crow Era, that what happened then was nothing less than that the South, defeated on the battlefields, actually “won the Civil War” by the end of the nineteenth century.  These posts, along with the intellectual framework provided by the “New South Creed,” help explain why that occurred.

amazon.com

The Age of Jim Crow–life in the Jim Crow South as lived by African American and white southerners.  I draw heavily here on the late Leon F. Litwack’s fine study, Trouble in Mind:  Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.  (For important supplementary information, see Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long:  The Aftermath of Slavery.)

The South/Civil Rights page also includes a concise treatment of the modern Civil Rights Movement through 1968, as the “Second Reconstruction,” Part 1 and Part 2.

Finally, for a look at a peculiar feature of the course I offered on the history of the modern Civil Rights Movement, go here.

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Since I published the posts listed above, I have read–and listened to and watched– different approaches to the Age of Jim Crow and its legacies.  Here are a few recent sources that I’ve found helpful:

Sheffield Hale
(atlantadowntown.com)

“For Faith: Monuments and Symbols”–this podcast features the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, The Rev. Robert Wright, and Sheffield Hale, President and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, discussing Confederate monuments and their significance.

(petecandler.com)

A Deeper South–This site is the creation of Pete Candler, an Asheville, NC-based writer and photographer who explains his idea of “a deeper South” this way:

The vision of A Deeper South is rooted in the idea that the spiritual, political, and cultural health of a nation, region, city, town, or person depends upon an honest and unflinching memory; that the gravest danger to our cities and ourselves is a willful amnesia; that hope is to be found through the work of active remembrance, putting back together the fragments of personhood scattered by a culture of selective memory.

A Deeper South features stories, short films, podcasts, and, of late, Zoom interviews  with guests who, like Mr. Candler, are interested in both the South of memory and, more importantly, why we remember it the way we do.  (Candler lays out his views on this “Deeper South” in more detail in an engrossing essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

Heather Cox Richardson (Facebook.com)

And, finally, a shout out to Dr. Heather Cox Richardson, professor of History at Boston College, whose nine-part video series on YouTube, “The American Paradox,” is based on her recent book, How the South Won the Civil War.  (It’s always heartening when one encounters a younger historian who shares his sometimes weird ideas of what makes the historical world go round!)

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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

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4th of July Oratory in Antebellum Georgia–In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 32

 4th of July Oration, Hawkinsville, Georgia, 1838—Dr. William Germany (excerpts)

[Milledgeville Federal Union, August 14, 1838]

[Note: Over the past few years, I have tried to show how Georgians celebrated the Fourth of July before the Civil War.  (See, for example, here.) This year I thought I’d try something different.

In previous posts, I’ve explained how small towns and cities in Antebellum Georgia began planning for the Fourth of July months earlier, lining up speakers and arranging for parades, food, and drink to mark the holiday.  Usually, a younger, rising politician read the Declaration of Independence, to be followed by a more seasoned public servant, who offered a full-blown oration on the glories of America and its history.  Once political parties developed in Georgia, these events were followed by smaller, more partisan gatherings, where toasts were drunk–and drunk, and drunk–explaining why the party quaffing said toasts had done more for the state–and the nation–than had their political opposition.

This year, I thought I’d offer you a chance to visit one of these celebrations, and “listen” to the main speaker as he retails the history of Georgia and the nation and also considers their present and their future.

I’ve chosen the July 4th, 1838 oration by Dr. William Germany, who lived in Hawkinsville, the Pulaski County seat, in Central Georgia, forty miles or so south of Macon.  The version of Germany’s speech published in the August 14 issue of the [Milledgeville] Federal Union takes up about two and a half columns on page two of the paper.  It’s a very long speech, in other words, so I’m only presenting excerpts here, though they are representative of the whole.  (If you’d like to read the entire oration, go here.)

I hope you’ll find these selections from Germany’s address interesting, both for what he says and what he does not say:  Slavery virtually goes unmentioned; the burden of the last part of Germany’s argument is how far Georgia has declined from its brilliant beginnings; and the speaker’s explanation for this phenomenon already–about sixty years since independence (and, as we now know, just over two decades until civil war), reflects, at least implicitly, the rise of southern sectionalism, at the heart of which, of course, was the region’s “peculiar institution” of slavery.

* * * * *

Now, it’s on to Hawkinsville, Georgia, on a sunny, hot, sticky July 4th, in the Year of Our Lord, 1838.  There’s already been a parade of county militiamen, and a younger local political figure has just finished a stirring rendition of the Declaration of Independence.  Perhaps you’ve begun to feel hungry and thirsty, given the heat of the day and how long it’s been since breakfast, but you’re still eager to hear Dr. Germany’s message.  Who knows?  Perhaps he’ll have some interesting remarks about affairs of the day intermingled with his review of the history of Georgia and the nation since 1776.

The introduction completed, the orator of the day now takes the stage.]

* * * * *

Friends and Fellow Citizens!

We have again assembled to commemorate the jubilee of our independence—the birthday of our country’s greatness—a day hallowed by the magnanimous resolves of our ancestors, which gave liberty and safety to American citizens, and opened a retreat to the oppressed of other nations; a day well calculated, not only to lead us into an examination of what we now are, but likewise to induce us to reflect upon what we once were. . . .

[The colonies] had been permitted to grow, almost in total neglect. The first care of the parent country was evinced in sending officers to rule over them—to spy out their liberties, misrepresent their actions, and prey upon their substance. Instead of having received protection from her hands, they had nobly expended her blood and treasure in her defence [sic], and for her own peculiar benefit.

The pride of their origin had been a sufficient incentive to loyalty, and made them ever ready to put it to the test. Without murmuring, they had permitted their commerce to be tramelled [sic], and its revenues to be thrown into the British Exchequer. They had born[e] with every thing [sic], save direct taxation—but slavery, in its worst form; and this, as Englishmen and freemen, they were compelled to resist. . . .

[After the Revolution,] In bequeathing us independence, and a government so truly republican, they gave us all that a people could ask for the building up of a great and powerful nation. Happily, their antic [i.e.] patrons have been realized. While we have enjoyed peace and prosperity at home, our strides to greatness have been rapid and progressive, and we can now claim for ourselves the highest place among the nations of the earth. . . .

Yet, fellow citizens, while we view with delight the elevated position we have assumed as a whole nation, it behooves us, as a member of this great confederacy, to look well to the position which we occupy.  Our State, enjoying a situation in point of location not surpassed by any on this great continent–her climate in every way propitious–her soil rich and productive–her innate sources of wealth surpassed by none–claiming for herself, in the enthusiastic pride of her first settlers, the flattering appellation of the paradise of the South–should at this very time occupy a position among her sister States, to which I fear she can never hereafter aspire.  Barely a century has elapsed, since her colonization; and what is now her condition?  Turn your eyes abroad over the face of the country–view it well, and see to what reflections it will unavoidably lead.–Where shall we look for the magnificent drapery in which she was once clad?  Where her majestic forests and blooming fields?  Where her soils, which once, with abundant harvests, blessed the soils and crowned the hopes of the agriculturalists?  Where her commercial cities, which once bid fair to adorn her coasts and command the attention of foreign nations?  Where her ships, which should have traversed her waters, extended commercial intercourse with other commercial nations, and brought back to her bosom in return the wealth of other countries?  All, all are expended–all have faded away!  Of her forests, scarcely a remnant is now to be seen.  Her soil, once rich and productive, has now barely strength to send forth the slenderest weed.  Her cities have dwindled into villages.  Her ships are no where to be seen. 

And what can we [i.e., Georgia in particular, but, the South in general?] boast of in return? Nothing—nothing save a degree of patience and long suffering which can now scarcely be looked upon as a virtue. And will you ask where you may again behold the immense wealth which has been extracted from the soil of your State? You cannot find it within her boundary. You must visit other States [in the North]—you will there behold magnificent cities that could never have been built by the products of their own soil. You will there see a rich and flourishing commerce. to which we have been rendered tributary. You may there see the immense wealth of the South, supporting in luxuriance and splendor those who would probably think it a stigma to be classed amongst her prodigal sons. . . .

[Why is this situation so?] Other and more powerful causes have conspired to subject us, in a manner so strange and unnatural.  A few, I think, will be sufficient to solve the whole mystery—at least, they are sufficiently powerful to have produced such evils as those of which we complain, and even worse, if they are permitted to continue.  An unequal action of the Federal Government, by which the revenues of the country are collected in one section, and dispersed in another [i.e., the protective tariffs]—the creating of a large moneyed institution, to be managed at the North [i.e., the second Bank of the United States], by which means their merchants could be supplied with facilities to break down all competition, on the one hand; and, on the other, suffering our attention to be drawn off to subjects of less importance—contending against each other in the most rancorous party strife—the Southern States kindling in jealousies against each other, as if the small rivulets that divided them likewise sundered their interest—and suffering ourselves to be cajoled into the belief, that our wealth was inexhaustible, and that our country [i.e., the South] could never become impoverished.

And is there no remedy? None: unless we can arouse ourselves—unless we can become the guardians of our own interests—unless we can learn to patronize our own people. To discredit the idea that our wealth can only be rendered conspicuous, and our summers supportable, by a tour of pleasure to the North—that the intellect of our youth cannot as well expand, and be as richly endowed, in our own [Southern] institutions, as elsewhere [in Northern schools and colleges]. Unless we can become reconciled to the opinion that our first and greatest obligations are due to the land of our birth; and unless we become united in feelings and in interests, and true to ourselves. On such contingencies depends our future prosperity—our future prosperity—our future independence, and our weight in the councils of our nation. Our growth must be progressive, and co-equal with that of the other members of this great Republic. Then, the rich legacy deposited with us by our fathers in trust, will descend, to posterity. We may still rejoice in the prosperity of our common country, and the names of our ancestors be sung in rounds of applause by rising generations.

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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in 4th of July, American History, American Revolution, Colonial Georgia, Current Events, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, Interdisciplinary Work, Research, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

To Ben on Father’s Day, 2020: “Ben as Dad”

[Note:  I guess that, as a historian who is “retired but not shy,” I’ve spent lots of time over the past decade looking back, on my career as a History teacher and on the road that led me there.  It wasn’t until 2017 that I finally, perhaps inevitably, turned to the history of my family.

This began with a multi-part series on my mother, Betts Lamplugh, which stretched over the years 2017 to 2019.  As a way to balance this picture of my family, I eventually (20192020) turned to a treatment of my father, Ben Lamplugh.

Then, last month, I had a notion to commemorate my mother by reposting one of the “Betts” episodes on Mother’s Day, emphasizing her interest in her family and its history.  So, perhaps it’s no surprise that in June 2020, for Father’s Day, I’m reposting the episode in the “Ben” series  highlighting his role as our father, a position for which his background had not really prepared him.

This episode is more focused on Ben’s role as our dad than last month’s was on Betts as our mom, which is my fault:  in the “Betts” series, I adopted a strictly chronological approach, and trusted the reader to see how successful she was as a mother. Because of my mixed feelings about Ben Lamplugh, however, I decided to set aside one installment to examine how well he functioned as our dad, based mainly on the recollections of my siblings and I.  There are references in the post, though, that should enable anyone interested in what Ben brought (or did not bring) to his job as the Lamplugh paterfamilias to retrace his steps.

As my brother Rick put it, Ben Lamplugh “might not always have been the father we wanted, but he was the only father we had.”  ‘Twas ever thus, I guess. . . .

I hope you’ll enjoy:

https://georgelamplugh.com/2020/01/02/ben-an-american-dad-1921-1986-part-v-memories-of-ben-as-dad-2019/

Finally, happy Father’s Day to all of you out there in Internet land.

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, Delaware, Education, family history, genealogy, Historical Reflection, History, memoir, Popular Culture, Research, Retirement, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Year of Ben (2019-2020); and a decade of “Retired But Not Shy” (2010-2020)

[Note:  Americans tend to focus on anniversaries that end in “0.”  For example, married couples usually regard their tenth, twentieth, thirtieth, etc., anniversaries as more important than the others.  And I guess that’s true of the few bloggers who managed to keep their sites running beyond only a year or two.

I know that’s how I feel.  In June 2010, just after I retired from teaching History at a “prep school” in Atlanta for thirty-seven years, AKA “Atlanta’s Finest Prep School” (AFPS), I created this blog.  I had a title I liked, an interesting avatar (John Quincy Adams), and a pretty clear subtitle, “Doing History After Leaving the Classroom.”

What I didn’t have was a clear idea of what I wanted to do with the blog, a question that took a while to work itself out, but eventually I was well-launched into the blogging universe.  The blog gradually grew, until a couple of years ago I was even bragging about the number of hits on my site.

But then came what I later referred to as “The Year of Hubris”:  I changed my url from one nestled under the WordPress system–which was free–and, thanks to an incessant series of ads from WordPress, opted instead to create “georgelamplugh.com” (which I pay for) as the blog’s address.  And the results were disastrous, at least for a while:  the number of “hits” to the blog nosedived, and I’ve spent the past year or so trying to recover.  (The problem, of course, was that WordPress didn’t inform my subscribers of the change in the url, so, the next time they went looking for me they could not find me.)  Since then, the number of visitors to RBNS has revived, but it has not yet been restored to its former, um, “glory”.]

* * * * *

Betts in 1942

One significant development over the past few years has been the return of long-form posts to “Retired But Not Shy.”  The first was a series about my mother, Elsie Elizabeth “Betts” Knighton Lamplugh, which spread over years seven through nine of the blog (2017-2019).  Betts’s story was based on a brief family history she had written and a two-part memoir that took her from her birth in 1923 through 1964, when her marriage to Benjamin Leroy “Ben” Lamplugh imploded and her family shattered beyond repair.

Ben and Trixie (Knighton family dog), 1943

Eventually, I followed the Betts posts with a series about my father Ben, during year ten  (2019 – 2020).  Honoring my father was much more difficult than writing about my mother, both because I was closer to her and because she had provided her own primary source material, while Ben had not.  But, thanks to information borrowed from Betts’s account of her life with Ben; some scattered primary sources; an invaluable collection of photographs; and “oral history” clues provided by my siblings and my children, I was able to do some justice to my father.

* * * * *

The “Betts” and “Ben” series brought lots of comments.  Those portraits resonated with my readers,  and I was relieved–and grateful!

In writing about my parents, the need for closure was paramount, especially for my relationship with my father, which had been strained, to say the least.  But, by the time I finished the Ben series, I felt that I understood him better, which was a gift.

So, if they did nothing else, these long-form accounts of my parents allowed me, years after their deaths, to work through lingering personal issues.  It’s sometimes been a bumpy journey, but I’m glad I made it!

* * * * *

As “Retired But Not Shy” evolved over the past decade, it became more complicated than I’d anticipated.  Based upon my own interests and the responses of readers, I gradually reorganized the home page.  I created a series of “pages,” each of which was devoted to a single theme, where readers might find posts related to those topics.  Currently, there are eight “pages,” links to which can be found near the top of the home page, beneath the picture of me shuffling into retirement: Blues Stories; Dead Georgians; Historical Reflections; Interdisciplinary Work; Prep School; Teaching History; The South/Civil Rights; and The Vietnam Era.

Of course an interested reader is cordially invited to use the “Browse the Archives” section listed at the right side of the home page, or the “Categories” section below that, but I believe that linking to individual “pages” will get you where you wish to go much faster.

* * * * *

And now for my favorite part of these “birthday posts,” the stats, provided by my host, WordPress.  The point of these listings is, for me, not numbers, but ranking order, and what that  suggests about the interests of those who visit “Retired But Not Shy” regularly.  (God bless them everyone!)

* * * * *

Top 10 Posts of All-Time (June 1, 2010-May 31, 2020)

[Excludes “Home Page/Archives” and “About”]

 Teaching Prep School with a PhD: Is It for You? (2012/11/06)

Governor Wilson Lumpkin (2011/08/01)

Teaching History “Backwards” (2013/10/15)

Son House (2013/10/01)                                                                                     

Bobby “Blue” Bland (2014/02/01)

The Chitlin’ Circuit (2014/03/01)

Blues Theology, Part I (2014/04/01)

Mississippi John Hurt (2013/11/01)

Governor George R. Gilmer (2011/09/01)

Georgia’s Notorious Yazoo Land Fraud, Part I (2017/12/01)

This ranking suggests topics with “staying power,” themes visitors have returned to again and again over the past decade.  Notice that these posts represent several “pages”–Prep School; Teaching History; Dead Georgians (i.e., Georgia History); and, for half of them, Blues Stories.

Cast your eyes on post number ten, “Georgia’s Notorious Yazoo Land Fraud, Part I.”  I have long believed that the popularity of my posts on Georgia history is attributable to the number of college and secondary school Georgia history instructors looking for Internet resources that would support the study of Georgia’s past in their classrooms.  Just the other day, for example, I found this belief validated, when I checked my WordPress stats and found, as a search term, “8th grade ga history yazoo land fraud.”         

Top Ten Posts, Year 10 (June 1, 2019-May 31, 2020)

[Excludes “Home Page/Archives” and “About”]

 Teaching Prep School with a PhD: Is it for you? (2012/11/06)

Blues Theology, Part I (2014/04/01)

Skip James (2017/09/01)

Georgia’s Notorious Yazoo Land Fraud, Part I (2017/12/01)

Teaching History “Backwards” (2013/10/15)

Georgia Governor Wilson Lumpkin (2011/08/01)

Bobby “Blue” Bland (2014/02/01)

Ben, An American Dad, Part II (2019/11/01)

“Contingent” Career, Part II (2020/04/01)

Son House (2013/10/01)

The above list includes the ten most popular posts during year ten (June 2019-May 2020), from among all posts put up over the life of the blog (2010-2020), most of which predate year ten.

Top Ten New Posts from Year 10 (June 1, 2019-May 31, 2020)

[Excludes “Home Page/Archives” and “About”]

 Ben, An American Dad, Part II (2019/11/01)

“Contingent” Career, Part II (2020/04/01)

Ben, An American Dad, Part IV (2020/01/01)

“Contingent” Career, Part I (2020/02/01)

Ben, An American Dad, Part VI (2020/03/01)

State Rights, Nullification, and Indian Removal, Part I (2019/07/01)

Ben, An American Dad, Part I (2019/10/01)

Ben, An American Dad, Part V (2020/01/02)

Reflections on MLK, 2020 (2020/01/19)

Georgia 4th of July 2019 (2019/07/02)

RBNS at Nine (2019/06/01)

This final “top ten” list reveals the most popular of the posts that were new during year ten.  Perhaps not surprisingly, most were from the “Ben” series, which, after all, stretched over seven months in that year.  The two posts describing a “‘Contingent’ Career” were about my teaching career, which, I decided after mulling it over during my first decade in retirement, was shaped much more by “the breaks of the game” than any sort of deep-dyed plan on my part.

* * * * *

As we move into the second decade of “Retired But Not Shy” (AKA, RBNS), you might be wondering (I know I am!) how much longer I can persist in this post-retirement enterprise.  I already have several posts completed and ready to put up in the near future, and on my desk lies a bulging folder, perhaps optimistically labeled “Future Blog Posts,” that could, if I put my nose to the grindstone and shoulder to the wheel, carry RBNS into 2021–and beyond.

The problem, of course, is that over the last few months, as the Willowy Bride and I have adjusted to living under the “shelter at home” requirement, I have not been able to rouse energy sufficient to transform the material in that “Future Blog Posts” folder into actual rough drafts, let alone finished products.

Still, I’m in a much better position now than I was in June 2010, when I launched RBNS into the “blogosphere,” on the Internet equivalent of “a wing and a prayer.”  I know there are folks out there who have found their way to this blog over the past decade and will, if I still meet their expectations, continue to visit.  All that’s required is for me to shake off my lethargy and create additional posts.

* * * * *

One final thing:  remember that statement in the head-note that some folks regard anniversaries ending in “0” more fondly than others?  Well, just coincidentally, today’s analysis of “Retired But Not Shy at 10” also happens to be post number 200 in the life of the blog.  Just sayin’. . . .

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, Education, family history, genealogy, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, memoir, Popular Culture, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Research, Retirement, Southern History, Teaching, The Blues, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Memories of Betts, Mother’s Day, May 10, 2020

As I was walking with my Willowy Bride this morning (after attending “virtual” church), I had an epiphany of sorts.  It struck me that, now that my mother, Elsie Elizabeth “Betts” Lamplugh (1923-2013) is gone, Mother’s Day for me is only a time to summon up memories.

And,  of course, as regular readers know, I did that, at length a couple of years ago, producing a multi-part series of posts on my mother’s life for this blog.  Today, I’d like to take a moment to honor my Mom’s memory, allowing her to speak in her own voice (with a tad of editorial help) about her family, the pursuit of history, and family history.

The text features excerpts from Betts’ letters to me over a period of two decades or so, as she gathered information on her family and, eventually steeled her nerves to produce a memoir covering her life between 1923 and 1964.  The text includes links at appropriate points if you’d like to read earlier episodes of the series that throw light on the remarks in her letters.

Please enjoy:

https://georgelamplugh.com/2017/08/15/betts-a-mothers-memoir-1923-1964-part-vii-after-words-betts-on-family-history-and-family-history/

Rus, Rick, Betts, and Judy

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

 

 

Posted in American History, Delaware, family history, genealogy, Historical Reflection, History, memoir | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ben, An American Dad, 1921-1986, Part VII: Legacies

[Note:  Although I’m sure he never understood it, Ben Lamplugh was a member of the so-called  “Greatest Generation.”  These were the American men and women who answered their country’s call in the wake of Pearl Harbor and did their parts–overseas and on the homefront–during what later observers labeled this nation’s last “Good War.”]

* * * * *      

Ben and Trixie (Knighton family dog), 1943

Ben never saw combat, despite his strong desire to serve as a paratrooper, because he was injured in a practice jump and was transferred to the artillery.  Still, he was among the thousands of young Americans who were poised to invade the Japanese home islands in the summer of 1945, until President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki suddenly brought war in the Pacific theater to a close without risking further American lives.

It remained to be seen how the nation as a whole–and Ben and Betts Lamplugh in particular– would reshape their lives in the wake of that destructive victory.  Congress passed, among other measures, the highly popular “G.I. Bill,” providing benefits to veterans of the war to help ease them back into peacetime society.  Ben drew on some of this largess, using the measure’s educational benefits to learn cabinetry in a boat-building firm outside Baltimore, Maryland.  A few years later, he also took advantage of government financial assistance to returning veterans who were seeking to purchase a family home.

The stereotypical American veteran of World War II simply wanted to make it back to the “girl he’d left behind,” and Ben did that.  He never really achieved the next rung on the metaphorical postwar ladder, though, possession of a nice suburban home, complete with picket fence and a yard for the kids, although not for lack of trying. Yes, he and Betts used the G.I. Bill to buy a new home, a “row house,” in Ballard Gardens, a development near Baltimore, in 1955.  In 1959, though, they sold that house and moved to Newark, Delaware, where they rented yet another home, one street over from Betts’s parents.  Financial difficulties proved more significant to the Lamplugh family than did the “thanks of a grateful nation.”

In this series, we’ve looked at my father through several lenses: the “big picture” (Part I); a wedding photograph (Part II) and what it suggested about Ben’s and Betts’s early lives; his biography (Parts III , IV, and VI); and how well he did his duty as “Dad” (Part V).  This  concluding post is a modest attempt to assess Ben Lamplugh’s “legacies.”

* * * * *

Ben Lamplugh (c. 1960)

This is my favorite picture of Ben.  He still looks young (he’d have been in his late thirties); he has a sly, confident look in his eyes; clearly, his worldview was still unchallenged.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this photo was the product of Ben’s fondness for beer (a trait I’ve inherited).  The Hamm’s Brewing Company was moving into the East Coast from the Midwest, and Ben had met in his local bar a Hamm’s representative who offered him the chance to appear in a Hamm’s Beer advertisement for the local paper.  The picture accompanied his testimonial on behalf of that brew; Ben received a free case of the product for his participation in the ad campaign.

* * * * *

Well before the advent of the “Greatest Generation” trope, the postwar future of the American family had been etched in film, thanks to a variety of movies and television sitcoms portraying white, middle-class American males returning to their families and morphing into more or less perfect fathers (Ozzie Nelson of “Ozzie and Harriet” and Jim Anderson of “Father Knows Best,” for example).  These dads didn’t always get things right, of course, but, on the whole, life in post-World War II America for them was pictured as Edenic.

Ben Lamplugh didn’t fit into that particular stereotype very well.  He did the best he could with what he had, but what he didn’t have was much money–his educational background kept him back–or any real grounding in a strong family, especially a father figure who could teach him how to head a family of his own.  Consequently, Ben was not comfortable with fatherhood, nor was his wife Betts cut out to be the meek, pliable helpmate of postwar mythology.  Moreover, Ben’s children sometimes presented challenges that he evidently had neither the time nor the inclination to tackle, unless prodded to do so by Betts, and then his responses could be half-hearted.

* * * * *

And yet. . . , Ben did teach me some things, whether he intended to or not:

He told me about the “birds and the bees,” though only after I had asked him, while he was shaving, what a certain four-letter word for the sex act meant—and he’d almost cut his throat in shock at hearing that particular word pass my lips (I’d heard it from a friend, who had tried to explain it to me, but I did not believe it).  And even Ben’s best effort didn’t help all that much to clarify matters.

Ben let me smoke my first cigarette and drink my first beer in our living room when I was a teenager, then told me that this would be the last time I’d indulge in either of those “vices” while under his roof, unless I earned the money to purchase them myself.  (These words of wisdom I passed on to my own children.)

Ben seemed disappointed at my lack of physical skills and at my apathy towards playing sports.

He took me to work with him now and again, usually at Betts’s urging, and either never noticed or didn’t mind how quickly I became bored.

Ben also must have given me at least a few driving lessons, because I remember him telling me that, if I ever had a choice between running into a car, a person, or an animal, I should hit the animal.  (My brother Rick remembers the same advice.)

He also took time from work to accompany me to the driver’s license road test in Wilmington, Delaware, and, after I passed, informed me that that would be the last time I’d drive a car unless I could pay for car insurance myself.  (Sensing a pattern?  I did not require that of my boys.)

* * * * *

Ben, Christmas 1971

And then there were what my brother Rick calls “Ben-isms,” fatherly advice on various occasions that Rick and I remembered:

To Ben, “Stud Hoss” was a term of endearment. (Rus and Rick)

“You can want in one hand and shit in the other and see which one gets full first.” (Rus)

“A big wheel is something dogs piss on.” (Rus)

Ben used to say, especially after a few beers, “Don’t end up like me, Boy. Make somethin’ of yourself.” (Rick)

In early 1967, when I told him that I’d proposed to my girlfriend and that she’d accepted, Ben, drawing no doubt upon his experience with Betts, somberly warned  that I must be sure Faith was the right woman for me, that she really loved me. He was as forceful and emotional at that moment as any time I can remember, no matter the subject.

Every now and then I’d feel guilty about how infrequently I kept in touch with Ben, and I’d telephone.   He would invariably be surprised, and tell me how glad he was I’d called.  A few times, he even said he loved me, which seemed difficult for him, and my response might not have come across as heartfelt.

* * * * *

Ben worked hard, two jobs much of the time. I don’t think it was because he enjoyed working, though maybe he did. He felt responsible for the well-being of his family, believing that the father was supposed to be the “breadwinner.”  Still, because he was gone so much at work, my strongest impression of him was of someone who usually wasn’t there. He’d come home late, eat supper, lie down in the living room recliner with a beer and a cigarette, and shortly be asleep. The next morning, by the time we got up, he’d already left for work.

On the few times I saw him in a suit and tie, I thought that Ben was a good-looking man. Mostly, though, I picture him in work clothes, with scabs on his hands, looking worn out and dusty.  (Rick agrees)

I remember how Ben always got cleaned up–shaved, put on Old Spice aftershave, plastered his hair with Vaseline Hair Tonic, before he went to bed at night. I never could understand that.  (Rick adds: “And when he finished combing his hair, he would always tap the comb on the sink two times and then put it away.”)

And my personal favorite:  “Make sure you get a job usin’ your head, Boy. You’ll starve to death if you have to do somethin’ with your hands.” (Rus and Rick)

* * * * *

Rick, in his book, The Wilds of Aging, reveals that, “With just months to go before retiring, I still haven’t learned to silence my father’s criticisms, the cutting remarks I named after him, the ‘Ben-isms.’  Though Ben is long gone, I dread he will hound me for as long as I live.”  (Rus shares that feeling)

“You ain’t never gonna get this right. Why don’t you just quit?” (Rick)

I was surprised to hear Rick say that he had stopped drinking because of his life with Ben during Dad’s bleary-eyed, drunken years.  Rick made that decision on December 26, 1986, after Betts called to tell him Ben had died.  Rick, who was closer to our father than I, was distraught at the news, and his four-year old daughter tried to comfort him.  Then and there, Rick decided that he would not put his child through the sorts of experiences he’d had when he’d been living with Ben after the divorce.  He emptied his refrigerator of beer and has not returned to alcohol.  (My reaction to the news of Ben’s demise was rather different.)

* * * * *

I’m not complaining about Ben’s parenting skills (or lack thereof), because obviously he  had poor role models.  Still, for better or worse, I attempted to raise my sons as the “un-Ben,” on almost every issue. Whenever discipline was needed or an important decision had to be made, I’d ask myself, “What would Dad do,” then I’d try to do the opposite.

For example, Ben spent very little time at home with us when we kids were growing up.  I decided that I would always be present for my sons.  We ate dinner most nights as a family and spent time talking about what had gone on for each of us during the day.  We’d laugh and joke at the table, and once in a while I’d spin elaborate stories that ended in groan-inducing puns, something the boys seemed to enjoy.  (My Willowy Bride, perhaps not so much. . . .)

On one occasion, after I’d complained about one son’s struggles with sports, Ben surprised me by asking whether I might not unwittingly be damaging his self-confidence!  And I thought:  where was this version of Ben when I needed him?

* * * * *

Ben and I seldom seemed to hit it off.  When we first met, at the end of World War II, he looked at me in my crib and I, having up until then been raised in an apartment full of women, promptly hit him in the head with a plastic toy.  But that wasn’t the worst of it.  As I grew up, Ben had a definite idea of what a son should be like–and, more often than not, I didn’t seem to fit that mold.

I was both overweight and introspective, neither athletic nor particularly social, and Ben had trouble understanding why that should have been so.  What I wanted to do, or was good at doing, seldom seemed to be what he had in mind, at least in my memory.  Yet, according to my brother, Ben actually told him more than once that he was proud of me, though I don’t recall him saying that in my hearing when I was growing up.

In my mind, perhaps Ben gave up on me, or maybe I turned my back on him, or both.  Whatever the cause(s) of our estrangement, I regret it still, especially because, in Rick’s words, Ben Lamplugh “might not have always been the father we wanted, but he was the only father we had.”  And he tried, God knows he tried, to be a good father to us.

End of Part VII

Copyright 2020 George Lamplugh

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)


Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, Delaware, Education, family history, genealogy, Historical Reflection, History, memoir, Popular Culture, Research, Retirement, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The King Assassination, Fifty-Two Years On

[NOTE:  For those of us of a certain age, the year 1968 was a terrible year; pick your horror, and you could find it there.  The Tet Offensive; the decline of public support in the United States for what was being called “Lyndon Johnson’s War”; the bizarre Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which selected President Johnson’s Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey, as the party’s presidential standard bearer; the election of Richard Nixon; and, of course, the assassinations.  One reason Humphrey was nominated in Chicago was that a late-entering but hard-charging competitor, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York  (brother of John F. Kennedy, himself the victim of an assassin’s bullet on November 22, 1963) was shot to death in Los Angeles, California, in June 1968.
But the 1968 assassination that affected me the most had occurred two months earlier, on April 4, fifty-two years ago today.  Many of us in that “certain age” group probably have indelible memories of that tragedy and its sequel.  These are mine.]
* * * * *

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Bio. and A&E)

As my former American History students will tell you, I am a great admirer of the modern civil rights movement in the United States, and, especially, of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the greatest Americans of the twentieth century.  I first learned about the Civil Rights Movement, and King’s role in it, as a youngster; these “lessons” were taught to me by the “school” of television.

The epochal Brown decision was handed down by the Supreme Court in May, 1954, three days before my tenth birthday; the legislative highlights of the “heroic phase” of the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were passed by Congress while I was in college.  Until I entered college in the fall of 1962, my biggest window on the world was our black and white TV set, and its fuzzy images I saw each night on the newscasts we watched with dinner.

I was a very young “news junkie” in 1954–for instance, I still remember watching some of the Army-McCarthy hearings in the afternoon, postponing my homework so I could catch what I would later learn to call “great political theater.”  And, when those hearings eventually ran their course and I had to find a new excuse to put off my assignments, the drama–and, thanks to television, the pictures–accompanying the Civil Rights Movement seemed never-ending.

I also must confess that I was quite naive about what I was watching.  To me, it all seemed very clear-cut, a matter of black-and-white, just like the TV I watched and the daily newspaper I read–but with the traditional symbolism of black-and-white reversed:  it was the (Southern) white folks who were the villains (in my mind, anyway) and black people who were the heroes.  I also was certain that, as a resident of Maryland (and, later, of Delaware), did not live where there were any race problems, no sirree!  Although my view of the world has changed over the past five decades, with the clarity of black-and-white evolving into shades of gray, one aspect has not been altered by time–my conviction of the centrality of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the successes–and the failures–of the modern civil rights movement.

I still recall vividly a Saturday afternoon, probably during the Little Rock crisis, standing outside my church, waiting for a ride, when suddenly my fascination with the on-going epic of the Movement collided with a burgeoning interest in the American Civil War, and I began to ponder, as only a white 13 year-old could, whether we were on the verge of a new Civil War, this one over the demands of an oppressed minority for the same basic civil rights and economic and social opportunities the rest of us took for granted.

* * * * *

Funeral (history.com)

King’s funeral in Atlanta (history.com)

On the afternoon of April 4, 1968, my wife and I emerged from a movie theater on a military post in Maryland to learn that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been fatally shot in Memphis, Tennessee.  At the time, I was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army finishing an undistinguished two-year tour of active duty.

We had gone to the matinee because that night I was scheduled to be the post’s Staff Duty Officer, which meant that a sergeant and I were to stay in the headquarters building overnight in case important messages arrived for the post commander.  When Faith and I took our seats in the theater a couple of hours earlier, I had been looking forward to the assignment; by the time we drove home, I was no longer anticipating the night ahead.

At the headquarters building, I was told that, if things got out of hand in nearby Baltimore, as appeared likely, our headquarters company would be sent to the metropolis to assist in “riot control.”  The sergeant and I were then left alone in a small room equipped with a portable black-and-white television set and an increasingly ominous telephone.  My mood was not improved when I called home, and my wife told me that her boss, our landlord (we lived above his shop), planned to stay up all night, garden hose at the ready, in case “they” came marching down the main street of our little town and stopped to burn his business on the way.

With little to do unless the phone rang, I turned my attention to television news coverage of the roiling civil unrest in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination.  Two incidents from that coverage remain with me:  an African-American celebrity (exactly which one is beyond my recollection), against the backdrop of the smoke-filled Washington, D.C., skyline, pleading with viewers not to dishonor Dr. King’s memory by engaging in violence or looting; and the increasingly frantic voice of a frightened reporter phoning in details to his employers while an angry crowd rocked, and eventually overturned, the telephone booth in which he had taken refuge.

Evidently, the combined efforts of local law enforcement and the National Guard kept a lid on things in Baltimore, because the sergeant and I never got that telephone call.  I drove off the post the next morning relieved that the alert had not come but also feeling that somehow, with the death of Dr. King, the Civil Rights Movement and the nation had been irrevocably changed, though in ways none of us could yet fathom.

* * * * *

(history.com)

(history.com)

Today, Dr. King has a national holiday and a memorial statue on the Mall in Washington.  He and his legacy are now “monumental” in every sense of the word.  Meanwhile, his children try to “protect” his image and his words, but they sometimes seem to be doing so in a mercenary way.

And, as if that isn’t enough, Americans still opposed to government support for Civil Rights use Dr. King’s “content of their character” mantra to criticize efforts to advance the cause, claiming that those efforts are somehow “racist.” I watch their antics with a mixture of bemusement, cynicism, and an occasional flash of anger. In quieter moments, though, I think of that thirteen year-old waiting outside his church, pondering the possibility of a new Civil War over the issue of Civil Rights.  There was never any question, then, whose side he was on. . . .  And there still isn’t.

[NOTE: This essay is adapted from an earlier post on Dr. King’s significance in the American story:

https://georgelamplugh.com/2015/01/01/civil-rights-and-wrongs-reflections-on-the-rev-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-and-his-legacy/]

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, Dr. Martin Luther King, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, Martin Luther King, memoir, Retirement, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“But You Get What You Need”: One Historian’s “Contingent” Career, Part 2

[Note: When I began teaching at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta in the autumn of 1973, I didn’t anticipate staying for the long term. Surely something better (i.e., a college teaching post) would come along? But no:  instead, I found myself making the transition from “professor” to “teacher.” I came to like the school, its students, and my faculty colleagues very much, and I spent the next thirty-seven years there, retiring in the spring of 2010. Looking back on my career, I’ve been struck by the powerful role played by contingency in how it developed. This is the second of two posts on the topic.  For Part 1, go here.

The images used to illustrate this post show activities involving family, students, and colleagues at Westminster, most of them outside the classroom.]

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The Westminster Schools (AKA, “AFPS”),
1973-2010

In my first two decades at Westminster, I continued to “keep up in my field,” as my Emory professors had taught me, placing book reviews and articles in professional journals; giving an occasional paper or public lecture; and, in 1986, finally publishing my 1973 dissertation so that search committees everywhere would be able to separate me from my rivals and, of course, offer me that endowed History chair at Ivy U.

Perhaps ironically, I also was required to take two “education” courses each year during my first five years at Westminster in order to be certified to teach high school history in Georgia.  In retrospect, those classes were not a total loss–I was able to use material developed in a couple of them later in my teaching career.

The 1970s featured the American Revolution bicentennial celebration. My dissertation began with the Revolution in Georgia, so I found opportunities to speak on the Revolutionary era, even, on one occasion, as a panelist on a cable television program in Augusta, Georgia. These engagements offered scholarly exposure, though they did not bring that coveted college or university teaching position any nearer.

Through the end of the 1990s, I usually met my goal of publishing at least one article or book review annually. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, however, I abandoned book reviewing and contented myself with publishing an occasional article.  By then I had decided to remain at Westminster, a teacher rather than a professor, so polishing up the “publications” section of the old resume seemed less pressing than it once had.

* * * * *

APUSH class, 1991

I drew on my liberal arts background to develop several courses at Westminster that were “outside my field” (American, and AP United States, History [APUSH]):  Ancient and Medieval History, the department’s introductory offering (evolving over the years into Origins of Western Society, and, eventually, History of the Ancient World); Introduction to History; Modern European/AP Modern European History; the South and the Sectional Image; and the History of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement.

In 1989, I became chairman of the History Department, the only administrative position at the school I ever coveted.  As chairman, I hoped to move our departmental curriculum away from the “western civilization” model I had grown up with, and in the direction of “world history,” which I believed better reflected the broader world in which our students would live as adults.

National Humanities Center, NC, 1989

I, like my History Department colleagues, had come up through high school, college, and grad school learning about the glories of “western civilization”—and my “field of specialization” was, after all, American history. Fortunately, I was able to take advantage of summer programs designed to help broaden the secondary school History curriculum by incorporating world history—one at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina (1989), the other through the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation at Princeton University (1993). Although these programs enabled me to nudge the school in the direction of world history, I was unable to push quite as far as I’d intended to before I stepped down as chairman.  But, I had fun trying!

* * * * *

“Wienie Roast” before home football game

The courses at Westminster were solid—for secondary school history offerings—and I really enjoyed my students, even our younger ones in “Introduction to History,” a course I created for freshmen and sophomores and taught regularly (which made me an oddity in my department, most of whose members preferred to teach older students).

Once I decided to remain at Westminster, I began to consider what my next scholarly project would be (yes, I still remembered the advice of my professors, despite my decision not to seek a college teaching job).  At Emory University (AKA, “My Old Graduate School,”) I had proposed to study the evolution of political factions and parties in Georgia between the American Revolution and the War of 1812, but I had ended my dissertation in 1806, a logical, but not (to me) satisfactory, conclusion.

In the mid-1990s, I submitted a proposal to Westminster’s sabbatical committee seeking funds to continue research on Georgia’s political party development. The request was approved, and I launched the new project in 1996, the year of the Atlanta Olympics. I hoped to track the story of the evolution of personal and issue-oriented political factions in Georgia from 1807 until state parties resembled those on the national level, a process that, as it turned out, lasted until the mid-1840s. Fulfilling the promise I’d made in my dissertation prospectus a quarter of a century earlier carried me through the rest of my Westminster career and into retirement.

* * * * *

Contemplating JV Soccer strategy

My transition from “professor” to “teacher” was sometimes bumpy, but my students were bright, their parents generally supported Westminster and its mission, and the school’s “powers that be” usually kept out of the faculty’s way and let us do our jobs.

If I had not harbored hopes of becoming a college professor, the adjustment to being “just a teacher” in a prep school probably would have been smoother. It wasn’t simply a matter of learning how to be a “teacher,” as opposed to a “professor”; there also was the nagging feeling, drummed into me by my grad school professors, that I must continue to “keep up in my field” and take whatever opportunities arose to publish, and otherwise keep my name before an academic “public.”

First “Fool’s Day,” 1993 (don’t ask!)

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While I was head of the History Department, I tried to keep meetings to a minimum and to supervise my charges in a low-key manner. I enjoyed sitting in on other teachers’ classes; going to bat for my colleagues during annual meetings with the administration; taking part in the hiring process; and dealing with the occasional crises that arose, usually with no warning. One thing I quickly learned was that, when a “crisis” flared up, the day flew by, because I had to teach my classes and try to put out the fire(s).  It was an exhilarating, rewarding experience, much of the time anyway.

On the other hand, I never enjoyed the school’s regular department heads’ meetings. Usually, we sat around congratulating each other on how hard we worked, but we seldom made any substantive decisions. Instead, we tended to raise a “big question,” then talk it to death—what I termed the “black hole approach” to administration.

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Westminster historians with alumnus–and MLK biographer–Taylor Branch (third from right), Oct. 2009

By the time I retired at the end of May 2010 and turned to the completion of my sabbatical project, many Georgia newspapers were readily available online at the Digital Library of Georgia, through the University of Georgia’s GALILEO website, and significant documentary collections could be found elsewhere on the internet. Thus, for my first five years in retirement, I spent more time viewing primary sources on the computer than I did traveling to “brick and mortar” repositories. Eventually, I produced that sequel to my 1986 book. In addition, I assembled a collection of the essays on Georgia history I had written over the years, some previously published, others that had not yet seen the light of day. Both volumes were published in 2015 (yes, that’s correct, nearly two decades after I began research on the sequel in 1996–thank God we didn’t do “publish or perish” at my school!).

* * * * *

My career commenced as a historian of Georgia and the South who somehow wound up teaching at a prep school in Atlanta, armed with a PhD.  If my career path had taken a different direction, I might have embarked upon life as an academic gypsy, traveling from one short-time appointment after another, my family in tow; or, like a few of my grad school friends, actually won an academic post and ended up teaching at one or more colleges, plying my trade as a history professor. Instead, I made the best of what contingency, coincidence, and luck handed me, spending nearly four decades at a fine prep school, and I’m glad I did.

[Note: This essay appeared, in slightly different form, as the introduction to In Pursuit of Dead Georgians: One Historian’s Excursions into the History of his Adopted State, a collection of historical essays published in 2015 (see below).]

Copyright 2020 George Lamplugh

 

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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986

Posted in "Education Courses", American History, Books, Education, Elective History Course for 9th and 10th Graders, family history, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History graduate school, History Teaching, memoir, Popular Culture, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Sun Belt, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Ben, An American Dad, 1921-1986, Part VI: A Dad Alone, 1964-1986

[Note: The events of the summer of 1964 [see here] put an end to Betts and Ben Lamplugh’s marriage and shattered their family: Betts’ bus trip to Newark; Ben’s angry phone call later that day; and Betts’ refusal either to talk to him or to return home forced their children to choose sides. For previous episodes, go here, here, here, here, and here.]

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Judy had just graduated from high school and was looking forward to finding a job and beginning life on her own, but she agreed to remain with Ben and Rick, so that “Rick could have a life,” as she later said. She soon tired of her duties as a sort of live-in maid, tending to the needs of her father and her brother.  She felt trapped.  Even though Ben had bought Judy a used car, she had not gotten a driver’s license before she decided to head to Newark to join Betts. When Judy told Ben she was leaving, he warned her that, if she went, he “wouldn’t have a daughter anymore.” She moved north anyway, and Rick inherited that used car.

When his parents’ marriage imploded, Rick was about to begin his junior year in high school, and he didn’t want to leave Baltimore for a different school. Instead, he opted to remain with Ben; and, once Judy departed for Newark, Rick assumed the task of “looking after” his dad. As he has recorded in his book, The Wilds of Aging, “Life with Father” was no walk in the park.

Betts had formerly taken care of paying the family’s bills; Ben’s responsibility was to bring money home to cover them. Without Betts, Ben didn’t seem to know—or care—what to do. His drinking became more of a problem; bills went unpaid; and bill collectors came calling. Rick occasionally found himself on the road at night trying to locate Ben—and bring him home from a bar. A few months after graduating from high school in 1966, Rick enlisted in the U.S. Army. Once on active duty, he cut himself off from his parents and his siblings.

Betts and Ben had borrowed money to cover Rus’s college expenses, which worked until just before his senior year. One of the bills Ben had neglected to pay, following the marital break-up and subsequent divorce, was that college loan; Ben eventually declared bankruptcy. Faced with the prospect of not graduating from college, Rus cobbled together funds for his senior year from a summer job, ROTC stipend, salary as a resident assistant in a dormitory, and a loan from his girlfriend Faith’s parents.

* * * * *

Ben remained in Baltimore until 1967, when he moved back to Delaware and once again began working for his older brother, at Bill’s Wilmington gas station. By that time, Ben essentially had “lost” his wife and children, declared bankruptcy, and seen his dependence on alcohol increase, so he probably welcomed another chance to work for Bill, while trying to figure out what to do next.

Wedding, Faith and Rus, Post Chapel, Aberdeen Proving Grounds, MD, June 10, 1967

One thing Ben didn’t do was maintain much contact with his children.  He missed big events.  Judy married–eloped–in January 1967, and neither Betts nor Ben attended the ceremony.  Six months later, Rus married Faith Ferguson in the chapel at the Army post where he was stationed. Once again, Ben was absent, perhaps because he knew that both Betts and her mother would attend the ceremony.  Yet, when Rick got married in August 1973, Ben, Betts, and Judy were in attendance.

Army boys, 1967–Rus and Rick

With Rus and Rick in the Army, there was little they could do, even if they’d wanted to, to maintain much of a connection with Ben.  Judy lived a few miles from him, and she  kept in touch for a while after his return to Delaware, but that did not last. Relations between Ben and his daughter became so strained that they stopped speaking to each other.

Once Rick and Rus completed their military service, they settled into lives far from Ben (and Betts), Rick in Oregon and Rus in Georgia.  Neither made much effort to maintain contact with his father, with distance an obvious factor.  As each son started a family, a trip to see Ben (or, for that matter, Betts) became a major undertaking.

Rick, Kay, and Ben, Christmas, 1971

* * * * *

In 1969, Judy learned that Ben had a red-headed daughter, thanks to a woman he’d met when he moved back to Delaware.  Unfortunately, the little girl died before the age of two.

Ben had always been proud of his red hair. He hoped to have at least one red-headed child, which was why he and Betts gave their first son the middle name Russell, so that they could call him “Rusty” when his red hair blossomed. But that dream didn’t work out: Rus had black hair, and Judy and Rick had brown.  However, Ben did wind up with a red-headed grandson, Rus’s older son, Jim.

* * * * *

Ben and June, December 1982

About 1970, Ben’s new life in Delaware changed when he met June, who owned a liquor store in Wilmington.  June hoped to enlist Ben to help her manage the store, but there was a problem, Ben fondness for alcohol.  June and Ben decided that, if he were to join her in running the bottle shop, he must stop drinking. And, apparently, he did. Although they never married, Ben and June were together until Ben’s death.

The picture above, though not a wedding photograph, presents an interesting contrast to Ben and Betts’ wedding picture from 1943.  [go here]  Each portrait captures Ben with a strong woman.  In the earlier one, the young Ben seems uncertain of the future, but eager for it to unfold with Betts.  In the photo nearly four decades later, on the other hand, Ben, well-dressed but world-weary, stands behind June, content to follow her into the future.

Ben and granddaughter Allison (1983)

Ben and June raised Chihuahuas.  My sons remember that one of their dogs was blind and, wrapped in a blanket, would lie shivering on Ben’s lap. The boys also recall the roof garden atop Ben and June’s Wilmington apartment, the large German shepherd on duty at the liquor store, and Christmas novelty booze packages stored in the basement, which, Ben said, he used to remind himself of the alcohol addiction he was trying to escape.

* * * * *

Ben had always been a heavy smoker, and, by the late 1970s, he had been diagnosed with emphysema.  By 1984, he was on oxygen almost 24 hours a day, had constant trouble getting his breath, and seemed very depressed.  Yet, according to both Judy and Rick, Ben still wanted to smoke; his willingness to sneak out of his room for a cigarette cost him his place at one medical facility.

In August 1984, I visited Ben in a convalescent home. His once carrot-red hair had been cut short and turned dark; his face was craggy, his breathing labored, despite the oxygen tank; his ankles were swollen. Because he’d had a close call several months earlier at home, Ben was afraid of further problems with his breathing and wanted to do as little physical activity as possible. His attitude distressed June, who hoped he could continue to live at home with her, or, if he needed to be elsewhere, reside in a facility where he could be more active.

* * * * *

In July 1985, I saw Ben in a Wilmington nursing home. The contrast between Ben and June was stark. They were about the same age, but June was healthy and vigorous, while Ben was gray, tethered to an oxygen tank, and afraid to do much of anything.  He seemed tired, dispirited, uninterested in what went on around him.

The following summer, I visited Ben for what proved to be the last time. He looked dreadful: unkempt, gray, shaky; his feet were swollen and black, his ability to talk hampered by heavy dependence on his oxygen tank. Ben believed that the authorities at the nursing home were forcing him to remain immobile, because they refused to allow him to carry his oxygen tank with him into the halls. The unspoken corollary was that, if he were moved elsewhere, he might be permitted to walk about more, yet his prolonged immobility had irreparably weakened his lungs and his legs; even minimal physical effort seemed beyond him. 

* * * * *

Judy, Rick, and I were mystified at how Ben and June were able to afford the cost of the  care he was receiving. Whatever the source of the money (surely some of it was from the government), it eventually ran out, and Ben’s last hope was to move from a private nursing home to the state hospital. To raise the necessary funds, Delaware authorities turned to his children. We began planning to assume financial responsibility for the cost of his care at the start of 1987, but, in the end, we did not have to do so.

June visited Ben on Christmas Day, 1986, to take him his presents. He seemed glad to see her and was generally cheerful. The following morning, however, he experienced problems at the nursing home. He was taken to the hospital and put into the ICU, where he died at about 11:30 A.M. He was sixty-five.

* * * * *

Ben had asked to be cremated.  His brother Bill, faithful to the end, inurned Ben’s ashes at a local cemetery, in one of the family plots he and his wife Maxine had bought several years earlier.

Betts had mixed feelings about Ben’s death:  she had loved him, once; married him; borne him three children; lived with him for over twenty years before leaving in 1964.  She explained that, like her own father, Ben had been raised in a “mixed up” home and, thus, never was able to show much emotion.  In other words, Betts was, in her own way, defending Ben.

Betts called me on the morning of December 26 to inform me of Ben’s death.  I was on my way out the door for my daily run.  I took the phone, heard what Betts had to say, thanked her for calling, and then set out to jog with my older son.  I didn’t say much about what I’d just learned, nor did I cry upon hearing the news.  I have not cried yet.  Ben was my father, and I honor that; but to this day I still struggle with his legacy.

* * * * *

Judy, Rick, and I purchased this plaque for Ben’s grave:

Benjamin L. Lamplugh

Sgt. U.S. Army

World War II

Jan. 20, 1921   Dec. 26, 1986

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End of Part VI

Copyright 2019 George Lamplugh

[Next:  Part VII:  Ben’s Legacy]

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, Delaware, Education, family history, genealogy, Historical Reflection, History, memoir, Newark (Del.) High School Class of 1962, Popular Culture, Research, Retirement, Rick Lamplugh, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments