Ben: An American Dad, 1921-1986, Part I: Introduction: “The only father we had”

[Note:  Between 2017 and 2019, I published here a series of posts based on the writings of my late mother, Elsie Elizabeth (Betts) Lamplugh (1923-2013).  Betts’ writings included a brief history of her Dobson-Knighton family and, more importantly, a memoir she whimsically titled “Slub of Slife,” covering her–and the Lamplugh family’s–life through 1964.  As several of you have reminded me, this kind of personal information from a parent is unusual.

But, as they say, “it takes two to tango,” and the other dancer in our family story was Betts’ husband, and our father, Benjamin (Ben) Leroy Lamplugh (1921-1986). Almost as soon as I started putting up the “Betts” posts, I realized that I should do something similar for Ben, but I also understood that creating a companion series would be more difficult.

These “Ben” posts will not be as detailed about their subject as those in the earlier series were about Betts. Ben left neither a family history nor a personal memoir that I could cannibalize and edit, as I did for Betts.  I had waited too long to talk with him, and, for that matter, with his siblings and other relatives.  Some of the information I  have about Ben comes from Betts’ memoir.  To supplement it, there are a few primary documents available (e.g., birth, marriage, and death certificates; sketchy military records; a few letters), as well as some photographs.  

More than was the case with Betts’ story, then, this account of Ben’s life, especially his years as a husband and father, will be an exercise in what historians call “oral history,” drawing upon memories my siblings and I have of him in his role as our dad.  We’ve been dredging these up, sharing our reflections, and compiling them in a series of “mini-reunions” (masquerading as “vacations”) over the past few years. (Judy, Rick, and I have enjoyed the process of “researching” our father, but our spouses understandably have not been as excited.)]

* * * * * 

Ben Lamplugh (c. 1960)

Here is a quick sketch of Ben Lamplugh, with details to follow, in later posts.  He was stocky, red-headed, usually quiet, and skilled with his hands.  He might, or might not, have graduated from high school. One of us remembers hearing that he was a “lapsed Catholic,” but the others are not so sure.  Ben was a member of “The Greatest Generation,” who did his duty during World II but never saw combat, though not for lack of trying.  In sum, after all these years, his children still have questions about him.

After the war, Ben took advantage of the G.I. Bill, apprenticing as a carpenter at a boat-building firm near Baltimore, Maryland, the first step in what became a long career as a blue collar laborer. His upbringing had not prepared him well for fatherhood, but he did the best he could to keep his growing family fed, clothed, and housed, trying to fulfill the one role in life he seemed sure of, that the husband was the “head of the house,” and, thus, by definition, the “breadwinner.”  Ben pursued a series of full- and part-time jobs, but money was always an issue in the Lamplugh household.  

Ben was not, at first, prepared gracefully to accept his wife Betts’ desire to return to the workforce once their three children were in school.  Because of the demands of his various jobs, Ben was a distant father.  He’d arrive home late for dinner many nights, then fall into his recliner, with a beer and a cigarette, and nod off before the television set.  

The family owned one car, which Ben always needed when his part-time jobs required him to work on the weekends. Family vacations were few, but Ben occasionally could be persuaded to drive the family somewhere (anywhere!), to visit our grandparents in Delaware, for example, or to have a picnic along a Maryland highway.  

Ben loved his family as much as he was able, and he worked hard to fulfill the role of father in the 1950s.  Still, Ozzie Nelson (of “Ozzie and Harriet” fame) or Jim Anderson (“Father Knows Best”) Ben was not.  He also didn’t relish the role of disciplinarian that Betts sometimes required of him when her efforts to bring order to the household fell short of success.  In frustration, Betts would warn the kids, “Just wait until your father comes home!”  When Ben arrived, Betts dumped the disciplinary issue de jour into his lap and left him to settle it.  We kids could tell just by looking at him that Ben would rather be anywhere else at that moment! 

As those of you who’ve read the “Betts” series know, our parents’ marriage hit the skids in the summer of 1964, and divorce soon followed.  Ben spent the next twenty-two years as a single man, though he did not always live alone.  His relationships with his children were a mixed bag, to say the least.  He died a few weeks short of his sixty-sixth birthday.

* * * * *

So, Ben Lamplugh did the best he could with what he had.  If his upbringing had unsuited him to be the stereotypical warm, fuzzy father figure who ruled television sitcoms in the 1950s, Ben surely wasn’t alone in that failure.  His view of Betts’ role in the family was the traditional one, when American society had begun to move in a different direction.  He struggled to come to terms with those and other socio-economic changes, only to see his marriage and his family dissolve before his eyes. And we doubt that he ever quite understood why.

My sister Judy summarized her view of our father this way: “He wanted a certain kind of life but had no earthly idea how to go about getting it.  He just dealt with what presented itself to him and then moved on to wait for the next shoe to fall.  I think that’s why he drank, because it was easier than trying to do something.”

My brother Rick put it this way:  Ben “might not always have been the father we wanted, but he was the only father we had.”

And I believe that Rick’s description might well serve as the theme for the rest of this series.

End of Part I

Copyright 2019 George Lamplugh

[Next:  Part 2: The Wedding Photograph]

* * * * * *

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)

About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
This entry was posted in American History, Delaware, family history, genealogy, Historical Reflection, History, memoir, Popular Culture, Research, Retirement, Uncategorized, WP Long Read and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Ben: An American Dad, 1921-1986, Part I: Introduction: “The only father we had”

  1. admiral17(RB) says:

    Great start to what I know must be a difficult (at many levels) and interesting task. Your opening summary reminds me of a scene in the movie “Shenandoah” where Jimmy Stewart’s wife is offering advice to a young girl who is about marry. The married mother says, “Sometimes he will just want to be alone, and you need to let him. Don’t ask what he is thinking about:” Or words to that effect, I don’t pretend the quote is precise. The distance father’s need is sometime unbridgeable. I look forward to your series.

  2. Thanks, Rick! I really appreciate your take on my task, especially because your relationship with your dad was much more positive than mine with Ben. Still, in circling back to my father this late in life, I’ve come to see him in a more positive, or at least more balanced, way, and that was the purpose of the exercise–and why, as you’ll see, the contributions of my siblings were so important.

  3. Judith Bestpitch says:

    Very nicely done, Bro. I knew you’d do a great job. It’s amazing considering your relationship with Dad. Mom always said “we could do whatever we put our minds to”. You’ve always done just that.

  4. Thanks a lot, Sis! I appreciate everything you said–it means a lot coming from you. I hope you enjoy the rest of the posts as well–God knows you and Rick have contributed enough to the process of creating them!

  5. Kimberley says:

    This is a fascinating read, George. Thank you for sharing something so personal.

  6. Thanks, Kemberley, for the comment. I’m glad you’re enjoying Ben’s story. It’s taken a long time to write, but it’s been worth it!

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