[NOTE: When Ben Lamplugh returned home early in 1946, he found himself in a house full of women: Betts and her son Rus were living with her sister Gertie, Gertie’s daughter Lynn, and two boarders, the England sisters, in an apartment in Middle River, Maryland, near Baltimore. Upon Ben’s arrival, the women moved elsewhere, and Betts and Ben kept the apartment. Later that year, Ben, Betts, and son Rus move to Helicopter Drive in Victory Villa, a wartime development that was jerrybuilt, not intended for long-term residence, where their second child, Judy, was born in October 1946. (For earlier chapters in Ben’s life see here, here, and here.)]
* * * * *
Ben was interested in learning carpentry: in 1946, under the GI Bill, he began an apprenticeship as a cabinet maker with the Owens Yacht Company in Baltimore. In addition to his job there, Ben secured a part-time position doing maintenance work for Richter Trailer Sales on Pulaski Highway, not far from Victory Villa. According to Betts, during these years Ben was a good worker who kept busy trying to support his family. He wasn’t home much, but, after the war, everyone was expected to work hard to make ends meet; for a while, things went along smoothly for the Lamplugh family.
Shortly after his second son, Rick, was born, on November 11, 1948, Ben, left Owens Yacht Company and joined the maintenance department of Cities Service Oil Company, while keeping his part-time job at Richter Trailer Sales.
Around 1950, Ben went to work for Gibraltar Trailer Company, building house trailers in the plant and making service calls for the company. Jim Fyle, who owned Gibraltar, enjoyed hydroplane boat racing. (Hydroplanes are racing boats that move very fast while just skimming across the water. ) Whenever he traveled to a hydroplane race, Mr. Fyle asked Ben to go along with him to pull his boat trailer. On those rare occasions when a race was held locally, our family might accompany him.
In 1952, still living in Victory Villa, our family watched Hurricane Hazel wreak havoc outside our windows, although, in the end, damage in our neighborhood was minimal.
Two years later, Ben changed jobs again, joining Ottie Gowl at Atlantic Trailer Company, which manufactured office trailers. Ben was a supervisor and a maintenance man at Atlantic; this meant that he traveled for the company to take care of maintenance problems once its trailers had been sold. According to Betts, Mr. Gowl had a lot of faith in Ben’s ability and considered him a good, reliable worker.
* * * * *
In 1954, Betts rejoined the workforce as a receptionist for the family’s physician, Dr. Marvin Rombro, whose office was in Victory Villa, only a few blocks from her home on Helicopter Drive in Aero Acres. Ben didn’t like Betts working outside the home, because this lessened her dependence on him and made him less able to support his family as the “bread winner,” at least in his mind. To Betts, though, the job enabled her to gain skills and earn money to supplement her family’s income.
My sister Judy recalls that our family had great friends in the Victory Villa community. However, there were some aspects of being a kid there that were problematic, to put it mildly. For instance, a neighboring family had a couple of very athletic boys, and, with their father’s encouragement, every boychild in the neighborhood was urged to play football and other sports in the common backyard area between our houses. I, for one, was having none of it, something Ben never really understood, nor could I have explained my attitude if asked.
* * * * *
In January 1949, Ben and Betts purchased their first television set, a black and white one that, like every other set in the U.S. at the time, received only three channels. Still, the Lamplughs were among the first in Aero Acres to have a TV; consequently, they often had company in the evenings, when neighbors came over to watch popular programs like the “Ed Sullivan Show” and “Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater.”
Financially, our family occasionally teetered on the brink of disaster. We lived in a rental house and Ben drove a used car, at least until 1953, when he purchased a new Pontiac, only to lose it within a year because he could not keep up the payments.
In 1955, we move to Endsleigh Avenue, in a new development of what would today be called “town homes,” but in the 1950s were labeled, less glamorously, “row houses.” Whatever the new place was called, it was the first—and, as it turned out, only—home our parents ever bought (for $9500, with only $100 down–the GI Bill again), but we didn’t keep it for very long.
In late 1959, Ben and Betts sold the Endsleigh Avenue house, and we moved to 37 North Chapel Street in Newark, Delaware. Was this because they couldn’t make house payments and so lost it, the same way that Ben gave up the Pontiac? Or, was this another example of Ben finding himself in financial trouble and turning to his older brother Bill, who lived in Wilmington, near Newark? Your guess is as good as mine.
Another issue, but one that we kids didn’t understand until later, was that this move, while putting Ben closer to his brother Bill, also put Betts nearer to her mother, Isabelle Knighton, who did not like Ben very much, and to Betts’ former fiancé, J.B., who had survived the war, returned to Maryland, and married a Catholic girl, a match his father encouraged after J.B.’s engagement to Betts went south. But as it turned out, J.B. and Betts had not forgotten that earlier relationship.
* * * * *
Ben had never been comfortable with his mother-in-law. When we lived near Baltimore, he drove the family to Newark only when he couldn’t get out of it. After we moved to Delaware, Ben preferred to spend time with his father-in-law in Ike’s dank basement workshop rather than sit in the living room and chat with Isabelle. Perhaps Ben suspected that his mother-in-law was attempting to poison the well of his marriage by reminding Betts of how she’d abandoned J.B., the “better man,” during the war.
When we lived on North Chapel Street, Ben worked part-time at his brother Bill’s gas station in Wilmington, while holding a full-time maintenance job at Deemer Steel in New Castle, Delaware. Meanwhile, Betts worked briefly at the University of Delaware in Newark, then moved to the office of ophthalmologist Perry L. Munday in September 1960.
Rick was in middle school during these years, and Judy and I were at Newark High School. While it seemed at first that our family had entered a period of stability, Ben soon became discontented with his job at Deemer Steel and decided that he wanted to return to Baltimore. Betts was unhappy with this decision, because Rus was to graduate from Newark High in June 1962 and had already been accepted at the University of Delaware in Newark.
Nevertheless, Ben, Betts, Judy, and Rick moved back to Baltimore in January 1962, while Rus remained in Newark, living with his grandparents so that he could graduate from Newark High and enter the University of Delaware in the fall of 1962. Thus, at age seventeen, Rus was more or less “on his own.” In view of what was to happen two years after his high school graduation, this opportunity to develop a measure of self-reliance could not have come at a better time.
Ben returned to work for Jim Fyle at Gibraltar Manufacturing Company, and the family lived at 9100 Philadelphia Road, in Rossville, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore. Why did Ben want to go back to Baltimore? His brother Bill lived in Delaware, yet much of Ben’s work history since the end of the war had been centered in the Maryland city. Then too, from Ben’s point of view, the family’s return to Baltimore got Betts farther away from her mother, Isabelle Knighton, and from her former fiancé, J.B., as well.
* * * * *
The decision to send Rus to college could only have been reached after considerable soul-searching, given the family’s shaky financial position. Somehow, Ben and Betts arranged to borrow tuition money from a bank in Philadelphia, and Betts’s parents agreed that Rus could live with them to help keep other college expenses to a minimum. His “spending money” came primarily from summer jobs at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, arranged by Betts, who worked there.
* * * * *
The Lamplugh children’s adolescence ended suddenly in the summer of 1964, following my sophomore year in college, when our parents’ twenty-year marriage disintegrated before our eyes. None of us could have predicted either the incident that triggered the separation or the emotionally debilitating series of events that followed.
Betts and Ben had argued the night before Betts left, according to Judy. The next morning, Betts told Rus that she was going to Newark by bus and asked if he would like to come. Though puzzled, he agreed, and a few hours later the family’s metaphorical roof caved in.
Ben came home that night, after work and a stop at his favorite tavern, to find his wife and oldest child absent. Learning from Judy and Rick where Betts and Rus had gone, Ben called the Knighton residence and asked to speak to his wife. Things went downhill from there. Ben demanded that Betts return, but she refused.
The Lamplugh children “audited” this course in marital collapse, Rick and Judy in Rossville, and Rus in Newark. As best we could determine, our parents had reached a breaking point, but none of us understood why.
On the weekend following Betts’s departure, Ben drove to Newark and again demanded to speak to his wife. Rus attempted mediation, but Betts was unwilling even to speak to her husband. For all intents and purposes, their marriage seemed at an end. [Betts later admitted that she had hoped to delay leaving Ben until all of her kids had finished school, but the bus ride to Newark had escalated things to a crisis point.]
* * * * *
Ben’s habit of holding two jobs and Betts’s responsibilities at work and in the home had for a long time led the kids to see their parents as separate entities who seldom spent much time together. Yet, if they were not demonstrative in their affection for each other, Ben and Betts had lavished as much love and attention on their children as they could.
Once it became clear that their parents would not get back together, Judy, Rick, and Rus were forced to choose sides, a choice none wanted to make and one that proved painful for each of them. But it had to be done.
End of Part IV
Copyright 2019 George Lamplugh
Next: Part V: Memories of Ben as “Dad” (2019)
* * * * * *
For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: