[NOTE: It’s not normal for me to wax retrospective on Father’s Day, but every so often I do. 2019 was one of those years. I had begun work on this blog series about my father, Ben Lamplugh, and I asked my siblings for help, emailing my thoughts on Ben as “Dad” for them to read and comment on. This post is the result of that interchange. (For previous installments, see Part I; Part II; Part III; and Part IV.)]
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When they married, on January 12, 1943, Ben Lamplugh was 22, Betts Knighton, 20. When they’d first met, Ben was in the Maryland National Guard, stationed at Fort Meade, in Baltimore, Maryland. By the time they wed, he was about to leave for Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for paratrooper training.
Ben didn’t have much experience with a stable family. [Go here.] He was the third child born to Leroy and Mary Lamplugh, who divorced shortly after Ben’s birth. Because she could not afford to raise her children by herself, Mary placed her two oldest, Bill and Ethel, with relatives, and kept baby “Bennie” with her. Eventually, Mary remarried, to a Harrington, Delaware, farmer, Noble Cahall, a widower with several children of his own. My sister Judy remembers Ben saying he loved his stepfather, yet Ben seems to have moved as a teenager north from Harrington to Newark, Delaware, where he lived with his brother Bill and his sister-in-law Maxine on a farm on the outskirts of town.
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Ben was not afraid of hard work. His post-World War II employment history featured a long series of manual labor jobs, with the fulltime ones coupled with one or more part-time positions. Ben believed, according to Betts, that a husband should be the family breadwinner, so he was not pleased when, in the early 1950s, with their three kids in school, Betts decided to re-enter the workforce. Betts’ income must have been welcomed, but even combined with what Ben brought home, the family’s financial position remained shaky.
Ben took pride in his work and was something of a perfectionist, which didn’t always endear him to co-workers. He built some furniture for our house, not fancy, but sturdy. One of the few times I remember seeing him angry came after we kids were horsing around on a bed he’d built, and it collapsed. When he came home and saw the broken bed, Ben asked us how it had happened, and we tried to convince him that the bed “just broke.” Wrong answer, and our behinds felt Ben’s anger.
On another occasion, a neighboring family lived with us for a while, and Ben built two sets of bunk beds for their bedroom. When the neighbors moved back into their own house, Ben had to cut each set of bunks into two single beds to get them out of the room.
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Ben was not much of a disciplinarian. He expected Betts to handle that aspect of parenting, as well as other “wifely duties,” despite her fulltime job. Betts did her best, but sometimes we children misbehaved more than she found acceptable. On those occasions, she warned direly, “Just wait until your father gets home!” And, when Ben arrived, at the end of a long day of manual labor, the last thing he wanted to do was hand out punishment.
Still, Betts insisted that he do something, and Ben did, sort of. He’d take the offender(s) into the bedroom, shut the door, and launch into a series of stern, quite audible admonishments, to which the miscreant(s) would of course promise never to do “it” again. Ben realized that merely yelling would not be enough, so he’d then enact a pantomime of physical punishment (with the bedroom door closed and Betts not in the room), usually “spanking” the bed, the bathtub, or his own body, while the guilty one(s) did their best to cry on cue.
Then there were Ben’s efforts to shape me into a “big brother” of whom Judy and Rick (not to mention Ben himself) could be proud. Judy remembers that, on one occasion, she came home from the playground and complained that some boys had pushed her around, so Ben dispatched Judy and me to the playground to settle things with those bullies. It turned out, though, that Judy had started the trouble herself, because the boys wouldn’t let her play ball with them. Upset that Ben expected me to fight Judy’s battles, especially when the trouble had begun with her, I dragged Judy home and told her that she had better tell Ben I had taken care of business!
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Our family didn’t have much money, but we weren’t exactly “poor.” We always enjoyed Christmas, for instance. Betts made clothing for us, usually shirts for Rick and me and blouses for Judy. Ben chipped in, building furniture we needed but couldn’t really afford to buy. Annually, we also risked making ourselves sick if we ate too much of the candy in our Easter baskets, and Betts waited with doses of “cod liver oil” if we got carried away.
Ben and Betts did not stint on reading matter. We had a full set of Childcraft books and a collection of Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories, which Betts read from in the evenings when we were too little to do so ourselves. Our parents also purchased a set of encyclopedias, one volume at a time, from a local grocery chain. The family even subscribed to The Saturday Evening Post, as well as a daily newspaper. Ben sometimes brought comic books home for us, usually when he returned from a work-related out-of-town trip.
Medical care for the Lamplughs was handled on a priority basis. In emergencies, we’d be taken to a doctor or to a hospital. Required school checkups were handled as well. Betts’ first postwar fulltime job was with our family doctor, Marvin Rombro, so we got a break on those bills. Later, Betts worked for eye doctors, which meant that we received regular eye care. (Dental care, not so much!)
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“Family vacations” also were victims of the Lamplugh financial straits. We seldom had them. The best we could do was for Betts to convince Ben that we needed to take a day trip somewhere. Most such jaunts usually were on Sunday, to Newark, Delaware, an hour or so north of Baltimore. Ben seldom enjoyed these excursions, because he didn’t get along with his mother-in-law, Isabelle Knighton, and the feeling was mutual; but Betts insisted that we keep in touch with her family. Often on those same Sundays, though, Ben also tried to ensure that his family visited his adored older brother Bill, in nearby Wilmington, obviously trying to match the time we spent with our maternal grandparents in Newark.
Occasionally we’d go on a Sunday “road trip” to a more “exotic” locale, and, desperate as we were to “get the heck out of Dodge,” it didn’t matter where Ben elected to take us. The trips I remember were into western Maryland, where we’d stop at a picnic area and share our lunch with the ants.
And then there were the work trips, when one or all of us would accompany Ben on a service call, usually somewhere in the upper Midwest, for Ottie Gow’s Atlantic Trailer company. Once, Ben took me along with him to Cleveland or some other midwestern garden spot, traveling in the “Courier,” a small, almost windowless Ford commercial truck that we slept in at least one night. Another time, Ben took the entire family on a long-distance service call in the Courier, Ben and Betts in the front seat, we kids in the back, amid the toilets Ben was transporting. We spent that night in a motel room, with Betts and Ben in one bed and the three of us trying to coexist in the other one.
My favorite memory of these “vacations” came one hot summer night. We had no air conditioning at home and the weather was sweltering. A sudden thunderstorm blew through Baltimore, and the night suddenly became cooler. Before the rain ceased completely, Ben and Betts packed us into the rear of our Ford Country Squire station wagon, windows open and a gloriously refreshing (if slightly damp) breeze caressing us as he drove us, in our pajamas, through downtown Baltimore.
Ben also occasionally took us to one of the “beaches” in the Middle River area, usually heavily shaded by trees, because his fair skin burned quickly in full sun. Yet, the shade must have made it difficult for parents to watch their youngsters, because Judy and I both remember near-drowning experiences in those locations, and Rick believes that he’s still uncomfortable in the water because of them.
A variation of this sort of day trip occurred when Ben worked for Jim Fyle at Gibraltar Trailers. Fyle loved to race hydroplane power boats, and one of Ben’s part-time jobs was to tow Fyle’s boat to the race venue. If the site was local, Ben might take us along. (Betts didn’t think power boat racing was safe, but a day trip was a day trip.) The races were incredibly noisy, yet at least two of us kids remembered them fondly.
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There’s a sense in which Ben was “in,” but not “of,” our family circle. He seldom arrived home on weeknights until after the rest of us had eaten. He’d eat dinner with Betts in the kitchen while we watched television in the living room. Ben eventually joined us, beer in hand, sat in his favorite chair, lit a cigarette, and was shortly out like a light. He seldom finished that cigarette, which, if we were lucky, burned out in the ashtray; or that beer, which became flat and warm.
Ben also could be convinced to take his family to a local tavern on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, a time-honored family activity in Baltimore. Our parents joined neighbors to sip beer, talk, perhaps watch television. The kids played shuffleboard, drank cokes, ate chips or popcorn, and tried their luck with the “claw machine,” which contained cheap “prizes” and was lots was fun to play!
And then there were “crab feasts” we attended, again with neighbors, and the venue was a bit of a drive. Picture it: an open-sided, covered spot; tables with attached benches; newspaper on the tabletops; and, finally, crabs. The adults loved this (maybe it was the beer that accompanied the crabs), and I’ll bet many of the kids did, too. Extracting crab meat from the shell seemed more trouble than it was worth to me, though I liked the taste of crab well enough once it had been extracted.
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On a few occasions, Ben showed up at an evening event featuring one of his children. Once, he and Betts came to a winter-themed school show featuring Rus as an “ice skater,” in a rousing production of the “Skater’s Waltz.” Ben also managed to get home in time to observe one of my hapless attempts to play organized baseball.
As a youngster, I was overweight and klutzy, with an aversion to physical exercise. One thing I struggled with was doing push-ups in Physical Education class, and I asked Ben for help. Several times he gave me push-up “lessons,” but to little avail. What made this worse was that Rick, four years younger, saw Ben trying to help me, walked through the room, and stopped, dropped, and did ten push-ups without breaking a sweat!
Then there were the “donkey baseball games” we attended while living on Philadelphia Road in Baltimore. On another occasion, we watched an amazing softball pitcher, Eddie Feigner, and his “King and His Court” team, trounce a local squad. I also recall attending at least one Baltimore Orioles game with Ben. (The Orioles had arrived in Baltimore, from St. Louis, in 1954. They were a terrible team in those early years, but they were our terrible team!)
During this same period, Judy remembers that Ben used to stop at a bar after work on Friday; go again to a bar with a neighbor on Saturday night; and, on Sunday mornings, visit the same neighbor’s house to eat raw oysters as a hangover cure.
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Betts also thought her children should attend church, but that presented a problem: We had only one car, Ben frequently worked part-time on Sundays, and Betts never learned to drive, which meant that we could only attend a church within walking distance. There were some, usually Methodist, churches in the area, but those presented a problem, too, because Betts preferred the Episcopal church. We did occasionally attend an Episcopal church, long enough for me to be trained as an acolyte, though I seldom got to church on Sundays when assigned to serve. I do remember, though, at least one Easter service when our entire family showed up, dressed in our “Easter finery.” (This is the only memory I have of Ben at church.)
End of Part V
Copyright 2019 George Lamplugh
[Next: Part VI: A Dad Alone, 1964-1986]
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: