[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.”]
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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.”
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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.
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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.
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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.)
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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.
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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)
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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.)
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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?
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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
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: