[Note: In honor of Father’s Day, I wish again to recognize Ben Lamplugh, whose story has occupied so much of this blog over the past couple of years (2019–2020). Here I combine lightly edited excerpts from the “Introduction” to the series and the final episode, to provide both an overview of his life and some sense of our relationship.]
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Here is a quick sketch of my father, Ben Lamplugh. He was stocky, red-headed, usually quiet, and skilled with his hands. He might, or might not, have graduated from high school. One of his children remembers hearing that Ben 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.
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 was not, at first, prepared gracefully to accept his wife Betts’ desire to return to the workforce once their three children were in school, but the family’s perilous financial situation—not to mention Betts’ insistence that she would go back to work, no matter what he thought—apparently combined to win his grudging assent.
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 to sleep before the television set.
The family owned one car, which Ben needed when his part-time jobs required him to work on weekends, as they frequently did. Family vacations were few, but Ben occasionally could be persuaded to drive the family somewhere (anywhere!), to visit our grandparents in Delaware, for instance, or to have a picnic along a Maryland highway.
Ben loved his family as much as he was able, and he tried to fulfill his role of father, and “head of the household,” in the 1950s. Still, Ozzie Nelson (of “Ozzie and Harriet” fame) or Jim Anderson (“Father Knows Best”), sitcom symbols of Fatherhood in post-World War II America, Ben was not. He also didn’t relish his role as disciplinarian that Betts sometimes required when her efforts to bring order to the household fell short of success. In frustration, Betts would warn us 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 could tell just by looking at him that Ben would rather have been anywhere else at that moment!
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. He died on December 23, 1986, a few weeks short of his sixty-sixth birthday.
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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 Rick, Ben actually told him more than once that he was proud of me, though I don’t recall Dad saying that in my hearing when I was growing up. In fairness, though, I do remember that, late in his life, during our infrequent telephone calls, Ben might tell me that he loved me, to which I reciprocated as best I could.
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 my brother Rick’s words, Ben Lamplugh “might not have always been the father we wanted, but he was the only father we had.” And Ben tried–God knows he tried!– to be a good father to us. I know that now. I only wish I had grasped it earlier. . . .
HAPPY FATHER’S DAY, BEN!
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: