Growing Up Lansdowne is a photo-illustrated account of the author's childhood and adolescence in the mid to late 1950s and eventful 1960s in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, a conservative Philadelphia suburb.
The book is composed of 171 diverse essays depicting growing-up years in Lansdowne. Eight sections titled "Random Remembrances" record dozens of additional recollections. Assorted photographs are included to accent the narrative.
The book is part memoir, part social landscape, part local/national history, and part love story. The recollections reflect candor and vulnerability, and at times they are surprisingly personal. Essays present balanced portraits of family and community life and the general era without resorting to enhancement or exaggeration.
By its very design, Growing Up Lansdowne compels readers to make personal comparisons with their own hometowns and upbringing. The text touches upon memorable historical events and sensitive social issues of the times, and their impact on adolescent transition to adulthood.
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Growing Up Lansdowne
By Robert L. Bingham
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2015 Robert L. Bingham
All rights reserved.
UNION COUNTY, KENTUCKY
James Truman (J. T.) Bingham was born at home in Waverly, Union County, Kentucky, on November 14, 1910. He was the off spring of Thomas Cranston Bingham and Mary Althier Drury Bingham and the sixth of six children. J. T.'s father deserted the family before he was born, and as a result, J. T. grew up fatherless and impoverished. He was raised in a small, crowded home on Spaulding Street in Union County's county seat, Morganfield. He attended Morganfield public schools and graduated in a class of thirty-nine from Morganfield High School in 1928. He likely would have attended Catholic grade school and high school had family finances been improved.
Union County is located in western Kentucky approximately twenty-five miles southwest of Evansville, Indiana. The county is situated on almost thirty miles on the Ohio River and is bordered by Posey County, Indiana, to the north on the other side of the river. Hardin and Gallatin counties in Illinois lie to the west. County population in 1910 was almost 20,000, with the population declining slightly during J. T.'s youth and adolescence. I could not find a 1910 population total for Morganfield, but I suspect the town's population during J. T.'s childhood to be between 1,000 and 2,000. The racial composition of the county was 85 percent white, with the remaining population being primarily African-American.
Union County, then and today, is economically significant in agriculture and coal mining. The current county population is about 15,000, with Morganfield's population recorded at almost 3,300.
Please note that my parents are identified as J. T. and Esther throughout the book. I chose to use their first names for ease of identification for the reader, and I intend no disrespect. During my upbringing and into my adult life, I always referred to my parents as "Mom" and "Pop."CHAPTER 2
Tyler Mumford was a local businessman who wielded significant influence over J. T. during his youth and adolescence. Mumford was owner of the Union County Advocate, the county newspaper, which operates to this day. Mumford hired J. T. as a ten-year-old to sweep floors, run errands, answer the phone, and assist in other duties as needed. During elementary and junior high school years, J. T. would report to the Advocate office after school and work through the dinner hour. He also worked Saturdays during the school year and full time during summer recess.
J. T. was a quick learner who maximized the opportunity awarded him by kindly Mr. Mumford. Morganfield was a small town with fewer than 2,000 residents during J. T.'s youth, so Mumford was well aware that he was befriending a young boy who was forced to endure the ugly aftermath of an outrageous small-town scandal. Mumford also knew that J. T.'s earnings would help Mary Allie Bingham raise her six children without the benefit of their father's presence and financial support.
J. T. continued to learn and expand his knowledge base within the newspaper office, and as a junior high student, he compiled news stories over the phone, wrote minor copy, inked presses, bundled papers, and helped, as needed, as a pressman's assistant.
The work relationship between J. T. and the Advocate extended into high school, and while J. T. had to curb his work hours to participate in high school sports (basketball and track), he remained on the payroll as a reliable part-time employee of the newspaper.
As a graduating senior from Morganfield High School in 1928, college was not a realistic option, so J. T. secured a full-time position driving a coal wagon in a western Kentucky coal mine and worked evenings and Saturdays at the Advocate. About this time, Mumford approached J. T. to inform him that mechanisms could be set in motion to secure him a political appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point or the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. Was he interested?
After thoughtful consideration, J. T. answered yes, and in the summer of 1930, he entered the US Naval Academy as a midshipman. Why did he choose Annapolis over West Point? Strangely, I don't have the answer.
I learned the above history from J. T. approximately two years prior to his death while interviewing him for a graduate school assignment. The process included two lengthy interviews, which proved highly emotional and cathartic to my father. It was obvious that J. T. had much to say to me in order to set the record straight. At that time, J. T. knew that his prognosis was poor for colon cancer, but he took marked interest in accurately relaying the above story and answering my initial question as to how and why, at the height of the Great Depression, he had earned an appointment to the US Naval Academy.
It was during the second interview that I first saw J. T. cry as he intentionally revisited his relationship with Tyler Mumford. As he choked back tears that had been repressed for decades, J. T. cited the importance of Tyler Mumford's confidence in him as a person: "Tyler Mumford believed in me. That man believed in me."
Tyler Mumford's unselfish advocacy for a fatherless, impoverished little boy had made a resounding, lasting impact on my father, and it indirectly impacted me in turn as a father and an employer.
Understand the power and magnitude here, because in the brief twenty-nine years that my father and I shared, this second interview born out of a graduate school assignment was without question the base of our greatest emotional bond.
So many times during my adult life I've had opportunities to tell employees, students, and family members that I believed in them. "I'm proud of you" was a frequent response I utilized over the years. Everyone I've said that to can thank Tyler Mumford for understanding and acting upon the importance of simple encouragement.CHAPTER 3
THE LUCKY BAG
The Lucky Bag is the name of the United States Naval Academy's yearbook. Below is the senior profile of James Truman Bingham, class of '34. It was written in terms and references indigenous to the academy and US naval service at the time.
James Truman Bingham
"Admiral" "Bing" "Sunshine" "Bell-rope"
Little did James Truman Bingham realize what his birthplace was to do for him in 1910. Regardless, that great Commonwealth of beautiful horses and fast women produced its Candidate J. T. of old aristocratic Morganfield, Kentucky. Proceeding to the Naval Academy he was signally recognized and honored in being first in his class to board the good prison ship Mercedes. All this, during Plebe Summer before Bing had learned the innocent wiles of the non-reg as well as Navy Juniors, but then came four years of "War is Hell" and there emerges from the Academy its most finished product in that the Candidate of four years ago is lo: An Admiral! But 'tis not enough that his Commonwealth should present the only honors: athletically, Bing has gone high enough to set an unofficial Academy record in the high jump so any day now we expect the official thing and can't be particular whether it happens in a Track meet here, at the Penn Relays, or at the next Olympic games.
A true Kentucky Blue-blood couldn't fail the drags by even missing one hop so how it hurt Sunshine to initial the Watchbill which confined him to the Hall for that dance! Despite his appeal, our Bing has been true to his Cynara and deservingly earned that significant title, "Bell-rope."
Just Sunshine to the boys but Admiral to the fleet, his inherent qualities of breezy friendliness and sunshine have blossomed to give a good Navy man and infallible wife.
Track 4, 3, 2, 1, Log Board, Lucky Bag Staff Manager N. A. Cut Exchange 1 P.O.CHAPTER 4
Imagine one of those rare, opportune times with a parent when perfect circumstances unfold for an important and memorable conversation. I exploited that chance opportunity years ago with Esther, and I really did have that conversation.
It was late in Esther's life when she lived on the Upper Peninsula's Drummond Island, and her thought processes were not yet much dimmed by age. Her recall both to recent and distant events remained good at that time. Esther and I sat alone, late on a sunny, blue-skied afternoon on her deck as it looked out upon tranquil Pigeon Cove.
Somehow we were talking about Traverse City and her childhood. Based upon my knowledge of her upbringing and some likely cues from Esther, I remarked to her that Traverse must have been a wonderful place to grow up. Esther instantly beamed with her immediate retort: "It wasn't wonderful ... it was perfect." For that fleeting moment, I saw Esther thoroughly content and at peace with her upbringing.
I know little about Esther's childhood except for the fact that her teen and young adult years were impacted by the Great Depression. Unlike the majority of Depression-era adults, Esther's parents were never out of work. They always had jobs that were steady and secure. So, when many millions of Americans and their families were struggling, all was ensured at 911 State Street.
Esther LaRue Pitcher was born in Traverse City, Michigan, on May 7, 1916. She was the oldest of three children born to Floyd and Lenora Pitcher. Esther spent her entire childhood and adolescence in Traverse City living at 911 State Street in a narrow, deep house that is still standing today.
Esther had two younger siblings: William Barnard Pitcher (1921– 2000) and Jeannette "Jan" A. Pitcher McConnell (1928–2012). Both siblings graduated from Traverse City High School, as did their older sister. Bill served in the US Army in England during World War II as an airplane mechanic. After the war, he returned to Traverse City and married Nellie Wood, with that union producing five children, all girls. Bill worked for Railway Express and Milliken's Department Store in Traverse City before retiring.
Sister Jan was twelve years younger than Esther. By profession, Jan was a registered nurse, and she married Melvin McConnell in 1950. Melvin and Jan raised two girls in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and retired on Drummond Island from 1980 to 1983 until Mel passed from a heart attack. Jan spent much of her remaining years as a surgical nurse in Grand Rapids. Esther was especially fond of Jan, with whom she shared a strong physical resemblance.
During Esther's youth, Traverse City boasted a population of about ten to twelve thousand while serving as the principle city for northwestern Michigan. It was a major summer vacation center, and "Traverse," as the locals called it, was also recognized as "the Cherry Capital of the World."
Esther attended Traverse City High School, from which she graduated in 1934. I cannot speak as to her grades or classes or activities, because I have no knowledge of them. I do know that she was an accomplished swimmer, and at one point she lifeguarded on Lake Michigan at one of Traverse City's beaches. She also liked to snow ski and ice skate. She was a popular student in high school and was very active socially. Family photos reveal Esther as a beautiful teenage girl.
She was friendly with the Milliken family in town and knew William Milliken, six years her junior, who served as Michigan's governor from 1969 to 1983. She was also romantically linked to a Traverse City High School classmate, Dick Canada, with that relationship interrupted by J. T.'s momentous visit to Traverse City in the mid-1930s.
The Traverse City that Esther knew as a youth was a safe and prosperous city. While Esther's childhood may have been "perfect" in her mind, J. T.'s was not, for multiple reasons. I always found this contrast fascinating, since Esther and J. T. came from two different worlds. Esther grew up safe and secure in northwestern Michigan, while J. T. endured a tough childhood in western Kentucky.
After high school graduation, Esther briefly attended Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant. She had wanted to be a teacher, but she returned to Traverse City after completing only one semester. The reason for her abrupt return home is unknown.
Upon Esther's retirement to Michigan late in life, I suggested to her that despite her spending forty plus years of her life in the Philadelphia area, it was almost as if she'd never left Michigan. Her response to my observation was an impish wink.CHAPTER 5
J. T. AND ESTHER: THE MARRIAGE
The oral family history reveals that my parents met in Traverse City when Esther was employed working the front desk at the Park Place Hotel, the premiere hotel in Traverse City at the time. J. T. was in town on business, and apparently their meeting as he checked into the Park Place set the sparks flying. I am unclear as to where J. T. lived at the time, although I never heard either J. T. or Esther mention his working anywhere but Philadelphia prior to 1937, so I am naturally curious as to how this was all staged. J. T. initiated a major letter-writing campaign to woo Esther, an action that angered Esther's mother, Lenora Pitcher. You see, there was one little complication. Esther was engaged to marry Dick Canada at the time she met J. T.
As a youth, I had heard about Dick Canada through casual family conversation. He was billed to me as Esther's principle romantic interest in high school and not as a man she was engaged to marry. My sense is that, like Esther, he attended Traverse City High School and came from an established Traverse City family.
J. T.'s long-distance courtship obviously stirred the pot, with Pitcher relatives taking different sides in the conversation. There is even some handed-down folklore that suggests that Grandmother Pitcher actually hid J. T.'s letters to Esther, only for them to be retrieved and eventually delivered to Esther by Great-grandmother Sexton, the Quaker woman who played a major role in raising Esther and her siblings. How all of this transpired, and how the scale shifted from Dick Canada to J. T., is likely history lost. It is significant to note, however, that no reference was ever made to Bill or me about the Pitcher-Canada engagement. That news came late in my life from a cousin on the Pitcher side.
James Truman Bingham wed Esther LaRue Pitcher on August 25, 1937, in Elk Rapids, Michigan. The ceremony was performed in a small Catholic church at a time when both groom and bride were required by the Catholic Church to profess Catholicism. This mandatory conversion for Esther from the Congregational Church to Catholicism likely irritated and disappointed many within her family. I do not know who officiated or the time of the event. I do not know who was in the wedding party, including best man and maid of honor. I do know that J. T.'s mother and his three sisters drove up from Louisville to attend the ceremony.
We can speculate that the wedding was likely small and simple, since it was held in the midst of the Great Depression. Neither family, the Binghams nor the Pitchers, was well-off financially, and the depression taught and demanded prudent restraint. I doubt as well that Esther wore a traditional wedding dress because of the expense. I further speculate that the reception was likely held at my grandparents' house at 911 State Street in Traverse City. My best guess is that J. T. and Esther honeymooned for a few days in northern Michigan.
The newlyweds lived in an apartment on Spruce Street in West Philadelphia for three years, until J. T. was called up by the navy in 1941. The relocation to West Philadelphia certainly was a total shock for this small-town Midwestern girl, but Philadelphia was where J. T.'s job was headquartered. It is hard to imagine Esther liking life in a major eastern city when she hailed from such a homogenous and protected setting as Traverse City. At best she tolerated it. Less than two months into the marriage, Esther was pregnant with Bill, who was born in Philadelphia on July 25, 1938.
Prewar and wartime years in Pensacola, Florida, at the US Naval Air Station from from 1941 to 1944 were "the best years of our marriage" per Esther. Despite the start of US involvement in the conflict, Pensacola was a popular assignment because of the climate and Gulf Coast beaches. J. T. had a high-profile but demanding position as Chief Information Officer at the US Naval Air Station, and he met the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, numerous US senators and representatives, foreign dignitaries, and popular entertainers.
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