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Charmed Life

Fort Knocks

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 5/16/2001

Seventy-two year old Norman "Duke" Benton, his white dress shirt gleaming in the sun, stares at the cement monolith with mixed emotions. Recessed letters on the great slab read fort armistead park, a name that stirs warm memories in the gray-headed great-grandfather, memories of swimming and shoreline barbecues. Across these letters, however, runs an indecipherable scrawl of graffiti. "Whoever invented spray paint should be kicked in the head," Benton says with a scowl.

Welcome to the park at the end of the world--or at least the end of Baltimore, 35 scruffy green acres tucked in the city's southernmost nub. Thousands of motorists roar past Fort Armistead Park each day careening across Key Bridge, which arches majestically over the Patapsco River just north of the park. But few folks venture onto this spit of shoreline, orphaned as it amid a workaday wasteland--out past hardscrabble, industrialized Curtis Bay, out beyond the aptly named Chemical Road, the oil-tank farms, and pipe-riddled factories.

Such is the situation in 2001. Benton's mind, however, carries him decades back, to days of the Depression. "Families stuck together back then--brothers, sisters, cousins," he says. "There would be a hundred of us down here. You could almost just wade out and grab crabs and fish with your hands. It was just wonderful, and I aim to get it that way again."

Three years ago, Benton ventured back to this old childhood stomping ground and was appalled by scene: the trash, the decay, the parking lot where he says prostitutes of both sexes were plying their trade. Though a resident of Hanover in Anne Arundel County, he and several other "old-timers" adopted the city park. They posted save fort armistead posters, hauled out trash, and pestered Baltimore officials to spruce the place up. The city's Department of Recreation and Parks, newly bolstered by more than $4 million in state funds, has begun to help. The park's grass now gets cut regularly, and the streetlights have been repaired. In February, the city spent more than $100,000 to revamp the park's boat ramp.

"Oh, this brings back a lot of memories," Benton says, striding along the park's anemic beach of rust-colored sand. "You know, I was in Waikiki, and this beach is better," he adds, bending down to scoop up an empty potato-chip bag. "There you have these sharp rocks; you can't get out in the water."

There's certainly nothing Hawaiian about the gray-green water lapping Fort Armistead Park's pebbly shore. no swimming signs are posted about. "I think those same signs were here when I was kid," Benton says with a grin.

We walk the weathered gray boards of the park's pier, where a few fishermen point poles toward the open bay. Benton describes his seagoing exploits aboard a sub chaser in World War II, escorting allied convoys across the Atlantic. Though his vessel was actually a converted World War I-era steamer, the former Navy man boasts that the crew could still "show a sub a pretty good time." Indeed, he hadn't been on board but a few days when he spied his first submarine. His heart started to pound. The whole ship went on alert. "But then an officer came up to me," Benton says, sporting another grin. "He said, 'That's not a sub, you dummy. That's a whale.'"

Well, what did Benton know from whales? He was born in Pigtown and grew up in then-mostly rural Anne Arundel County. His main contact with water was here, at Fort Armistead, splashing about with his kinfolk. And after the war, he said goodbye to the sea and saw the world from behind the wheel of a long-haul 18-wheeler, a lonely and potentially hazardous job made more so by the cargo he usually carried: explosives. Mostly retired now, he spends a good chunk of time with charity work. "I intend to keep doing stuff until I die," he says, in a deep voice that calls to mind Johnny Cash.

No tour of Fort Armistead Park would be complete with a visit up beyond the parking lot to the fort itself, a cement warren of empty gun emplacements and bunkers shrouded in spray paint and Virginia creeper. Named for Col. George Armistead, the heroic commander of Fort McHenry during the British bombardment of 1814, the fort never fired a shot in anger. Erected for harbor defense in the 1890s, it was pretty much obsolete by the turn of the century. "There's a lot of potential here," Benton says as we explore the trash-strewn catacombs whose main use today seems to be as a teenage party spot.

For all his knowledge of Fort Armistead, Benton is unaware of its most famous visitor: President Bill Clinton, who gave a speech here in 1995 decrying environmental budget cuts. (With the Bethlehem Steel plant smoking away across the river, it was an apt choice of venue.) Perhaps it's time to get President George W. Bush out for a visit, I suggest. Benton brightens at the idea.

"Maybe I'll get in touch with him," he says.

I bet he will at that.

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