To the father who never knew about me, happy 103rd birthday

One hundred and three years ago this week, a baby boy was born in Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, to a young mother and her husband, a railroad worker. The baby was my biological father, although I never knew him and he never knew me. None of us – the three full siblings I found 14 years ago or me – believes Bob ever knew that one final flash of post-divorce passion with my birth mother Betty – whether a result of poor judgment, an attempt at reconciliation or something I’d rather not think about – had created another child.

My birth father Bob Workman — born Orval on Sept. 26, 1916 — with his parents Kathryn and Orval as a young boy.

If Betty, in her early pregnancy and after his arrest in a drunken domestic dispute, hadn’t moved her children to safety out of Huntington, West Virginia, and across the river to Ironton, Ohio – where she got a several-month gig singing with a band at an upscale hotel’s bar in summer 1960 – he surely would’ve found out about me. And that surely would’ve changed her life, my brothers’ and sister’s lives, and my life.

But I’m certain Betty’s love for her unborn baby, and her fervent wish to give him a safer, better life than she knew she was capable of, made the adoption decision for her long before I was born. As for Bob, I’d like to have met the man, but he drowned a 45-year-old homeless resident of Tampa in July 1962, when I was barely 16 months old and growing up a Texan in the great city of Houston. I don’t feel a compelling need for us to have met in this life.

Not the same with Betty, who died of lung cancer almost 27 years ago. I have an intense longing to not only meet her, but to hold her in the longest, most loving hug I’ve ever given anyone, to make up for all the hugs we’ve missed out on for 58 years. To thank her, to tell her how much I’ve missed her, to tell her about all the wonderful things I’ve learned about her from my siblings and other people I’ve talked to about their memories of her. To tell her it’s OK that she never told her children the truth about me, that I was alive and had been adopted. And to let her know how much I adore her beautiful singing voice, which I can listen to anytime, thanks to the priceless, reel-to-reel recordings we all heard for the first time nine years ago and I arranged for transfer to CDs.

Most important to me is that I’m able to tell Betty that I understand why she did what she did, that it was all because she loved me and wanted her baby to have the best possible outcome in a painfully difficult situation. She needs to know that I know and believe with every cell in my body that she made the right choice, even though my childhood didn’t turn out the way she’d hoped.

Bob served in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1937 to 1941.

But this post isn’t supposed to be about Betty. It’s Bob’s birthday. So, happy birthday to the man born Orval Bradford Workman, who changed his name to Robert “Bob” as a youth. About whose childhood my sibs and I know little. The guy who served his country for four years in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1937 to 1941, spending his last three months of duty in the Navy hospital in Norfolk, Virginia with ulcer and stomach problems before getting his honorable discharge the month our country was attacked at Pearl Harbor. The guy who played guitar and standup bass, was a talented refrigeration mechanic, and loved to shoot and develop his own photos. I’m sure Bob had many more gifts none of us know about.

About the poem you see below: My sister Terry isn’t sure when Bob wrote it to Betty. But sometime in the 1960s, the neighbor who lived next to my birth family when Bob was arrested early in Betty’s pregnancy in 1960 brought her a suitcase with photographs and papers that had been left behind when Betty swiftly packed up the kids and moved out of town that year. The poem was in that suitcase. Terry leans toward thinking Bob wrote it after Betty and the kids left town, but says it also could’ve been after Betty and Bob’s divorce became final in April 1959. Strangely enough, Terry and our brothers Crys and Robin were never even aware that our parents had divorced – until I was able to get a copy of the divorce decree from Cabell County a couple of months after I found my birth family in 2005.

Some of you have read the narrative I wrote about Bob that we published in The Dallas Morning News on Father’s Day 2017. The piece was a reworked version of the original honored at UNT’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in 2016. That original was published in Ten Spurs, the anthology of winners that UNT publishes each year. If you’d like to read it (it’s longer, and I know you’re not at all surprised), you can find it at the link below, which I’ve shortened for you. It starts on Page 32 (table of contents says 31).

Thanks for reading. And if you have a moment, please wish Bob a happy birthday in heaven.

The decree from Betty and Bob’s divorce in 1959. My oldest brother Crys says he remembers Bob being in and out of the picture for a while, but he and our brother Robin and sister Terry, who was just a little girl at the time, never actually knew that our parents had divorced.
Clippings from the Tampa Tribune about Bob’s death in July 1962. I got these from a fellow I found named Bill Hodgin, who was in the police report and had been one of the people on the boat that pulled Bob’s body to shore after he was found in the Hillsborough River the day after the fight.

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