Three siblings and my wife Kay gathered by video call Sunday evening to celebrate a birthday, remembering and sharing memories of a brother who left this world in his 61st year on January 9, 2009. For over 90 minutes while catching up on one another’s lives and families, we spent around 30 reminiscing about Robin, wishing we could’ve been celebrating his 74th with him.
Robert Mason Workman was a man who, along with our brother Crys and sister Terry, I’d never heard of until June 2005. They, too, were stunned to learn of my existence, but none more than Sis, who, at 5 when our mother Betty and our father Bob — divorced just over a year — fatefully conceived me in May 1960, remained innocently oblivious throughout the pregnancy.
At least the boys knew what was going on, but they gave up on me after Betty came home from Cabell Huntington Hospital in early March 1961 with no child, saying, at least to Crys, that she’d lost the baby. In the few short years I was fortunate to know Robin before his death from a heart attack and stroke, thinking we had plenty of time for all my questions, I never asked him how Betty explained me away to him when he was just 13.
When we set up our Google Duo video call earlier Sunday, I hadn’t told Terry and Crys that I hoped they might share a special memory or two of Robin. They’ve always been so gracious about gifting me their recollections of our parents and their lives growing up in Huntington, West Virginia, where I lived only about the first 10 months of my life with my adoptive family before we moved to Houston.
But when I sprang it on them during the call, they were accommodating as always, because they know how much it means to me to learn everything I can about the family I didn’t know until I was 44 and the parents I never met. They realize the blessing that my finding them 16 years ago has been for all of us, and they’ve never said no to my requests to hear more.
A bit of backstory: Born Feb. 28, 1944 — 17 years to the day before me — Crys is the oldest of us four. After graduating from Huntington East High in 1962, he and best friend Bill Earl joined the Air Force that September. Crys served much of his stint in La Junta, Colorado, and when it was up, he moved back to Huntington, enrolled in Marshall University and soon took a job at the local NBC affiliate, WSAZ-TV.
Robin graduated from HEHS three years after Crys. He went to work for a local drugstore — Betty had already spent several years as a clerk at Lawrence Drug, another business downtown — and a year later, he followed Crys by also joining the Air Force. So, when one of my brothers was getting out of the service, the other was joining up.
Stationed in the Florida Panhandle at Eglin Air Force Base — on whose grounds sits Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport — Robin didn’t escape service in Vietnam. He told me he was stationed three days short of a year at Bien Hoa Air Base, about 15 miles northeast of Saigon, from February 1968 to late February ’69. Although he and his comrades never saw combat duty, they survived plenty of bombings by the Viet Cong. Robin was just 20 when he set foot in South Vietnam — days before the attack of Feb. 28, when a bunker two huts down from the “Animal Den” in which he spent his year was struck, killing 12 men.
Crys remembers how worried our mother was about Robin during his time in Vietnam. He says Robin didn’t talk much about what happened over there, but he feels certain that Robin suffered from PTSD, which didn’t become a known affliction until decades later.
“It was bad,” Crys says. “Some of the nights they (Robin and the other airmen) spent in the bunkers listening to the bombing going all around them and the shelling from the Viet Cong. They had to carry sidearms with them on their supply runs they made all the time. … They weren’t really protected that much.”
Seven years ago when I found some of the men who served with Robin in Nam, two of them shared memories and photos of him with me. I’d love to write about some of those here, but I’ll save them for another time. This post is for special moments my brother and sister spent with Robin.
Crys shared first. When Robin got back from Nam in late February ’69, he took some leave and went home to Huntington to visit the family (I’d say “our,” but I wouldn’t join the family for several more decades). At the time, Crys and his girlfriend Charlene — who would become his wife — had an apartment near Huntington High in the west end of town. Robin, whose hair transformed from brown to entirely gray by his early 30s, dropped by. Months from turning 22, the gray was already coming in. War will do that to a man.
“I told him how proud of him I was,” Crys says of his little brother. “I got out my guitar and we both took turns playing and he sang. It was great. I really enjoyed it. It was a moment for me and I’ll never forget it.”
During high school and in the year after he graduated, Robin had been a member of a local garage band called The Shamrockers. All the other guys were several years older — some graduated with Crys in ‘62 — but I’ve talked to a couple and they remember how Robin auditioned to be the vocalist when they were getting started that year. He was a natural. “House of the Rising Sun” is one song Terry especially remembers Robin singing with the group, but they played dozens of songs — whatever the hit music of the time was.
Robin and his girlfriend, Barbara, whom he’d met in Fort Walton Beach while in the service, married in November 1970 and ran her father’s souvenir shop in town. Crys recalls a few months after he and Charlene got married on Earth Day the following April, they went to FWB for a late honeymoon and stayed with Robin and Barb, hanging out on the beach during the day while R&B worked, then going out to dinner together in the evenings.
That summer, Crys graduated from Marshall, and he and Charlene moved to Denver. Now a 77-year-old father of three and a grandfather of five, he’s been in Colorado ever since.
For Terry, Robin became like a father figure after Crys joined the Air Force. There’s an almost 11-year age difference between Crys and Terry, and it’s almost seven and a half years between Robin and Sis, who had always been the baby of the family — until I came along at age 44.
With Robin 15 and starting 10th grade and Terry not turning 8 until that December, it fell to Robin to take care of his little sister until Betty arrived in the evenings at their rented home on First Avenue by bus (she never had a driver’s license) from her full-time job at the drugstore. He was a star baseball player and would drag Terry to practice and games, make after-school snacks and often dinner for her (fried bologna sandwiches, tomato soup, grilled cheese). To this day, she can’t stand bologna.
“Robin had to take care of me because Mother worked,” Terry says. “I know it was a pain for me to be with him, but he knew he had to do it for Mother. When he had baseball practice or any of those types of things, I had to go with him. I tried not to be a pest — I’m sure I was many a time. If he had to play a game and there was a concession stand, I got all the money I wanted because they all just kept me out of their hair. I was spoiled. I always was entertained by his friends and him with money … to get lost.”
Robin even disciplined Terry when he felt it necessary. She’s told me about this episode several times — and she told us again Sunday.
“I sassed him and he smacked me in the face and my nose started to bleed,” she says. “Mom said I have to lift my neck up and go back and swallow the blood, and then a big clot came out and we thought something had come loose in my brain. Robin was terrified. He never did it again.”
Kay and the three of us siblings got a huge laugh out of that retelling.
“But I adored Robin,” Terry says. “I just truly adored him. He was a handsome guy, and all I knew was he was my big brother and he was to take care of me, and I guess was like a father to me … what I needed.”
Then, in 1966, it was like our two brothers switched roles — Robin left for the Air Force, Crys got his discharge and the chance to catch up spending time with his sister, who turned 12 in December of that year.
“When Crys came home, I started loving on him,” Terry says. “Things were changing in the world and he was so good to me. I remember I didn’t have many clothes, and he gave me money and told me to go downtown and buy some. He used to take me to the skating rink. He had a cool Corvette and then a cool MGB GT … and then my life began with Crys for a while.”
After Robin finished in the Air Force and settled down with his new wife in Fort Walton Beach, Terry was in high school. During the summers, she spent time with Robin and Barbara, worked at the souvenir shop and explored a bit of her wild side. (“I got in trouble a few times with Robin. What did I know, I was wild and crazy!”) She even tried staying there and going to high school one fall, but ended up being homesick for her friends in Huntington and moved back.
Knowing that other adoptees’ quests to find their roots often end with rejection and heartache, I consider myself extremely fortunate. My three siblings with whom I share two parents not only accepted me, they’ve gone out of their way to be receptive to my every curiosity and journalistic pursuit of answers. Even if I weren’t a journalist, I’d still want to know everything possible; it’s just my nature.
I remember the first time I spoke to Robin on the phone. It was when Kay, the kids and I drove to Colorado to meet Crys, Terry and their families in July 2005, and we were at Terry’s home in Arvada. I went into her guest room at the back of the house and sat on the bed, talking to Robin for about 15 minutes. It was a somewhat awkward conversation, not the smooth and easy ones I’d had from the start with Terry and Crys since first reaching out to them three weeks earlier.
Robin, I sensed, was still a bit disbelieving that this could really be true, suspicious that I was really their brother. But he and Terry were always so close, and in my heart, I knew he believed that if she was certain this was the real thing, it must be. During our Colorado visit, Crys, Terry and I had a DNA test, and it proved that we’re full siblings, giving Robin no reason to carry any more doubts. I know, though, that until he passed away in the hospital — where Terry, Barb, their sons Sean and Cory, Barb’s sister Debi and I had sat with him, keeping hope he’d pull through — Robin never understood why Betty never told them the truth about me.
I’m grateful for the time Robin and I had together, although like we do so often when we lose loved ones, I wish I hadn’t taken for granted that he’d be around for many years to come. And although I don’t have a lifetime of shared experiences with my three biological sibs, I’ll always cherish that we’ve been given this second chance at being together for as long as life allows us.
Happy birthday, Robin. We all love and miss you.