This sentimental image from 1944 shows my biological father Bob Workman holding my brother Crystal “Crys” Edward Workman on the front porch of the family’s rented home at 315 32nd St. in far east Huntington, West Virginia, just across the Guyandotte River from the tiny community with the river’s name.
It’s a split-second of poignant perfection: Bob staring with love and fatherly pride at his firstborn, his right index finger crossing the baby’s tiny right leg, his left arm cradling Crys as he straddles the porch steps. Oh, for a time machine to transport back to this very time and place.
The innocence of this memory make it the most touching I’ve seen of the man — born in 1916 and drowned in Tampa in 1962, homeless and just 45 — whose genes are within me. Although we share almost nothing in appearance (I look much more like my sister Terry and our mother Betty), Bob and I have a bond that can never be undone.
Because of what I’ve learned about the anguish that Bob’s drinking, his molestation of Crys during his childhood, and his other flaws brought to my long-unknown family, seeing a tender moment like this can only lift up how I feel about and toward Bob. This is the only shot of Bob and Crys together I’ve seen. I’m sure it’s the only one that exists.
Crys, the first child of Bob and Betty (I was the fourth and final), was born Feb. 28, 1944, almost five years after the couple married. They lived several years on 32nd Street with Bob’s widowed mother, Kathryn, who worked as a caretaker at the Huntington State Hospital, established in the late 1890s as the Home for Incurables and still operating today as the Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital, a teaching facility for the mental health care profession.
The Workman family’s house of the early 1940s, long since demolished, faced a massive white stone floodwall built after the Great Ohio River Flood of 1937. The disaster made a fast-rising, raging monster of the Ohio and devastated Huntington and other cities along the river, killing 385 in the five states through which it roams. The mouth of the Guyandotte where it meets the Ohio is mere yards north of where the Workmans lived.
Bob’s father, my grandfather Orval, died of a heart attack at age 49 in 1937 while working for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad in Logan, West Virginia. Kathryn, too, would die young, at 52, the year after Crys was born. My three older siblings never knew any of our grandparents, as Betty’s mother and father also died tragically early — her mother Olive “Ollie” Helen Rowe Campbell at 32 from hysterectomy complications in 1934, and her father Elmer Edward “Ed” Campbell of a heart attack at 45 in 1942. We have only a handful of photos of the four of them.
Likewise, sadly, there are no family group photos of Bob, Betty, Crys, Terry and our late brother Robin. Crys says he can’t recall one ever being taken before our parents’ divorce in April 1959, when Crys was 15, Robin almost 12 and Terry barely 4 years old. (B&B conceived me about a year later, just before any sliver of hope for them was lost when Bob was arrested after a drunken quarrel; Crys says they never saw him again.)
So I cherish the bonding, however brief, you see here, when father and son were one. I’m blessed to know and love the son, who’ll turn 78 on Feb. 28 — remarkably, the same day I’ll turn 61. And I’m blessed to have forgiven the father after tightly clenching resentment for years after learning of our unshakable connection.