Saluting my big brother Robin, a Vietnam vet and a hell of a ballplayer who joined our parents in heaven 13 years ago

Sunday marked 13 years since Robert “Robin” Mason Workman, one of my three older full siblings who spent the first 44 years of my life not knowing me, left this world for another at age 61. A death that, like my best friend Doug’s in 2002 at 45, left me asking God why.

Why would he take a man in his prime who had dedicated so much of his life working so hard for his family? Why would he hurt those who love that man so much by escorting him to the afterlife when he still had so much to do for so many, so much of himself to give, so much more compassion to show?

Robin, like me, went gray prematurely. But I did so in my 40s — Robin was already turning when he came back from Vietnam at age 21 in February 1969. By his early 30s, he was entirely gray.

We’ve all suffered — and heard and read about in the news almost daily — devastating losses of too-young-to-die loved ones to cancer and other illnesses, accidents and too many causes to count. Regardless of where our faith may fall, many of us are left with the same questions about life’s — or fate’s — injustices.

Surely it was just the other day I made the 12-hour drive from my home in Arlington, Texas, to Robin’s in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, to join his family and our sister Terry beside his hospital bed while he fought to stay on this side. His lifelong avoidance of doctors had laid Robin out almost a month earlier with a simultaneous heart attack, stroke, two blocked carotid arteries, and undiagnosed diabetes and dangerously high cholesterol.

Early that January 2009, as Robin lay fading in and out of consciousness, the staff had advised his wife Barbara that he had no chance of recovering, and that the plug should be pulled. Yet, I think we all — including their two grown sons, Sean and Cory, who have since inconceivably joined their dad in heaven — refused to give up.

I know I did. Or maybe I was too naive to grasp the gravity of Robin’s condition, the damage to his body and the distance he had to run just to make it a competitive race with death.

My second opportunity to spend time with Robin in the three and a half years we’d known each other was not what I’d wished for during the times we’d talk on the phone. When I’d try pulling him out of constant work mode at the Starcade billiards hall he co-founded to join me on a tour of spring training camps, including that of his beloved Atlanta Braves and my long-adored Houston Astros.

Robin and our sister Terry in the late 1950s at their home in Huntington. This photo no doubt was taken by our father Bob before our parents divorced in April 1959. It’s cool how he purposely had them not look at the camera. Robin was probably 11 and Terry 4.

I was certain life would be tenderhearted enough to give us plenty of time to catch up on being brothers. For me to learn more from him about his life, his memories of our parents and his childhood. About who Robin Workman really is.

I know he was a great baseball player as a kid. I know that, like our mother, he was a talented singer, as he proved when he auditioned to be the lead vocalist in a garage band in our hometown of Huntington, West Virginia, called The Shamrockers in 1962, when he wasn’t quite 15 and most of the other guys had just graduated from Huntington East High with our brother Crys. One of the songs Robin was best-known for belting out, I’ve been told, was “House of the Rising Sun,” made famous in 1964 by The Animals. Another high school friend told me how Robin earned the part singing “Ol’ Man River” — I assume in a production of Show Boat — in eighth or ninth grade.

After he graduated from Huntington East in 1965, Robin kept playing baseball while working at a drugstore. An outfielder and lefty pitcher, he’s third from right on the front row. After this 1966 summer season he joined the Air Force, following in the footsteps of our brother Crys, who finished his four-year stint the same year.

I also know Robin was devoted to his little sister (my big sister), whom he took care of in the early 1960s after Crys graduated and joined the Air Force in 1962 while our single mother Betty worked as a drugstore clerk. I know Robin loved the people in his life, from his family to his friends to his work colleagues to the regulars who came to his Starcade in Fort Walton to shoot pool.

And I know Robin, like Crys, Terry and everyone who knew her, loved Betty dearly. When she succumbed to lung cancer five days before Christmas 1992 at 71, Robin was back home with her in Huntington. Our father Bob, Betty’s first of two heavy-drinking husbands, had suffered a tragic end when he drowned in Tampa 30 years earlier after slipping into homelessness, unable to escape alcohol’s unrelenting grip.

Robin, who was born in July 1947, with our mother Betty in Huntington and their cocker spaniel Ginger.

When it comes to time, though, life doesn’t care if we have enough. That’s why, cliche as it may seem, we all have to love, learn and live for every moment as if it’s our last. See your friends (I know, not always easy in pandemic times) often. Call the people you love most. Send lots of texts — my sibs will tell you it’s what I do. Stay connected and let people know how much they mean to you.

Those three and a half years I knew Robin? I didn’t make the most of them. I didn’t get to Florida to visit him and his family. All I’m left with is a handful of memories of our brief time together, the memories Terry and Crys have shared about him, and some really great photos of him during all periods of his life. As with Crys, I’ve also been lucky to “meet” some childhood friends of Robin’s through Facebook, and some of them have pulled up some wonderful memories of him for my benefit.

As a tribute to Robin, I’m saving the last section of this post for two of his friends. Actually, these fellows were more than friends — they were two of Robin’s Air Force comrades during the 362 days he was stationed at Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam from February 1968 to February 1969.

First, some backstory:

When Robin died, Barb generously gave me the Zippo lighter that he and his AF comrades exchanged as gifts while they were stationed in Nam. The names of the members of the “Animal Den,” the hut where he and his unit were assigned, are inscribed on it, along with Snoopy. In April 2014, a little over five years after Robin’s death, I started thinking about the lighter and how it would be cool to try to find any of his buddies listed on it to see what memories they might have of Robin from his time in Vietnam.

Robin and his Animal Den mates gave one another Zippo lighters as gifts with their names on them.

So I did a Google search and found a website dedicated to history, memories and other information about Bien Hoa, and incredibly, the site included email addresses for a couple of the guys on the lighter, Joe Moore and Rich Moyle. That night after work, I emailed them. The next day, Rich sent me an informative reply with very kind things to say about Robin, including how sorry he was that he’d passed away.

Then when I arrived at work the following day, I had an email from Joe. Not only did he send a detailed email, but he also sent several photos of Robin from Vietnam. I never expected anyone to have photos of Robin in Vietnam and was blown away to see those — they brought tears to my eyes. Neither Crys nor Terry had ever seen them.

Rich wrote that he was the longest-serving Animal Den member, having been at Bien Hoa from May 1967 to July 1969 — 823 days, he said (like Robin when he told me about his service, very precise about his time in Nam).

As both men wrote about Robin, who was the den’s cook, they were happy to hear about my having found him and our two other siblings after so long not being a family. Rich also talked about Robin being “a strong man and a very active member of our hut.”

“He regularly got involved in whatever activities would come along and one of the first to jump in,” Rich wrote. “I think it would be fair to say that as a cook he could hang with the best of them! Although when you eat the same thing day after day when no supplies come in or food runs out the cooks catch hell every time! There was a lot of expectation that at least the cooks would make the day by conjuring up something tasty! Usually they did as well.”

I’m going to include Joe’s entire email here because it includes much more info specific to Robin.

****

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your letter and the information about Rob. 

I have read Rich Moyle’s letter to you and I wholly concur in all he wrote about Rob, or Robby, as I often called him. Of course I remember him very well. I can see his face as he looked then and I can hear his voice as though I just heard it this morning. He was a fun-loving young man and had a great sense of humor, as you no doubt well know. I have chuckled all these years every time I’ve thought of his quick greeting on the telephone at Food Services Ration Breakdown—“Robby Ration, Workman Breakdown!” Everyone liked him; I don’t know of an individual who didn’t.   

Rob left Bien Hoa on the afternoon of 23 February 1969. The Post-Tet Offensive had started with attacks on our base, and all over South Vietnam, early that morning. They struck Bien Hoa just after 2 a.m., and we had several attacks thereafter until daylight. So Rob’s last night at Bien Hoa was far from peaceful, and you can imagine how it added to his apprehension of getting hit by a rocket on his last day in the war. Fortunately there were no hits close to our hut that night/morning (although there was one near me as I had night duty in another location), and Rob got off all right. Because I had night duty, working as a clerk in the Base Billeting Office, I was off duty during the day when nearly all the others in our hut were at work—I supposedly slept during the day, but never got much sleep during those last months.

This is one of the photos Joe Moore was gracious enough to send me in 2014 of Robin from his time in Vietnam. I love that some of the images are in color.

Anyway, I went with Rob down to the 8th Aerial Port terminal (Bien Hoa Air Base terminal) to see him off. I helped carry his bags and waited with him until he boarded his plane—and I stayed and watched his plane until it was safely airborne and high enough to be safe from ground-to-air rockets. Actually I watched it until it faded from view, east bound toward the South China Sea and over the Pacific to California. So I was the last of his hut mates to see him at Bien Hoa. 

Rob got there a few weeks after the big Tet attacks of 31 January 1968. Rich can tell you about those rough days. Rob arrived about a month later, toward the end of February, but the offensive was still on and he went through a number of rocket and mortar attacks in the early weeks and months of his tour.  He would have arrived a few days before the attack of 28 February 1968 in which a bunker just two huts down from the Animal Den was hit and 12 men killed, with some 24 more injured. That was the worst single enemy hit, in terms of fatalities, that occurred at Bien Hoa during the war, and it was a rough way for Rob to get his initiation into the war.

The men in our hut (of course they were just boys, mostly 19-20 years old) who were there for that attack were changed by it; they were different from those of us who arrived later and never experienced anything that severe. The war was very real to them; they had seen and knew what it could do. Those boys had to grow up fast. That said, of course we were always aware of how much better off we were than all those other boys out in the field.

Another of the photos of Robin in Nam, courtesy of Joe Moore. I think I like this one even more than the previous one.

I’ll attach some photos of Rob made at Bien Hoa. If you have any specific questions that I might answer, don’t hesitate to ask them. Rich, however, knew Rob longer and better than I did, but I’ll do the best I can.

With warm regards, 
Joseph “Joe” Moore

****

While doing some online searches last year, I found that a reunion of Bien Hoa servicemen was scheduled for early fall in Branson, Missouri. I’d have loved to attend and see if I might find anyone else who knew Robin, but I didn’t want to interfere with the reunion.

It was incredibly considerate of both these veterans to spend time writing and sharing so much about their old friend and comrade with a stranger in Texas. It’s been almost eight years since our last correspondence, but I’m hoping both are still alive. I’m going to reach out to them, share this post, and see if they’ll visit with me by phone about their memories of Vietnam and Robin.

We love you, Robbie Ration.

That’s me with Robin and Barb the first time I met them, in April 2006 when they traveled to Houston for a billiards industry conference. We had a wonderful dinner at the hotel where they were staying and the conference was being held.
Robin (right) and big brother Crys team up for some football in the backyard at their home on Eighth Avenue in Huntington in the late 1950s. That’s the neighbors’ car, not the Workmans’.

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