Photo of KARL M. WEST, PVT 253 INF 63 DIV
The Story of Karl Marion West
Written by Leslie Nelson based on interviews with his sister, Hazel, and his own letters to his wife
The winter wind was biting but the soldier did not notice the cold. The pain all that his mind could focus on. The end for him was near, he could sense it. It was December 1944, in Neiderbroon, France, a time that would later be named the Battle of the Bulge. Some 80,000 soldiers lost their lives here. Karl Marion West was one of them.
As he lay there in the snow, his clothes wet and his body rendered immobile by the pain, his eyes tightly closed, his nostrils assaulted by the smell of death. Fear threatened to overcome him, and he struggled to keep control. His years of boxing had taught him to steel himself against the pain, to think in spite of it and yet the pain in the ring was never like this. Then like waking from a nightmare, the pain, the sounds, and the stench stopped.
Slowly, he opened his eyes. The scene that registered in his consciousness was not one of a snow covered battlefield, but a home tidy and warm. In the corner was a woman bathing an infant. It only took a moment for the recognition to come. It was his mother. How beautiful she was! Oh, how he loved her. Seeing her again after so many years awed him and drove everything else from his mind. There was also a young girl standing near by. Who? His mind started the question, but before he could finish, he heard his mother's soft voice, "Yes Marzelle, he is beautiful." Marzelle? But that was his older sister, then his minded grasped it, the baby was him. He could feel their love and it warmed him.
Too quickly though, the scene changed. His mother, Elma, lay in a bed feverish, weak and dying. It was 1918, and the flu stalked like the angel of death. He heard the hushed whispers of the adults, "epidemic." Elma been brought low by the flu already and recovered. Then her sister fell sick, and Elma insisted on tending her. She believed perhaps that since she had already had the flu she would be immune. But her body already weakened from the flu and from the birth of her son Alma, now just a week old, could not with stand this second assault and she succumbed. Marion was a mere six years old at the time.
As water flows through a river at times peaceful and almost still, other times dangerously passing over rocks with a powerful force, so the memories continued. He was powerless to stop them, though at times he longed too. It was after his mother's death that the difficulty began. He and his siblings were first sent to live with his father's parents. They were such loving people, but Grandma, Julia West, was beginning to suffer the arthritis that would plague her for the last 15 years of her life. So his sister Hazel, and the baby, Alma, stayed with their grandparents while Marion, and his sisters, Marzelle and Virginia were bounced around with no more control than twigs in the river. These were difficult years for Marion. He was made to work very hard even though he was but a young child. It was during this time that he began to stutter. Unfortunately, this made things more difficult for him. People, even family, were impatient and unkind about his stuttering. They tolerated him because times were hard and he could work.
When he was eight, his father remarried, and all the children except Alma went to live with their father and his new wife. His sister, Hazel, cried when they had to leave their grandparents. They were like a mother and father to her. Their new mother, Veralda, just a child herself, was only ten years older than Marzelle. In later years they would joke that they had grown up together. Veralda was loving and patient with the children and they adored her. They called her "mother" and they called Elma "mama." Marion's relationship with his father was difficult however. His father said he believed "spare the rod, spoil the child," For his purposes the "rod" could be the belt, the strap, the willow stick or even fists. His father was convinced that his son could stop stuttering if he really wanted to, and so he tried to motivate him with "the rod."
There were choice memories too though, as the river of memories calmed. The siblings were very close. Oh what good times they had together, laughter and smiles attended them often! There never was a family that had as much fun together as they did. Others noticed and mentioned it too. Marion smiled as he remembered the fun times they had at Riverside, a place near Phoenix, Arizona, where they went swimming. There was a 30-foot tower that was such fun to dive off of. It was so refreshing during those hot desert days. He chuckled as he remembered urging Hazel to jump off of it. She was apprehensive, but he urged her to do it. He didn't want her to be afraid of anything. Like many little sisters who adore their older brothers, she was willing to do almost anything he asked. And so she plunged. She landed badly and was fortunate to escape injury. Diving came so easily to him, that it had not dawned on him to coach her on diving.
A pass time all the siblings enjoyed was driving. In those days, you didn't need a license to drive. Hazel was the exception. She didn't want to drive. As he had so often done in other areas, he offered his reassurance and support, but that was one lesson she would not take from him. She did not commit herself to driving until after she was married. He chuckled to himself. Maybe she didn't want to repeat the Riverside diving experience on the road. Those were magical times. He had always been close to Hazel and wanted to protect her. It was inevitable that one day she asked him what he thought about a certain boy at school who had asked her out. He was a handsome young man, and very popular. His reputation was not a good one, however. Marion, who had experienced enough pain because of others unkind words to him, never wanted to speak unkindly about anyone. He did not want to be the cause of someone else's pain. And yet, he could not let Hazel date that boy. Finally, he just looked at her soberly and said, "Jim, is a hell-of-good guy, but I don't want to catch you out with him." Reflecting on it, he felt satisfaction in that. He had done many things in his life that he was not proud of, but one thing he knew, he had never spoken ill about another person. Never used his tongue to inflict pain . . . his fists on the other hand, well that was different story.
The river of memories ebbed and widened, the siblings married, but their close, loving relationships continued. Marzelle's husband was very interested in boxing. To Marion his zeal was contagious. Boxing was good physical exercise. Okay, he admitted to himself that was not why he did it. After years of ridicule and belittlement by others, including his father, it was gratifying to vent some of that resentment and anguish. Whenever he fought there was at first nervousness and fear, but then the survival instinct took over. A survival instinct, which had been nurtured by years of mistreatment, soon earned him the title "Welter Weight Champion of the Southwest." Still, the fighting did cause some problems. Often when he went to bars, which he did too often he recalled with a sigh, other men with a just enough liquor in them to erode common sense, would get the idea into their head to fight him. Many of such had their common sense forcibly renewed.
Another time there was the guy who didn't know of Marion's title, but took offense to someone's comment about "Oakies." "There are plenty of fine people in Oklahoma. I know because I'm from there," he had said. To which Marion replied, "Yes, there are, but none of them ever left." That was it, next thing he knew they were outside. Marion couldn't resist teasing the guy a bit more. "Where do you want me to hit you?" he asked.
"Just try and hit me," came the reply. "I'll hit you here," said Marion and threw the punch. The would-be fighter did not reply. He was lying on the ground counting stars behind his eyelids.
The river of memories continued gently for a bit more belying the rapids that lay ahead. There was the pretty girl, Myrtle, his friends introduced him to that dominated his time and heart, until he made her his bride. They had spent much time dancing and passing time with his other siblings and their spouses. He was especially close to Hazel and Guy.
Then tragedy reared its head again. Hazel was widowed. This was a double defeat for Marion. He ached for his sister, and he missed his friend, Guy. Financially things were hard for everyone, but he assisted Hazel as much and as often as he could with money, wood, and clothes for the children. He wished he could do more.
Along the journey there were different occupations. Times were lean and people did what they could. Marion had put in time pumping gas and washing windows, truck driving, and of course, boxing.
Some of the fondest and most difficult memories were of his married years. Here the river turned into rapids. He loved Myrtle, and he cherished their children. The oldest Gayle was only six years old now. Then there was Carolyn, Ray, Sharon, and Myrtle was carrying their fifth child even now. The child would come in January.
With a stab of pain, he realized he would not know this child. Regret washed over him not only for this child he would not get to see, but for the kind husband he had not been. No, he did not have the temper and violence of his own father, but he had his own demons. The insecurity that had haunted him all of his life infiltrated his marriage. It was a contributor to the drinking. Oh yes, he drank for the same reasons many of his friends did, peer pressure, fun, curiosity, but it was also to dull the painful memories of his childhood, to shun for a time his own self-doubt.
But the liquor didn't resolve anything, and it contributed to other problems, other women. He groaned for the pain that he had caused Myrtle with his infidelity. When other women flirted with him, it made him feel better for a time, more like a man. Of course that did not last, and afterwards there was always the shame and guilt feeding the voracious monster of insecurity. He was sorry when it happened and now lying in the snow knowing that the end was near, longing to change it and yet unable to, he regretted it all the more.
How did it come to this? Oh yes, he had enlisted. He told Hazel he had done it to give his children a reason to be proud of him. He was afraid that when they were old enough to realize that he spoke differently than others, they would be ashamed. If he served in the war, he would give them a reason to be proud. He could see Gayle telling his friends, "Well my dads a soldier!"
Here the river calmed and he could see himself writing a letter home, "Hello Sweetheart," it began. "We finally arrived. I am somewhere here in France and that is about all I can tell you. We passed through one nice town but we didn't get to stay long. It is quite cold here, but wouldn't be so bad if we didn't have to sleep on the wet ground. But that is to be expected. As we passed through this town I mentioned, the little kids seven and eight yrs old would stand along the street and beg cigarettes from us. And they smoked them too..."
Another letter went like this, "Well Sweet we are nearing our destination. I can't tell you where in this letter but I am sure I will be able to in my next. Our trip has not been bad except for the fact that we were herded around and treated like a bunch of cattle. And too, we have about starved. We only get two meals a day and some of them are pretty slim. However, it would be impossible for them to feed three meals a day. We could buy all the candy we wanted for three cents a bar, eight to ten bars a day helped keep the wolf away. We could buy all the cigarettes we wanted for 50 cents a carton so I have a fair stock . . . Honey, I thought about you on your birthday but that is all I could do. Sorry I couldn't send you something. I won't be able to send any Christmas presents either which makes me feel bad..."
And the most recent a letter he had written less than a week ago, "Well here it is only four more days until Christmas. I sure wish I could be with you and the kids at that time. But I guess the best we can do is to hope I can be there for Christmas next year... There is really some pretty country in France. I wish I could send you a Christmas tree from here. They really have some beauties... This sure is a land of bicycles. The roads are crowded with people on them. And this is the first place I ever saw that they work their milk cows... I have found out one thing for sure though and that is that they really play for keeps over here."
Now there was a new letter, Marion was surprised, he didn't write this. Then, he gasped as the recognition hit him... "Dear Mrs. West, The War Department has informed me that your husband, Private Karl M. West, Infantry, has given his life in the performance of his duty." It was dated 3 February 1945. I guess it takes time he thought. Today's date was Dec. 26th.
The memories stopped and he was left deep in thought. He had enjoyed many of the memories but was pained by so many more. The doubt and the insecurity he had suffered all his life plagued him gnawed at him now. It was then that a new scene opened up to him.
It was his memorial service, somehow he just knew. This was not a memory, it was real. He knew that instinctively too. He was attending his own memorial service. He could see the people, many of them gathered together in their best clothes, and the flowers. He was surprised to see so many people. He was even more surprised at what he was feeling. Love, he could feel it, it seemed he could reach out and hold it. He was nearly overwhelmed by it. He had never felt so loved, so valued. For the first time in his life, he really felt his own self-worth. It amazed him and the joy washed over him.
He heard his Uncle Karl speaking about him, "Where was his enemy? Everyone loved him." He could truly feel it and yet could hardly believe it. Why hadn't he seen it before? He overheard his sister Hazel saying to someone, "He was a perfect brother to me. I never knew a time when I didn't love him with all my heart and he loved me." And he truly felt the love. It amazed him. It strengthened him.
"Marion," he heard a voice but hesitated to turn toward the sound. He did not want to leave the Memorial. He never wanted this feeling to end, and yet there was something about that voice. He turned. It couldn't be. This too was real, not a memory, he simultaneously knew that and yet could not accept it. Near to him, with shining black hair, penetrating brown eyes, clad in a long white dress, stood his mother. Her arms were outstretched to him, and she spoke again softly, "Come Marion, it's time." Then no force on earth could have stopped him as he fell into her arms, and together they wept.
A Life Cut Short. . Karl Marion West
Leslie Nelson is a freelance writer from Payson, Utah
Published by U.S. Legacies: December 2004