Brady veteran barber serves his country as well as his town

He could write his own books about the history he has seen with his own two eyes, much of which is unknown to the general public. He could write one volume about the history he has seen here in Brady and yet another on his life as a Marine sergeant in World War II. He allowed me to dig into his personal life and memories, many of which he has probably tried for years to forget. For this, I personally thank him. I firmly believe that if we forget the sacrifices men and women veterans made we, as Americans, will fail them and their valiant patriotic efforts. I barged into his barber shop Wednesday afternoon following a subtle warning that I would be dropping in this week and took a seat in one of the waiting chairs. In a matter of hours, what I saw and heard was but a snapshot of the life of a man who has lived a full life, much of which I have only read about in history books. Veterans’ Day continues to prod me to seek out veterans, talk to them, hear their stories and ingrain their words in my memory banks. They are walking history books; living and breathing volumes of information, each with their own personal stories. There are more veterans in McCulloch County than I will ever know. Many will never breathe a word of their experiences to me, or anyone else for that matter because of the pain it still stirs in their heart. This story is but a single glimpse into the life of one of McCulloch’s fine veterans who fought for the gift of freedom that we enjoy today. This Veterans Day, make it a point to seek out a veteran, shake his/her hand, pat them on the back or give them a hug. Whatever you do, let them know how grateful we, as Americans, are for the sacrifices they have made. H He took part in three island invasions during World War II. He contracted malaria while in the jungles of the South Pacific. He lived in a foxhole for five days straight gathering intelligence, and he hitchhiked halfway around the world after the war to find his way home. Today at the spry young age of 75, Norman West continues his weekly routine of opening his barber shop four days a week and offering his customers an old-fashioned haircut. Not just a haircut, but the good old style cut men remember getting as youngsters. Warm shaving lather, straight razors and a booster seat across the barber’s chair. Now in his 44th year as a local barber, West’s Barber Shop on South Blackburn Street, one block off the square, still remains much the same as it was the day he began working there in the late 1950s. People come and go and his regulars walk in like clockwork. More than once a week, a longtime friend will drop by just to say howdy or to drop off a bag of fruit or vegetables just harvested from a garden. He sees new customers every day and can remember the exact way former customers used to have their hair cut. His memory is just as sharp his shears that flurry around a customer’s head. The conversations range from life in the early days of Brady to hunting season and politics. Numerous pictures that depict some of the major time periods of West’s life adorn the walls. Photos of Eagle Scouts from his days as a scoutmaster to discharge papers and sergeant stripes from his uniform fill the frames on the wall. Each photo carries with it, a story. Some he likes to tell; others stir deep emotions he has long since tried to forget. One particular photo of him and a military buddy arm in arm, caught my attention. “Guadalcanal 1942-43” is tacked to the frame. Inside that pictureframe lies a story of two lifelong friends, happy at that point in time despite their location and job at hand. The photo is of West and childhood friend and fellow Bradyite, Carl Short. The two became friends in the first grade. They grew up together and following graduation from high school, they joined the U.S. Marines Corps together. They served side by side in days and years to come and were even discharged the same day, one in California, the other in Florida. One day while contemplating whether or not to join the Marines, the two teens headed out to the hill by what is now the G. Rollie White Complex and tested each other to see if they could handle the throws of battle. Equipped with a .22 caliber rifle, they dug a makeshift foxhole, surrounded it with stones and took turns zinging bullets past each other, just to hear what bullets sounded like. The white flag they raised told the other when not to shoot and remarkably, both came away unscathed and convinced they were ready for the Marines. Life as a Marine in the South Pacific was different than the pretend war on Whiteland Hill. In three years West participated in three island invasions and did his part as an intelligence gatherer for the Marines. The battles he was involved in are written about in history books. From a foxhole on Okinawa, he witnessed kamikaze fighters crash into U.S. battleships. He also spent five days less than 100 yards from Japanese troops, hidden in a hole on a ridge where he monitored enemy troop activity. He spent weeks in the jungle on Bougainville where the enemy was only a stone’s throw away but was invisible through the dense foliage. Through it all the worst part of it was the living conditions. “From the time I entered the Marines until the time I was discharged, I either lived in a tent or a hole,” West recalls. “There was one 10-day stretch where we were able to sleep in barracks, but other than that, it was either in a tent or a foxhole.” As a Marine on a remote island in the South Pacific, many of the luxuries we take for granted were not even available. The taste of a fresh glass of milk or a fresh egg were seldom, if ever, experienced. He recalls one time while on leave, drinking a real milkshake and getting sick because of the rich, sugary taste. “My buddies and I would drink a shake, go outside and get sick and then go back for more because the milkshake tasted so good,” said West. The day following his 21st birthday, West went ashore during the invasion of Okinawa. Before leaving the ship, a sailor on board gave him a can of ham as a birthday present. “I ate on that ham for several days,” West recalls. “One of the roughest times I can recall is living in a hole for five days on that island and that ham sure was nice. We never moved from that spot for five full days for fear of being discovered by the enemy.” Back on U.S. soil after the war, he did brick and concrete work for awhile before his time at Brady Aviation where he manufactured airplane wings. In 1957, he enrolled in Lewis Barber College in San Antonio, a six-month program that taught what has become the long lost art of being a barber. He returned to Brady and became the understudy of Doc Taylor (the father of current Brady barber, Don Taylor) in a barber shop just off the northwest side of the square. Taylor became ill before the predetermined apprenticeship was up, and West took over the daily operations of the shop. A visit by the inspectors closed the shop down because West had not yet completed his understudy. A short time and a phone call later, West was working with A.D. Turner in the shop that West still occupies today. “It turns out that Turner was the one who called the inspectors because he wanted me to come work with him,” said West. He continues his old-fashioned haircuts, but no longer offers the hot towel shave. He can even remember one day when he did 100 haircuts’all in one day. “I started at 6 a.m. and worked until 10 p.m. that night,” said West. “Things were different then. Most of the haircuts were burrs and were easy to do in a short amount of time.” From his barber chair that was bought new in 1951, West has seen Brady change with the times. He helped fight some of the biggest fires the town has ever experienced as a volunteer fireman, and he witnessed the drouth of the 1950s. Nowadays during his breaks when his customers are not in his chair, he sits in a chair by the window and reads any number of magazines to which he subscribes or just watches life outside on the street. He remembers his days as a youngster working at Rudder’s Drug Store and the mischief he and his friends got into. A victim of cancer on two separate occasions, the most recent having gone into remission and being diagnosed with diabetes two years ago hasn’t slowed him down. “I’m not interested in quitting,” said West. “I guess I’ll retire when I die.” Forty-four years of working in the same business in the same location is a feat not accomplished by many. His experiences as a veteran are more than admirable. He has been married to Vesta for 52 years and together they have raised four children. The Brady Standard-Herald salutes the lives of every service man and woman, especially those living in McCulloch County, for their efforts in keeping our country free.

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