Monday, December 5, 2011

The Empty Space Inside

We were on patrol in the central highlands of South Vietnam. Our job was to flush out North Vietnamese troops who were spotted in the area. Landing in a large clearing, we began our sweep across a field surrounded by dense trees and vegetation. Our M-16s were ready. Choppers flew overhead for reconnaissance.

As I walked past a small copse of trees near the middle of the field, my foot struck an object on the ground. I looked down. It was a human skull. I picked it up. It was clean to the bone like an exhibit in a children’s science museum. But this was real. It had a small gash on the top which was probably what had killed the person.

Some of my buddies came over to look at it, but I didn't let it go. I was fascinated. A human mind had lived in that skull. A person's thoughts, dreams, ambitions, desires, and knowledge inhabited that now empty space inside.

I pretended to be looking for something in the trees as I wondered what thoughts had gone on inside that once living head. My contemplation ended abruptly. Harsh noise came from across the field. One of our troops with a megaphone was shouting in Vietnamese for someone to surrender.

I placed the skull carefully within the confines of the vegetation, hoping I'd get a chance to look at it again.

North Vietnamese troops—about a dozen of them—came slowly out of the surrounding jungle with their hands held high. We kept our M-16s aimed at them in case it was a ruse.

What amazed me about these surrendering troops were their uniforms. They were clean and crisp. I wondered how they kept them so starched looking in the jungle. We, on the other hand, were a motley group with dirty, wrinkled jungle fatigues that we had slept in for many nights.

The prisoners were lined up in a holding area awaiting choppers to take them away for processing. The rest of the perimeter was checked out. No more North Vietnamese troops were discovered. And, fortunately, no Viet Cong.

I didn’t get the chance to go back to the copse of trees. Soon we headed off to our next destination.

That night, as I tried to get comfortable on my bed, which was a wall of sandbags, I kept thinking about the skull. Of the things I had experienced so far in Vietnam during my short tenure, it made the deepest impression on me. 

I still wonder who had inhabited that skull, what their life had been like, and what went on inside that now empty space. Someday someone may wonder the same about each of us. 

Meanwhile, the space inside our skulls is occupied. We have functioning minds, with the ability to desire, plan, and take action. We have the gift of life. Let's use it to achieve the great things you and I seek to achieve during our life span. Don't wait until it's too late. Do it now. Take that next step. Go ahead.

Ken West is a former U.S. Army paratrooper and the author of Get What You Want, available worldwide on and other online booksellers. In the U.S. at West is a former President of the New England Chapter of the National Speakers Association, and Association of Objectivist Businessmen. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Need Not Apply

Need Not Apply ©2011 by Ken West

Back when I was attending night school at Northeastern University in Boston, I got an unpaid internship at a Warner-Amex Cable channel in Somerville, Massachusetts. The News Director had me gather news, write and deliver a weekly broadcast on local politics.

During the week I interviewed mayors, politicians, school superintendents, and other officials. I also had the opportunity to interview Edward J. King, the former governor of Massachusetts, and Barbara Anderson, Executive Director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. 

On Friday evenings I’d deliver a live, half-hour news broadcast based on the reporting I had done during the week. On my first live broadcast, I suddenly went blank as the camera light came on. Fortunately, I recovered quickly, and got better each week. I also continued my studies at Northeastern University in political science.

One of the women working at the station told me about an opportunity for a paid internship at a major Boston Television station. She mentioned that the deadline was fast approaching, and gave me the contact information. I called the phone number she had given me. The person I spoke to at the station set up an interview for the following Friday.

On the day of my interview, I got dressed in my best suit, then drove to the TV-Station which was just outside of Boston. I was excited at this potential opportunity to work hands-on at a major TV channel. The receptionist at the front desk took my name and told me to take a seat in the waiting area.

The lobby was impressive with floor to ceiling windows looking out at the Boston skyline. People came in and went out. I noticed one of their news anchors rushing past me as he headed on his way outside to a waiting broadcast van.

Finally, a man and a woman came out to greet me, but their smiles quickly disappeared as they were directed to where I was sitting.

I stood up and smiled.

“Mr. West?” they asked.

“Yes, that’s me,” I said, “but you can call me Ken.”

We shook hands. Then the man gave me unexpected news.

“We’re sorry, Ken, but apparently you weren’t aware that this is our annual minority internship.”

It took me a moment to realize that I was the wrong color. 

“Oh… You mean I’m not eligible.” 

They smiled grimly. “Yes, we’re afraid so. But thank you for coming in.”

I left, feeling like a fool. I wondered why the person who suggested this to me hadn’t realized that it was only open to racial minorities. I drove home and got ready to go into work to do my live TV broadcast on local politics. 

I had experienced in a small way what untold individuals have experienced because they are the wrong color, nationality, age, gender, or some other reason not based on ability to do the job. It hurts.

Ken West is a former U.S. Army paratrooper and the author of Get What You Want! available worldwide on and other online booksellers. In the U.S. at West is a former President of the New England Chapter of the National Speakers Association, and Association of Objectivist Businessmen. If you would like Ken to speak to your organization, he can be reached at

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Forty Years Late by Ken West

Grieving is a strange thing—we all grieve differently.

My wife can grieve instantly. When her mother died last week, she cried as soon as she got the news of her mother’s death. We had just come home from the hospital after seeing her.

I didn’t cry. I still haven’t cried for the death of my mother and father, even when I wrote and delivered their eulogy 18 years ago.

(Don’t get me wrong—I can cry. Parade music makes me cry. Certain movies get to me. I try to hide my tears when the lights come up.)

But when it comes to grieving, it takes me a long time. I don’t know why. 

Let me tell you a story to illustrate this.

When I was 15 years old we had a dog—a boxer named Pammy. We had gotten her fully grown. She was a gentle dog, but very excitable. 

When our doorbell rang she would go to the door to greet the new arrivals. She’d get so excited she’d shake her butt and her jowls at the same time, doing a strange dog dance.

Sometimes she got so excited that she would throw up on our living room rug. My mother and dad never got mad. They just had me clean it up. Eventually our rug took on a strange shade of beige.

I’d take Pammy on walks around the neighborhood. If another big dog came by, Pammy could put on quite a show of bravado, getting up on her hind legs, ready to box her way to fame and glory.

At night, she’d sleep with our cat, who would curl up at Pammy’s tummy. They liked each other.

Back in those days you could let out your dog without a leash. People also had below ground garbage pails. Sometimes the lid was left open and dogs would help themselves to the bounty of leftovers.

Since Pammy already had a nervous stomach, it didn’t take her long to get a stomach infection. We got medicine for her and she was getting better. At least I thought so.

One day when I came home from school, I didn’t see Pammy. I asked my mother where she was.

“She’s gone,” said my mother.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Where is she?”

“Dad had to bring her to the vet to be put to sleep.”

“You mean—she’s dead?”

“Yes,” she said.

I didn’t cry. All I could say was “Oh…”

When my father got home he was obviously upset about it. He told me that it had to be done because of the stomach infection. From then on no one talked about Pammy.

I didn’t cry or grieve. My cat showed more emotion than I did. She wandered around the house for days looking for Pammy.

I never had another dog.

Flash forward forty years.  I was in our living room in a coastal town in Massachusetts. I was 55 years old.

I was looking out our front window. Wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. A young boy walked by with a dog. It was a boxer that looked like Pammy.  I suddenly thought of my only dog. I could see her in my mind’s eye coming up to me, shaking her butt.

Tears starting streaming down my face. Forty years of pent up emotion broke through. I started crying.

“Pammy, I miss you so much. I love you Pammy. I wish you were alive today,” I said to the empty space inside of me. 

I cried for over 20 minutes for a dog I had lost forty years ago.  

Grieving is a strange thing—we all grieve differently. 

If I had my choice, I’d choose the way my wife grieves—and do it right away. 

Ken West, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, is the author of Get What You Want!, available worldwide on and other online booksellers. In the U.S. at