The short answer is, I don’t really know. Robert was my grandfather, and we never met. I was born in St. Paul on Friday, January 13, 1967. Robert was in that same hospital that day, and he died 18 days later. My father told me he went up to see his dad after I was born, and told Robert I had been named for Robert’s father, John Patterson West. He liked that, my dad said.
Years later, I developed an interest in history and genealogy, and found that my family had a surprising amount of material left behind from previous generations. This included a small diary, which turned out to be the diary Robert kept during 1918. He had it on the day he had a date with a girl named Lenora Denzine. He had it the day they got married and the day he learned she was pregnant. He had it the day he reported to Camp Mills, the day he sailed for Europe on the English ship RMS Adriatic, and on Armistice Day.
I also found a stack of letters sent by Robert to his father, mother, and sisters back home. I’m trying to use Robert’s diary, letters, and the historical record to understand what 1918 was like for him – and for the country – 100 years later.
But here’s the thing: I don’t know Robert. I don’t know if he was a liar, a scoundrel, a racist, an anti-Semite, or a saint. I’m certain he was flawed and I’m sure he said and thought things that we wouldn’t say or think today. I don’t know for sure.
All I do know is that during 1918, he experienced what had to have been the most amazing year of his life, and captured some of that experience in a small diary and government-issued postcards and stationery. I want to share that experience with anyone who cares to know about it.
I’m not a biographer and certainly not a historian. I have to rely on what Robert wrote, where he thought he was, what he thought was happening around him. Using that flawed narrative, I’ve tried to use other sources to add to his story. Those sources, and my interpretations of them, might also be flawed. During 2018, I’ll share some of his writings on Twitter (@MNdoughboy1918) and on this site, 100 years after he wrote them. I promise I’ll get things wrong and I encourage anyone to tell me so. But I hope by the end of the year, we’ll all know Robert a little better.