July 21 • 10:37 PM

Tree is a symbol of strength

Korean War veteran Ken West with ‘tree of strength’ named for him.
August 08, 2007
LAPEER — What would be an eyesore, a deformity, an imperfection to many people is a symbol of strength and beauty to John Olivo.

The former longtime Imlay City resident is a thoughtful man. Sometimes he thinks about the symbolism in today's society—some bother him, others he embraces. And sometimes he finds his own.

A couple of years ago he planted some weeping mulberry trees in his yard. This spring, Olivo noticed something unusual about one of the trees.

"A branch appeared to be very uncooperative with the mother tree," he says. "Instead of bending like the other weeping branches, it appeared to be heading for the sky."

Olivo decided to ignore it and not give it much thought. Then it hit him: the skyward branch was a symbol of the United States. As a former active Marine who served in the late '50s and early '60s, Olivo's patriotism is strong.

"As I looked at that proud and straight branch that refuses to bend or weep I thought about our great nation and how it also has never bent to powers waiting to violate our way of life and our freedoms," Olivo says.

Olivo knows that others may not see the anomaly in the tree the same way, but he perceives that the weeping branches have their symbolism, too.

"Yes we've wept, and profusely, over the hundreds of thousands of Americans that have suffered immensely and given their lives so that we would not have to bend and weep because some foreign power had control over our lives."

The upright branch, though, reminds him of our strength—and he thinks of a fearless fellow Marine when he looks at it.

The man's name is Ken West, and Olivo first met him when he moved from Imlay City to Flint. West, now 76, was just 19 years old when he served in the Marines and was shipped off to fight the Korean War.

"He went to Korea and defended when the Chinese attacked. He and a bunch of other 19 year-olds stood their ground in the 'frozen Chosin' reservoir until they were evacuated to the south Korean coast," Olivo says. "Can you imagine a bunch of young people being overrun by Chinese soldiers—the temperatures were freezing and some of them had no shoes. There was a great deal of suffering—both the enemy and the troops and Ken made it through it."

The more he thought about it, the more Olivo felt compelled to plant an American flag next to the unusual tree, and he celebrates the symbolism every time he looks at it. He thinks about Ken and all the other soldiers who've made and continue to make sacrifices for their country.

"For me to cut that 'renegade' branch off is unthinkable," he says. "As long as I or the tree lives it will remind me of how fortunate we are to live in the United States of America."

Ken, who is now a member of the 'Chosin Few' Korean War veterans group, remembers one of the group's founders—the late Ed Hunsinger of the Imlay City area.

"Ed was a memorable type of character," Ken says. "He was a very hardworking founder of the chapter."

Ken says he's honored that Olivo thinks of him when he looks at the straight branch on the weeping tree.

"I'm just not so straight and tall any more," Ken chuckles.

Out of curiosity, Olivo checked with a nursery employee to find out why the branch was growing upward, and the answer just confirms his symbolism.

"I thought maybe some worker grafted a wrong branch and he said 'no, that upright branch is part of the trunk, the weeping branches are the foreigners,'" Olivo says.

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