This is a very important moment for the Jewish Historical Society. We are currently putting the final touches on our Gala which is scheduled for May 12. Tickets are still available and the tribute to Moe Liss, a stalwart of the Jewish community in the Paterson area for decades, is so well deserved.
In addition,our fund raising efforts to acquire our new home are proceeding nicely. Of course, we need additional funds but we are getting closer and a good outcome is within our grasp. To be perfectly honest, many of us are deeply touched by the support and generosity of our many supporters.
Our basic mission is telling the story of the Paterson/ north Jersey Jewish community. As you all too well know, the Board and volunteers at the Jewish Historical Society constantly urge members of the community to entrust us with their family memorabilia. I want to share my experiences with some of my family memorabilia in hopes that it encourages members of the community to think about the cultural and historical legacy they may have in their attic or basement.
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Shortly after my mother, Kathleen Thomson Polton, passed away in October, 2012, my brothers and I faced up to the job of cleaning out her apartment and settling her affairs. In a bottom dresser drawer was a somewhat ragged, brown cotton Red Cross bag filled with dozens of hand written letters. The letters were mostly in their original envelopes and the sack had been rarely disturbed over the past ninety years. When my brothers, our wives and kids, started to read some of the letters, we realized those letters were the correspondence of our maternal grandfather, Benjamin Thomson, with his family and friends written during his service in the Navy during World War I. In addition, the sack contained dozens of snap shots, post cards, programs, train tickets and identification papers. The contents were not completely unexpected or a surprise. We knew Grandpa Ben was proud of being a “salty” Navy man and I recalled that he had been stationed in the Panama Canal.
Going much further than scanning a few of the letters proved to be a big project and, at that time, with our mom so recently deceased, we simply didn’t have the energy or patience to proceed. The project was a low priority, given all the things that were needed to be resolved. Our family had an estate to settle, personal effects to dispose of and details of all of my mother’s final months to consider. The letters remained in the same sack but were relocated into a new drawer as we went about our daily lives. This time around, the closet was in my house. As the oldest of Ben’s grandsons and the one with the most history and memories of him, I agreed to hold on to the letters and casually offered to look into them at some point in the future. Like so many projects that end up in a dark closet, I frankly forgot about the letters and simply let them sit.
Two years later, when I happened to be reading about the history of the Panama Canal, I remembered the letters and decided to open the sack and make an attempt at reading them in a disciplined way. I organized them chronologically and read each one carefully. I transcribed each letter so that I could understand their flow and overall story. The task was not all that difficult. All the letters are written in a firm and confident penmanship and were very readable. They even have an attractive aesthetic to them. Most were written with a black fountain pen or pencil and the majority were on stationary of the particular YMCA where Ben was housed. Ben was a colorful yet unpretentious letter writer. His letters were conversational, newsy and written in a literary style. He could turn a phrase and his enthusiasm for his family, his experience and description of the people he met in the service was refreshing and insightful. It was a pleasure to hear my grandfather’s voice.
First, some family context. Ben Thomson was born in Paterson, NJ in 1895 and educated at the local public schools. The letters are a tribute to the quality of basic education at the time. His grammar and writing style are clear and correct written in the penmanship style that reflects the training of the Palmer method that Paterson children from his generation to mine were forced to learn. The writing had Ben’s own personal style and looked more like the writing of a confident grown man than that of a twenty two year old.
The letters tell of Ben’s travels from Newport to the Canal Zone, passing through every port along the East Coast including Guantanamo in Cuba. The specifics of Ben’s Navy experience are worth noting. With the help of the internet, I found that Ben’s ship, identified in all of his letters as U.S.S.P. 2332, was named the USS Herreschoff. The Herreschoff is a Rhode Island family, whose history as naval architects and boat builders is nothing short of legendary. The Herreschoffs designed America’s Cup yachts as well as commercial and recreational boats of exceptional beauty and functionality. Again, the internet proved useful in finding a two page history of the USS Herreschoff that contained a brief summary of the vessel and its service in the Navy. The simple statement of facts outlined in the two page history of the ship are given life, color and the human dimension by Ben’s descriptions of life aboard the U.S.S.P. 2322.
Ben loved the Navy and found the Jewish community supportive wherever he was stationed. His letter of April 23, 1918, while in New London, documented the rumors of their final destination pointed toward a trip down the East Coast of the United States toward the Panama Canal:
Have not heard officially where we are going and know now it’s true that we will be leaving in the next two weeks. So if I write you we are going to Panama, don’t feel surprised but take it as any other brave parents who have these trying times. Believe however I am real fortunate for not being sent across the water, as they have sent many small boats over recently.
He added in the same letter:
The trip down will take in about six or seven stops–Charleston South Carolina, Norfolk Virginia and a few others. Believe the boat is safe enough, although it does quite a little tossing and rolling. We are going down with three other boats of the same type and will meet another new Ford 220 footer down there.
Ben had things the way he liked them in New London and made the most of his time there. The work was pleasant, the company good and he had plenty of time off. On April 28, 1918, he wrote to his brother Dave:
Weather now is ideal, so it makes it real nice for baseball. A couple of gloves on board and balls are always around. Even in the Navy. So we play right near our boat on the shore. I’ve got a sore arm already from throwing the ball. I have developed a curve.
We were transferred from the experimental station to the Marine Ironworks where all the boats are rigged up. We came here last Monday have done practically nothing except a little painting. We are to go on dry dock in a couple of days and that means “work”. Something which I very seldom do here on this boat. But we only go on for 48 hours. All we do is scrape the bottom. Right it. Put on your propellers. Little work like this. Don’t think will hurt me although it may, for have developed the habit of getting in my afternoon nap for three hours. Have always been getting it when we are out. That’s all you can do. Eats are as good as ever. Fact better. Had pork chops and eggs for breakfast with oatmeal. Fresh milk and coffee. Still with all its goodness, it’s a life for me. After supper you will find me in a hurry rushing into town. Have me met some very nice acquaintances here. Tonight I am staying on board just to make it look good. Have been off every night last week.
Tuesday went over to a feller’s house, Charlie Glastenburg, who is a dandy chap. Best fella for a stranger to meet. God, he sure has treated me great. Two sailors and myself went up to his house after we went to a show. And we had a real home cooked dinner. Real home cooking, for he has a wonderful home. He put down on the table after we took off our blouses 20 bagels, Black bread, 2 quart jar of cream, Six bottles of beer, two glasses of wine, cucumbers, homemade cheese, homemade butter, three eggs. Oh boy! Please, did we dig in with sleeves rolled up. Everything. Did we finish it all! Well don’t have to go into detail. Would not let us pay him for anything. Have slept at his home over a dozen times.
Wednesday night went up to a Formal (full dress) Dance given by the B’nai B’rith (swells) at one of the leading hotels here — Crocker House. Only about 25 couples but real select Jews. All machers in the town. Took up a real pretty blonde Jewish girl who had on a wonderful looking blue evening dress. She made everyone sit up and take notice. Tickets were a $1.50 but Charlie gave me one. He seems to think a good deal of me. So does the kid. But what’s the use, eh? Can only make bunk promises. Who can tell about the future? Make lots of friends here and they tell me they’re going to make a party when I leave here. I’m making the most of it for sure.
The letters go on to document every aspect of Ben’s Navy experience. This brief summary gives a hint of the colorful and rich history that was locked up on in just one typical family storage closet. It would have been a real tragedy if it had been lost. The JHSNJ community now has a complete history of Ben’s Navy experience and the impact it had on his and our lives and it’s a story that our family and others will find meaningful. So, we at the JHSNJ urge you to consider sending us your family photographs, letters and other treasures so that future generations can learn about the legacy of our community. Let us know about your family treasures!
Richard Polton, President