The coast of New Jersey, 1817. An era before Long Beach became inundated with godawful tourist shops selling T-shirts that say, “What’s up, beaches?”
It was March. A foggy night at sea. Captain Stephen Willets stood on the deck of his schooner when he heard cries for help. He gathered his crewmen into rowboats and went to lend a hand.
The crew came upon a capsized ship, rudder up. Corpses were adrift in the icy Atlantic. All passengers dead.
Willets climbed atop the overturned hull and heard light tapping coming from beneath the hull. “Someone’s alive!” he shouted.
He fetched an axe. His crew began hacking away at the barnacled wood.
Trapped inside was a raven-haired woman who spoke no English. She was the lone survivor of the wreck. Once ashore, the woman was so grateful and could only express her thanks by drawing a cross in the sand.
And that is how the the community of Ship Bottom got its name.
Of course, today, the borough of Ship Bottom is your prototypical New Jerseyan beach community, complete with fried-crab-leg joints, donut shops, and mini-golf courses out the wazoo.
But even after 200 years, residents of Ship Bottom are still pretty good at rescuing those in need.
Which leads me to the story of 94-year-old Paul Roberts. One night, after Paul had finished a shower, he was shaving when he saw smoke coming from beneath the bathroom door.
“I took one breath,” says the old man, “and I knew right away I would never take a second breath and live. So I dropped to the floor and then had to get outta the house.”
Everything was consumed in the fire. Not just his home, but all those little things people don’t think of when they read about fires. His clothes. His underwear. His socks. His coffeemaker. His family antiques. Gone.
Paul is a member of a generation that is practically forgotten in our culture. He was born in 1927, when movies were still silent and Babe Ruth was selling Old Golds. He grew up during a time of Depressions, dust storms, boll weevils, and global war. He remembers Blitzkrieg, Pearl Harbor, Bing Crosby, Ovaltine, and Rita Hayworth.
He also remembers the day shortly after his 17th birthday when he begged his mother to allow him to quit high school so he could join the U.S.Marine Corps to fight Hitler. She did. Paul joined the Corps only weeks later. Semper Fi.
After the war, Paul got a job with the U.S. Postal Service as a mailman. Thus, he spent his adulthood on foot, carrying a satchel, walking upwards of 10 to 20 miles each day.
He is a father. A grandfather. A great-grandfather. He has survived two children, Hurricane Sandy, four wars, disco. He survived a bout with COVID last year.
But now he had nothing.
“I remember the night of the fire,” said Paul’s neighbor, Richard. “I hear on the window, ‘BANG! BANG!’ I look up and it’s Paul…”
Paul was half naked, standing on his neighbor’s lawn, begging for help. His house was an inferno. Ash and soot were floating in the air. The fire department arrived shortly thereafter, but they weren’t in time.
And here’s where things get worse.
After the fire, Paul called his insurance company. They offered him a pittance. And bonus: as it turns out, because the old man’ house is considered a historic home, the city mandated—this is why you have to love America—that Paul’s house be torn down.
And just like that, a 94-year-old World War II veteran was homeless.
The situation was bleak. And in a country where veterans have all but been erased from public consciousness, things didn’t seem to be looking up.
But before you lose faith in the human spirit, you should know something. A few days later, a young woman named Erin Obermayer created a GoFundMe page for Paul.
If you ever feel your confidence in humanity waning, consider this:
In less than a month, Paul Roberts has received $173,000 in donations from thousands of neighbors, New Jerseyans, and total strangers. More contributions keep coming in.
No, It’s still not enough money to build a house, but things are getting closer.
“How many people do I gotta thank for all that?” said an overwhelmed Paul. “How DO you thank people?” he added.
Well, I’m no expert. But he could always draw a cross in the sand.