Jesus Colon, a Brooklyn Puerto Rican activist, traveled to New York from Puerto Rico on the S.S. Carolina in 1917. At 16 years old, he convinced his friends who worked on the crew to hide him in the linen closet in an effort to escape to New York without paying for a ticket. His friends managed to sneak him onto the boat but other crew found him in the closet and reported him to the captain. The captain decided to put him to work polishing the fine dishes. He worked on the ship until they landed in New York. The S.S. Carolina docked at Pier 35 in the Atlantic Basin.
I still remember the name of the boat-- S.S. Carolina. an old ship painted in funeral black around the hull and in the hospital white from the deck up. Everything was planned with one of the crew. I just walked up the narrow wooden ladder of thin timber rungs far apart. This ladder connected the dock with the ships.
I don't think I have to explain that i did not carry a valise or other bundles with me. Just myself.
The sailor at the top of the ladder must have thought that I was one of those kids always going up and down with messages to the passengers. I was sixteen years old. As soon as I was inside the S.S. Carolina the friend on the crew installed me uncomfortably inside one of them linen closets, banging the door practically right on my nose. Time passed. The minutes seemed like hours. The hours felt like days. At last I heard a clanking of chains as the anchor was hoisted. After a little while I listened to the metallic noise of the propellers as they started their enormous metal four leaf clovers circling in the waters of San Juan Bay.
The third shrill whistle of the ship gave me the sign that we were finally getting away from the dock. I imagined from my hiding place in the linen closet that the S.S. Carolina was now on its course pointing its prow toward the entrance under the watchful eye of Morto Castle. In my mind I could see that the door of San Juan, centuries old with its gate surrounded by old granite blocks that had grown indefinite in color, would now be looking at the ship. This very door had also seen the wooden vessels of Ponce de Leon, one of Puerto Rico’s first Governors, passing by and the powerful galleons of pirates like Drake, Morgan, and Cumberland, about whom I fondly read in my childhood. And now, after a few more brief moments, I would be able to see more of San Juan’s walls and Puerto Rico’s palm decorated shores even if I even were on deck.
As it had happen, somebody came for fresh new linen eventually. They found me there together with the linen they came to get. I was brought to the Captain. After a scene mixed with ire and sermonizing on his part, I was placed in the “merciful” hands of the chief steward who passed me over to the chef in charge of the kitchen…
Thus passed the days and nights traveling under strict war regulations, darkness during the night—for the United States was at war with Germany. During the day, I was shining dishes and pans or collecting china from the tables. During the night, I went to bed too tired even to be able to dream about them…
As the ship dropped anchor alongside a Brooklyn dock, and a plank connecting dock and ship was securely fastened in its place, I went ashore as unobtrusively as I had come into the boat in San Juan Bay in Puerto Rico. I never came back to accept the steward’s offer to remain on the ship.
Good thing that I didn’t, for a few trips later the S.S. Carolina was sent to the bottom of the Caribbean by a German Submarine.