An extended family of nonconformists travels the world on rafts, teaches its own brand of philosophy, joins the circus, starts a popular jazz band, and sets a new world record along the way.
By PJ Partridge
Imagine coming home one day to find that your home has been forcibly seized without any warning, by bureaucrats of dubious authority. Prevented from entering to collect even your most personal belongings, you stand by helplessly as your home and possessions are completely destroyed before your eyes.
It happened on the 8th of May 2000, in New York City, not just to one home but two. These were no ordinary homes. The larger, and more famous of the two, christened Town Hall by its owners, was an eighteen-by-three and a half meter floating house-raft; indeed to many, a work of unusual art. Town Hall and another house-raft were anchored in a small inlet on the Hudson River, just a few hundred feet west of downtown Manhattan.
Town Hall could have easily been mistaken for a missing set piece from a movie, a floating art project, or just some sort of odd abandoned wreckage. In fact, it was home for the previous eight years to the Floating Neutrinos, an extended family of pioneering adventurers, peacefully living by their own rules, and achieving some impressive feats - not the least of which was living comfortably with plenty of space, privacy, safety, and spectacular views amongst some of the highest-priced and most crowded real estate in the world - for free.
The Floating Neutrinos are led by the husband and wife team of Poppa Neutrino and Captain Betsy. In earlier incarnations they were known as David Pearlman and Betsy Terrell.
David was born in San Francisco in 1933 to a mother with a penchant for gambling, and an absent father. As an only child, David's early years were unsettled, moving from place to place, attending many schools, and accompanying his mother on gambling adventures. His early adulthood included an underage stint in the U.S. Army, studying to become a preacher, forming his own religion, three marriages, work as a salesman, a sojourn through the Mexican desert on foot, and binges with alcohol and drugs.
Betsy was born in Philadelphia in 1952, one of four children. Her mother worked as teacher and her father had a job with AT&T. She learned how to sail as a child, and obtained a degree in education from Goddard College. That might make Betsy seem comparatively conventional, but she is quick to point out that "Neither Poppa nor I have ever led a conventional life. We are both nomadic spiritual seekers by nature."
By the early 1970s David was in Oakland California, associating with a group calling themselves the Fellowship of Souls. The group studied the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff (1866-1949), an Armenian-Greek man who taught methods for gaining self-awareness.
David eventually formed a spin-off group of his own and called it the Salvation Navy. In 1975, he and fourteen others from his group left Oakland and traveled to the banks of the Missouri River, where they built large raft atop discarded fertilizer barrels and named it Miss Leslie. Why a raft? "I just didn't want to pay rent. That's simply it," said David. Money for other expenses was earned from freelance jobs painting signs for businesses. That summer, the group sailed Miss Leslie down the Mississippi River, ending up in new Orleans.
Betsy recalls that around this time she was "hitching on sailboats and freighters seeking adventure and esoteric knowledge." She met David later that year in New Orleans, and joined his group.
Both Betsy and David had children from other relationships. Over the years, they would also adopt and have one child together, raising a total of five. With her background in education, Betsy provided home-schooling for all of the children.
A BRUSH WITH DEATH AND THE BIRTH OF A BAND
By 1981, David, Betsy, a few of their children and a few of the remaining Salvation Navy members were traveling through Mexico. One day David saw a stray dog lying on the street. "I thought he was dead and when I found he was alive, I moved him to a beach. I was trying to help the dog. He benignly looked at me, smiled, bit me and died." That dog bite would be a major turning point in David's life.
It took about a month before the first symptoms came: hypersensitivity, vomiting and bleeding. The doctors he saw were unable to diagnose the exact condition and the sickness got worse, lasting more than two years. David lost forty percent of his body weight and the ability to earn money. "We were living in doorways in Mexico," he quietly recalls.
Inspired by necessity, Betsy found an old, damaged saxophone and began teaching herself to play the 1920s pop tune, Mexicali Rose. David remembers that the initial sounds were "awful...like a cow." Nevertheless, Betsy summoned the courage to enter local cantinas and played the only song she knew for customers, while her five-year old daughter would dance. They were able to earn enough money for family food and codeine to ease David's pain.
After a while, Betsy was joined in her musical act by Ingrid, David's twelve-year old daughter, and two other remaining members of the Salvation Navy, Donna Londagin, and her son, Todd. Ingrid sang and danced, Donna played accordion, and Todd played trombone.
The fledgling band slowly developed into a serious endeavor and needed a name. At the same time, David was finally starting to recover. He was strong enough to join the band, and felt like he had been given a new life. An article in National Geographic magazine about physics provided inspiration. The band was dubbed "The Flying Neutrinos" and in honor of his new life, David Pearlman would henceforth be known as "Poppa Neutrino." A fitting sobriquet, since the neutrino, a sub-atomic particle, is described as something that is in constant motion.
Poppa has fond memories of the Mexicans' hospitality during this period. "(Americans visiting Mexico) would throw gum wrappers in our (instrument) case. They would say to me 'You wino - get a job!' But, the Mexicans were wonderful. They gave us enough to get beans and rice and get on to the next town. We did that for about two years."
They also spent a couple of months performing with two traveling circus troupes, earning sometimes only a few dollars a day. "One was a real mud circus where they had nothing. They had even less then we had," says Poppa.
Then, one day on a beach in Mazatlan, Mexico the family started playing for a group of tourists. Poppa was pleasantly surprised. "They went crazy and started throwing money at us. We got enough to go to New Orleans."
In New Orleans the group created black and white costumes and headed to the town's preeminent location for the most-talented street musicians, Jackson Square. While the Neutrinos' costumes suggested a highly polished act, Poppa bluntly states "We sounded like shit! Pure shit! People couldn't believe we had the audacity to go to Jackson Square and play."
Despite their underwhelming debut, the family found a guardian angel in the form of an onlooker, Joe T. Johnson. Johnson, a veteran New Orleans trumpet player, saw them struggling and started playing with the band, guiding them and eventually teaching them about music. Over time, his tutoring made a big difference. One day, when the family was getting ready to play, they called over for Joe to join them but he replied "No. You don't need me anymore."
While developing their musical skills in New Orleans, the Neutrinos built a new living raft. They also took to the road, performing in the streets of several southern U.S. cities, improving their sound and earning more money as they went along.
By 1987 the group was ready for a change. They headed to New York City to play in the subways and were astounded by the reaction. "We made ten thousand dollars in the first thirty days," says Poppa. Because of competition for public playing spaces and other factors, this windfall would not continue indefinitely. For the time being though, the Neutrinos were able to sleep in the penthouse of a Broadway hotel, a long way from Mexican doorways.
A year or so later, the Neutrinos were splitting their time between New Orleans and New York City when Poppa had a dream. "I had this dream that if we dressed up as Pilgrims our financial problems would be over. Nobody wanted to dress up as a Pilgrim, so we decided to go where the Pilgrims landed."
With that, the Neutrinos headed to Provincetown Massachusetts, where they began work on a new raft. This one would not only serve as a living space, but would contain a floating stage for musical performances. Following their previous tradition of building rafts from scrap, the new one was constructed atop a condemned barge. Discarded floating docks and driftwood served as raw materials for the topside, with enough living space for nine people, plus guests. The raft was named Town Hall.
Poppa and Betsy planned to eventually sail Town Hall to Mexico and offer it as a floating home to a family they had befriended in one of the traveling circuses.
In October 1990, Town Hall and the Neutrinos left Provincetown, bound for Mexico, with some extended stops along the way. In the spring of 1991, after a storm had left them in shallow waters, the Neutrinos encountered a U.S. Coast Guard boat. The Guard offered to tow Town Hall to deeper water, but in doing so, lines became tangled and Town Hall ended up on a beach with severe damage. The Neutrinos spent the next few months repairing the craft, and in August 1991, they had Town Hall towed to New York Harbor, where they anchored it off the lower west side of Manhattan.
Upon their arrival in New York, the Coast Guard appeared again, this time issuing a "Stop Voyage" order, declaring that the raft was not seaworthy and would not be allowed to sail any further. For the time being, Town Hall was stuck.
The odd looking raft immediately became a curiosity for residents of downtown New York, countless tourists, and thousands of people working nearby. Carl Glassman, editor and founder of community newspaper The TriBeCa Trib remembers the Neutrinos as pioneers. "The local waterfront was a kind of frontier when the Neutrinos settled here...they were settlers among settlers in the last days of the wild Westside of Lower Manhattan."
While living in New York harbor, Poppa and Betsy started work on a new project. The idea had come to them several years earlier: to sail a raft across the Atlantic Ocean. So, in 1992 construction began on the transatlantic raft, named Son of Town Hall. They were joined on the project by Rodger Doncaster, a Canadian whom they had met several years earlier. Designed by Poppa and built mostly by Rodger, Son of Town Hall was assembled from logs found in the Hudson River and assorted other discarded items from the streets and dumpsters of Manhattan.
While Rodger oversaw construction of the new raft, the Flying Neutrinos band went to Europe for six months, playing in nightclubs - and on the streets - of Norway, Russia, Poland, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy and Spain.
Another, smaller raft was built during the period, named Child of Amazon. This one, also built from scrap by Rodger was designed to be a model living space for the purpose of promoting alternative shelters. The Neutrinos wanted to show that rafts could be a viable option for homeless people, but the project never really took off. "We had a few people involved a few times, but nobody ever followed through," recalls Betsy.
The Flying Neutrinos band continued growing in popularity, but Poppa and Betsy wanted to focus on their transatlantic project. So, they left the band in the hands of Ingrid and Todd, who would stay in New York and focus on their music careers. A few years later, one of their songs would be featured in a major motion picture called Blast From the Past. The band would keep the name Flying Neutrinos, and the rafting projects would now be referred to as Floating Neutrinos.
In 1995 Poppa, Betsy and their two youngest children sailed Son of Town Hall on a test voyage to Provincetown. Rodger remained in New York, along with Town Hall and Child of Amazon.
As they left New York, the Neutrinos were again stopped by the Coast Guard. This time, however, confident about the quality of their newly built raft, Poppa and Betsy demanded an official inspection. To the surprise of the Coast Guard officers, the inspection yielded a very positive report. Vindicated, the Neutrinos would be left alone - for the time being - and were free to float again.
Son of Town Hall would be tested, adjusted and rebuilt over the next two years. During this period Poppa suffered a heart attack, but rather than resting in a bed, he went alone into the desert to recuperate and regain his strength. Poppa returned without trepidation, and finally, in 1997 they began the first leg of their voyage to Europe.
Rodger rejoined Poppa and Betsy for this trip, having turned over Child of Amazon, which remained in New York Harbor along with Town Hall, to a Hungarian artist named Balazs. Balazs would house-sit the two rafts while the Neutrinos crossed the sea.
By the time of its departure, Son of Town Hall had been thoroughly redesigned. Its two most important features were the ability to self-right if tipped over, and to self-steer in storms. The self-steering feature would keep the raft always pointed in a direction that avoided the possibility of being tipped over by waves.
Forty one days after leaving the U.S., the Neutrinos reached Newfoundland. The voyage was relatively uneventful and most importantly, the raft held up and performed as expected. The next part of the crossing would be more treacherous though - the deep ocean.
On June 15, 1998, after a rest and more adjustments to the raft, Son of Town Hall departed for Europe. Poppa, Betsy, and Rodger were joined by Ed Garry, who had previously helped out with Town Hall. Rounding out the crew were Thor, Sigfried and Wille, three canines. They carried a reserve of simple grains and canned vegetables, along with just over four-hundred-and-fifty liters of fresh water. Although the raft had a small outboard motor attached, the entire trip was powered by sail and ocean currents.
Betsy shared some of her memories of the voyage in a later article, published in the TriBeCa Trib: "Our first danger was icebergs, which were numerous close to the coast, and frequently concealed by fog. We were not afraid of running into one; since we float on logs and foam, we could not sink. But icebergs frequently roll, and we could suddenly have found ourselves beneath one."
Initially, the ocean winds were light and progress was slow. Then the Neutrinos were confronted by storms and twenty-foot high waves. "All of us were terrified...it was like a roller coaster ride," recalled Betsy. Poppa later said "there was a moment when that first twenty foot wave passed under me and it looked like we were going straight down...and I thought...I'm crazy, I'm nuts!" Yet, the years of redesigning and rebuilding paid off. The raft continually corrected itself and stayed above the water.
For sixty days they slowly moved towards Europe, grappling with isolation and not knowing for sure when, or even if, they would make it. Passing freighters frequently stopped and offered the Neutrinos fuel, food and water.
By the time they neared the coast of Ireland, word had spread of their coming. They were greeted miles offshore by a contingent of ships, helicopters, reporters, photographers and well-wishers. When they finally reached the shore of Castletownbere, they were treated to a hero's welcome. Betsy remembers "...it was an overwhelming experience, victorious yet at the same time deeply humbling,"
Although at least one other person had previously crossed the Atlantic in a raft, the Neutrinos were the first people known to cross the ocean on a raft made of scrap and recycled materials. For Betsy, the accomplishment was a vivid demonstration that "...if you let go of 'how it's been done before,' and creatively recycle yourself and whatever materials are at hand, you can live any dream you can imagine."
Following a stay in Ireland, Son of Town Hall traveled from the north to south of France, where it remains (unoccupied) today. After France, Rodger moved on to follow other pursuits, while Ed headed to the U.S. to begin construction of a new scrap raft called Absolute Absolution.
Poppa and Betsy traveled back and forth between their rafts in Europe and the U.S. a few times, and in April, 2000 began work on an even more ambitious project. Vilma B. (named after Poppa's mother) was to be a world-traveling, floating orphanage. Their largest raft yet, Vilma B. would house up to twenty-five orphans in individual cabins, and up to twenty crew members, teachers and staff. The idea for a floating orphanage had come to Poppa and Betsy a few years earlier when they saw a documentary about the plight of street children in India.
The crew of Vilma B. would offer abandoned street children in third-world nations a safe home and education. It would be a prototype from which, Poppa and Betsy hoped, others would follow. Work proceeded on Vilma B. for a while, but lack of money and assistance from others eventually stalled the project.
THE LAST VESTIGE
On May 8, 2000, while Poppa and Betsy were far away working on Vilma B., a group of security agents dispatched by New York's Hudson River Park Trust convened upon Town Hall and Child of Amazon in New York Harbor. The Hudson River Park Trust is a joint city-state organization responsible for managing the waterfront.
Balazs, the artist who was living aboard Child of Amazon and maintaining both rafts, was on land when the agents descended, and was prevented from getting back to the rafts. He, and others, watched in shock as a towing crew attempted to lift Town Hall using a crane, causing the raft to split apart and fall into the water. Balazs lost his U.S. Green Card, thousands of dollars in cash, artwork, clothing, his cat, and even the ashes of his father. The remnants of the rafts were later junked at a location in New Jersey.
Poppa and Betsy found out what had happened later, by phone. Balazs subsequently sued the Hudson River Park Trust and received a reported settlement of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Poppa and Betsy did not sue. Poppa says that Town Hall was about more than money. "We didn't want anything. Rafting is a thing of love and creativity." Balazs relocated to Brazil, while Poppa and Betsy simply moved on with their other projects.
Journalist Ronald Drenger later wrote in the TriBeCa Trib "For some, those rickety boats were unsightly, but for others, they were works of art that represented a last vestige of independent spirit in Lower Manhattan."
Ed Garry had begun work on Absolute Absolution after returning from the Atlantic crossing in 2000. In October 2001, the craft, a sixteen meter long catamaran constructed from recycled and salvaged materials, was launched in Port Isabel, Texas. As with other Neutrino projects Absolute Absolution had a purpose - actually, three of them: To teach sailing and teamwork skills to people from all walks of life, to empower these people through the philosophies that the Neutrinos continued to teach, and to offer assistance to communities that the raft would visit during its travels.
Absolute Absolution sailed to Mexico and Cuba, then on to South America, where the craft and its crew have been traveling and adventuring ever since.
In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Poppa traveled there to build rafts for some of those left homeless from the storm. This project was called the Common Ground Navy.
Over the years, Poppa captured many of the family's adventures on video. Filmmakers Vic Zimet and Stephanie Silber assembled these into a 2007 film entitled Random Lunacy. The movie won several film festival awards and received some very good critical reviews.
Also in 2007, Random House publishing released a biography of Poppa Neutrino, written by Alec Wilkinson entitled The Happiest Man in the World.
These days, Betsy is back in Provincetown, living on a small sailboat. Poppa, at age seventy-five, is in Sausalito, California building a new scrap raft named Dwight and the Chicken Lady. He plans to sail this raft across the Pacific Ocean from California to China, arriving in time for the 2008 Olympics.
He says it is still unclear exactly how this project will get completed: "I don't have any money, but...it's just happening; it's working." I mention to Poppa that some of his plans seem guided solely by instinct and intuition. "All of them!" he replies, laughing heartily.
MORE THAN RAFTS, MORE THAN MUSIC
The Neutrinos see their various raft projects as a model of what can be done with creativity, resourcefulness and effort; not necessarily money. They hope to make people aware of not just the potential for living on water, but also the potential for living outside of the commonly accepted norms. Their voluminous website offers many elaborations on these ideas. One section discusses "the four jailers," and how to escape them. The jailers are described as the four major forces that entrap people: landlords, bosses, mates, and the self. Betsy mentions that long ago, she and Poppa vowed to never take a job working for someone else. "We consider time freedom essential to the spiritual path."
Another section describes methods for reprogramming one's "inner software," and how to make positive contributions to the world. According to Betsy, the rafts, the band and other adventures have been "merely foils for our inner work," with the higher goal of creating more meaningful and fulfilling lives.
One doesn't have to directly participate in Poppa and Betsy's projects to live the Neutrino life. Their website says that anyone who stays true to their deepest desires and who lives by their own script is indeed a Neutrino.
Poppa collectively refers to all people who live in this way as Neutrinoland. He says that Neutrinoland is "an idea whose time has not quite yet come," but he believes there is a growing need in the world for freer living. "Something terrible is happening in this country...the fascistic, cruel, demeaning nature...and it's because we don't have time. It's because we're all battling for space. We've become adversaries to each other, and once we get out of the space problem, then we can take the time to recuperate, rest and think."
To me, the Neutrinos represent something intriguingly primal - a fiercely defiant and sometimes dangerous independence that somehow overcomes impossible situations. Buckminster Fuller used to say that the universe will provide exactly what you need, when you need it, if you are fulfilling your true destiny. That might explain how the Neutrinos seem to find just what they need at the most unlikely times - like Joe T. Johnson - someone who simply appeared and helped them in the most unpredictable, yet important way. There were many others who helped over the years, as well. In that regard, perhaps the Neutrino story is also a testament to generosity, open-mindedness, and goodwill in the world. If that's the case, may we all be Neutrinos.
The Floating Neutrinos
By PJ Partridge