Sunday, April 17, 2011

#259: Meeting Poppa Neutrino

Rochester, New York

On the last night of Balthrop, Alabama summer tour -- AKA our "Six Nights in Vermont 'Cause We Got Turned Back at the Canadian Border 2010" tour -- we played a gig at the Bug Jar in Rochester, New York. About two or three nights prior to that, we played on a raft made out of recycled material in the rain between two sewage plants on Lake Champlain with a beer-guzzling duo, an amateur theater group, a couple of dogs, and a seafaring gentleman who called himself Poppa Neutrino. Poppa Neutrino had seen us play at Radio Bean in Burlington, Vermont the night before and there he was, grizzled and gentle, a man well into his seventies, seated in a lawn chair on a raft of questionable floatability.

He welcomed us on board and, once we settled in, proceeded to tell us the tale of how he once sailed from the port of New York across the North Atlantic, all the way to Ireland on a raft made out of junk. "Whoa," we said, slapping mosquitoes from our arms, eyes shifting nervously between one another. "Huh," others said, then turned around and checked to see if our van, parked on private property where the owners are famed for calling the cops and getting violators arrested, was still there.

I took a less doubtful yet still cautious approach and asked if he knew any sea shanties. But none of us quite knew what to make of such a claim. His story was fantastical, something straight out of Robinson Crusoe. And in this skeptical age, I'm afraid to say we found much to doubt about Poppa Neutrino's voyage -- worldly, urban Brooklynites that we were.

Well, we shouldn't have.

At the bar of the Bug Jar in Rochester, New York, I was drinking a pre-show whiskey and chatting with Buckridge when Michael, at the other end of the bar, motioned for me to come over. I sidled down off my bar stool and headed over. Michael turned around his laptop, which was opened to the Wikipedia page for Poppa Neutrino. Sure enough, in 1997-1998, Poppa Neutrino -- musician, nomad, philosopher, raftbuilder -- became the second person in history to cross the Atlantic on a raft, his homemade vessel, Son of Town Hall. He was certainly the first to do it on a raft built out of trash. His wife, Betsy, served as his captain.

Poppa was also the subject of a book by Alec Wilkinson called The Happiest Man in the World and a documentary by Victor Zimet and Stephanie Silber called "Random Lunacy". Also quite randomly, I used to regularly check out his daughters' band, The Flying Neutrinos, at Rodeo Bar in New York City.

In a sad coda to this story, we learned that Poppa Neutrino passed away on January 23 of this year at the age of 77. You can read his obituary here. A heartfelt remembrance to the man with a wild adventurer's spirit who made us all step back and believe in the possibility of magic.

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