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Poppa Neutrino, Still Sailing Along

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Poppa Neutrino, Still Sailing Along

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Poppa Neutrino, Still Sailing Along

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Poppa Neutrino is not the likeliest candidate for a biography. He has the long, white beard of a prophet, but he's not. Once, his two-front teeth were punched out in a brawl; he jammed them back in, where they stayed crooked for 15 years, which is longer than Neutrino ever stayed anywhere. He married several times, played music. Along the way, he gave up the name David Pearlman and took the moniker of that tiny itinerate particle, the neutrino. And more recently, he acquired a biographer - New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson, here reading from "The Happiest Man in the World."

Mr. ALEC WILKINSON (Author, "The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa"): (Reading) Neutrino is a wanderer, an exile, an outcast, a Bedouin in the wilderness of the republic. He also has a flinty pioneer side, a prospector on a tare sensibility. There must have been many more like him in earlier times: chasers after stakes and claims, odds players, followers of the reckless and wild hope, especially among the citizens of the Western territories where his ancestors came from.

MONTAGNE: Poppa Neutrino, do you recognize yourself in these words?

Mr. WILLIAM DAVID PEARLMAN (Adventurer): Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: So, Alec Wilkinson, as you describe Poppa Neutrino, who - this is a person who could have walked right out of a Jack Kerouac novel.

Mr. WILKINSON: I have always thought that the key to understanding David's life is that each day for him is the opportunity to invent a new identity, a new feeling, a new - to embrace a new pursuit, to be open or receptive to an intuition.

Mr. PEARLMAN: I love movement. I love movement; I love change and the unexpected.

MONTAGNE: Poppa Neutrino joined Alec Wilkinson in our studio to tell a bit of his story, which started, as such stories do, when he entered the world. In 1933, he was born to a gal by the name of Velma McDaniel(ph). She was living a boom and bust lifestyle in San Francisco. And to her son, she was an inspiration.

Mr. PEARLMAN: She was the most effervescent, optimistic person I've ever met in my life.

MONTAGNE: You described her as a gambler, an actual gambler.

Mr. PEARLMAN: An actual - I was just about breast-fed at a poker table. I could remember many nights sleeping under the poker table and finding chips on the floor that I would pocket. While my mother would go broke, I would hand her some chips.

MONTAGNE: The young David Pearlman was a street kid, and he raised his own kids to be working nomads, a family of buskers who came to call themselves The Flying Neutrinos - a band that, by the way for his grown-up kids, now has a hip following. Poppa Neutrino's own story might have continued as a collection of colorful moments lived with a certain brio until he did something both ridiculous and heroic.

In his seventh decade, Neutrino assembled a raft out of junk and embarked with a small crew on a daring journey across the Atlantic. Even getting underway became a kind of quest which drew people to him as if by magic, starting when he began piecing the raft together on a wharf in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Let's talk, then, about that raft that made it across the Atlantic.

Mr. WILKINSON: Wherever David goes, he looks for a raft to build to live on, and David built a raft from some things that had been - that they were throwing out on the harbor there.

Mr. PEARLMAN: Throw-away foam and docks. The people in Provincetown were really generous to us. They loved the band. We performed every afternoon in front of town hall. And the town manager, he gave us the diesel engine from the basement of town hall that was the auxiliary motor for when the electricity blew out. So we took the engine and put it on the raft, and then took off for parts unknown from Provincetown.

MONTAGNE: The take-off point for crossing the Atlantic. And it was New York City, right?

Mr. PEARLMAN: Right.

Mr. WILKINSON: That's right.

MONTAGNE: You're building a raft, but you're also in touch regularly with the Coast Guard, who has rules.

Mr. PEARLMAN: They made me stop at Pier 25, which was a nightclub run by an Israeli named Shamon Bacoswel(ph). And he gave me everything I needed to build the raft and sail to Ireland. He gave me the floor from his nightclub. And when the Coast Guard, with Commander Carr(ph) went through the inspection - it took him three and a half hours with two assistants - they found that the raft was a mighty fortress.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEARLMAN: They sent letters to the Coast Guard stations up the East Coast not to be alarmed when they saw it, but that we knew what we were doing and it was not manifestly unsafe.

Commander Carr(ph) was a great person. He never gave me permission to cross the North Atlantic. He gave me permission to leave the port of New York. We had to sneak out of the country in Maine on a foggy morning.

MONTAGNE: How dangerous was it? I mean, you're out in the middle of the Atlantic on a raft?

Mr. PEARLMAN: It's very dangerous. It was very dangerous. There was a moment when that first 20-foot wave, I was in the helm and it passed under me and it looked like we're going straight down, you know, on a vertical angle. I thought, I'm crazy, I was nuts. I've worked all this time to come out here and I'm going to kill everybody in this raft. But the raft rode it beautifully. It would take anything the ocean could throw at it. And so we had a lot of storms after that, but none of them bothered us.

MONTAGNE: And how did you eat?

Mr. PEARLMAN: We took canned goods and packaged goods and dried food.

Mr. WILKINSON: A lot of people along the way stopped and gave you things.

Mr. PEARLMAN: Well, we - ships stopped and fishing boats stopped. One ship, the Atlantic Companion, passed us three times on the journey. They went across to Europe and back three times.

MONTAGNE: And you saw them? Did they see you each of those times?

Mr. PEARLMAN: Well, yeah, they stopped. They stopped and fed us each time.

MONTAGNE: So when you arrived at the other end, how were you greeted?

Mr. PEARLMAN: When we got to Ireland, the Irish had known about it for a - when we were coming for maybe a week. And the place was absolutely packed - a mass of people greet us. And their generosity and exuberance and well wishing was such a great joy.

MONTAGNE: So now you are planning to embark upon a journey across the Pacific?

Mr. PEARLMAN: Right.

MONTAGNE: On a raft again?

Mr. PEARLMAN: I got the raft already made. I'm going to sail around San Francisco Bay for a couple of months, building sails and doing test runs. And then I'm going to go down to Tahiti and then to China - Fushun, China. I want to be in China by the 2008 Olympics.

MONTAGNE: This time, in his eighth decade, Poppa Neutrino will be sailing solo, just him and his raft and the blue Pacific.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: David Pearlman is the subject of Alec Wilkinson's book, "The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino."

(Soundbite of music)

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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