Captain Fantastic (Part Two): Our Early Attempts to Live off the Grid

Appalachia

(Not a photo of our family. But it reminds me of the way our house in Buffalo Holler looked originally and of how I remember us looking back then.)

This is the second in a three-part series reflecting on the film “Captain Fantastic.” It recalls the years when Peggy and I tried to live off the grid in an Appalachian Holler. I write it in part to remind my children of the reasons for what they sometimes complain about. I’m also hoping it might elicit similar reflections on the part of other readers of this blog.

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To begin with, Peggy’s and my aspirations were idealistic like those of Ben and Leslie in Captain Fantastic. When we were first married, the two of us definitely wanted to live off the grid. We had both read E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, Frances Moore Lappe’s Food First, and Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America. We were teaching those books in “Issues and Values,” a wonderful two-semester freshman course on critical thinking at Berea College. Our desire was to walk the walk.

So, in 1980 four years after our marriage, we bought a house shell for $8000 cash in an Appalachian holler. There, everyone was kin. We were “those outsiders” from Berea college.

At times our status as relatively well-off foreigners in a situation of Appalachian rural poverty caused us problems. One morning we awoke to find our car up on blocks and all of its wheels and tires gone. Another day after a heavy snowfall, we discovered that “neighbor boys” had turned our little Subaru on its head. Additionally, our road was unpaved and after heavy rains, the mud prevented us from leaving the holler. (I remember “taking a run” at getting up the hill leading to the main road. Time after time, I’d nearly make it to the top, only to be stalled with spinning wheels just short of the hill’s crest.)

Our phone was the only one in Buffalo Holler, so neighbors would frequently be at our door seeking access.

Despite everything, Peggy and I were determined to acquire the skills necessary to live self-sufficiently. So we learned to roof, plumb, tile, dry wall, dig a well, and to lay and finish wooden flooring. We gathered second-hand barn wood and paneled our walls with it. We gardened and cut logs for our wood-burning stove that was our only source of heat during some of the coldest Kentucky winters either of us can remember. I dug a full basement underneath our house using pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow. It provided us an additional family room, bedroom, office and bathroom. Peggy canned our food. At Christmas we would cut down a pine yule tree from the forest that surrounded us.

We also built a solar addition onto our home’s south-facing end. Its seven long double-paned windows were glass refrigerator doors recycled from a local food store undergoing renovation. Below the windows we placed 10 fifty-gallon drums filled with water to store the heat they gathered from daytime exposure to the sun. (We salvaged the drums from a nearby ice cream factory where they had originally contained chocolate. Each barrel still had an inch or so of syrup covering its bottom. Once carefully removed and frozen that chocolate provided us desserts for the next 2 years!) Mylar solar shades covered our windows at night to keep the heat inside. We also covered the addition’s floor with bricks we had transferred from the torn-down Berea College Sears Building. The bricks would provide additional heat storage for the solar space. One Saturday afternoon we even hosted a group from Appalachian Science in the Public Interest to show off our proud “cutting edge” technology.

Peggy’s and my alternative lifestyle also had us taking our children to live off the grid in other ways. We worked in Brazil for six months during my first sabbatical from Berea. There we learned Portuguese and studied with Paulo Freire. Peggy worked with his literacy team in Sao Paulo’s favelas. Meanwhile, I studied liberation theology with theologians I had been reading for years. We took our kids to revolutionary Nicaragua and later to Cuba. Then we lived in Costa Rica for a year, in Zimbabwe for another 12 months, as well as in South Africa, India, and Mexico for similar periods. So all 3 or our kids learned Spanish as well as studying Shona. During our travels we often lived with local families and always in working class neighborhoods, where our children made fast friends and went to school.

Like the couple in Captain Fantastic, Peggy and I had different ideas about educating our kids. In the film, Leslie had secretly helped Bodevan, their family’s eldest, apply to all the best Ivy League schools, where he was accepted enthusiastically.

When Ben Cash finds out about that, he demands, “Why would you want to go to any of those schools? You already know far more than most of the professors you’d have in those places. And they’d just be preparing you for a lifestyle we all know is bullshit.”

Ben’s words reflected my own attitude. Teaching “Issues and Values” at Berea was helping me see the worth of Appalachian culture, its history, art, music, and simple, close-to-nature lifestyle. The school was committed to social justice for African Americans and to students coming from limited economic circumstances like my own family’s back in Chicago. Wasn’t it fortunate, I thought, that my own three children could have all of that for free?

Peggy’s attitude (like Leslie’s in the film) was wisely different on this score. She fully appreciated all those Berea values we were learning and teaching. However, she also thought that our kids needed to get out of town, where, as high school students, they had already taken so many courses at Berea that they qualified to enter college as sophomores. So Peggy spent a lot of her valuable time taking them to schools that interested them outside of Kentucky. In the end, our daughter Maggie ended up at Wellesley in Boston and at UCLA for her law degree. Brendan went to Lafayette in Pennsylvania and then to Harvard’s Kennedy School. Patrick attended Davidson in North Carolina. All three are extremely grateful to Peggy for that. They’re thankful that my wishes didn’t prevail. In retrospect, I am too. Getting away from home and broadened their horizons.

Still, I remember receiving wonderful urgent phone calls from my daughter at Wellesley. She took several economics courses there. And after class, she’d often phone asking for the “real story” about the way capitalism works, especially in relation to the Third World countries that were such a part of her upbringing. During their college years, I had similar interactions with my sons. To this day, I treasure those calls and conversations.

Similar interactions occur in Captain Fantastic that like mine show the lasting and even overriding benefit of the education Ben’s children received at home. In the end, Bodevan follows his father’s advice and doesn’t go to any of those schools he qualified for. Instead, he goes off to Namibia to gain the social skills he didn’t receive within his family group – but in Africa, rather than New England. His 8-year-old sister sends him off with the words, “Stick it to the Man.” Bodevan replies, “Power to the People.”

Those (resistance and commitment to radical democracy) are the attitudes we’ll need to survive in a world threatened by what in 1974 Robert Heilbroner direly described as “the human prospect.” That prospect threatened by climate chaos and the proliferation of nuclear weapons is what shaped my 40 years of teaching at Berea College.

Next week: I share my retirement experience in the light of Captain Fantastic. I wonder about the compromises I’ve made – not unlike Ben Cash’s accommodations to the outside world. Have I gone too far?

Captain Fantastic: Can We Successfully Live off the Grid? (Part One)

Capt. Fantastic

This is the first in a series of 3 posts inspired by Captain Fantastic. Watching the film at the beginning of this new year has caused me to reconsider the direction of my life whose circumstances during retirement have led me to gradually drift away from the simple living ideals that Peggy and I embraced so fervently at the beginning of our life together more than forty years ago. This first posting will introduce the topic and the Captain Fantastic plot. I highly recommend the film. It is extraordinarily thoughtful.

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Over the holidays, one of my adult children persuaded me to watch Captain Fantastic. That’s the critically acclaimed film by Matt Ross about a family committed to the back-to-nature lifestyle Peggy and I aspired to at the beginning of our marriage more than 40 years ago. Captain Fantastic stars Viggo Mortensen, who in 2015 received an Academy Award nomination as best actor for his role as the title-character.

My son Patrick (now 31) recommended the film as something I’d love. He said he saw similarities between what’s depicted in the movie and the somewhat regretful experiences of his own childhood with Peggy and me. “You’ll love the film’s father,” Patrick observed wryly. “He’s a lot like you.”

After seeing Captain Fantastic, I could see Pat’s point. The main character, Ben Cash, was a mixed bag. On the one hand, he was indeed inspiring in his commitment to living off the grid. And he was such a good teacher – so open in answering his kids questions and urging them to think for themselves.

On the other hand, Cash’s shortcomings were all too familiar. Like me, he was driven by his clear (not to say rigid) concepts about the way the world works. He was convinced that capitalism is the root of the world’s problems. Socialism offers better prospects. The U.S. medical system is not to be trusted. Ditto for mainstream education. Organized religion is bogus. And holidays like Christmas are not worth celebrating. I could identify with all of that.

But the film offered much more than a nostalgic walk down memory lane. It was more than an opportunity to reflect on my own approach to life with its quirks and shortcomings. It was even more than a demonstration that another world closer to nature is possible. Instead, Captain Fantastic principally represented a reminder of the continued relevancy of the counter-cultural life and education Peggy and I tried to offer our children, even though they’ve largely rejected its intellectual underpinnings. Most importantly of all, it made me see that my present highly consumptive way of life veers sharply from the ideals I once embraced.

Let me show what I mean by first considering the film’s story. Then I’ll share Peggy’s and my attempts to replicate something like it with our own children. Finally, allow me to draw some rather urgent postmortem conclusions about Captain Fantastic’s continued relevancy and challenge to the lifestyle in which I find myself immersed.

Captain Fantastic is about Ben Cash and his family of 4 girls and 2 boys ranging in age from 8 to 18. For 10 years, the 7 of them, along with Leslie, Ben’s wife, had set up camp in the wilds of Washington State where they lived in a large tepee. Over that time, the children had learned the intricacies of foraging, hunting, and growing their own food. They are all homeschooled in philosophy, political science, half a dozen languages, and in the critical analysis of Noam Chomsky. In fact, instead of Christmas, they celebrated Chomsky’s birthday each December.

Captain Fantastic tunes into the Cash tribe’s saga at a moment of extreme crisis. The family’s mom, Leslie, has just committed suicide. She had earlier experienced a psychological breakdown and had been institutionalized. And Ben is blamed for Leslie’s death by her father and eventually by his own children. At one point, Ben’s youngest son shouts at his father, “You killed mom!”

Turns out that Ben’s wife (who doesn’t appear in the film) was no longer fully on board with Ben’s back-to-nature project. Increasingly, the couple had disagreed about its continuation. Apparently, all the resulting tension led to Leslie’s breakdown and eventual suicide. Eventually, Leslie’s wealthy father files a child-abuse lawsuit against his son-in-law in order to gain custody of his children with the intention of returning them to normal life.

None of this means that Leslie had wanted to return to daddy and his way of life. As a committed Buddhist, her final desire was to be cremated and have her ashes flushed down the toilet. This, her Catholic father could not understand, much less accept. So he arranged a traditional Catholic funeral presided over by a priest who barely knew Leslie’s name.

This proves unacceptable to Ben and his children. So they resolve to “rescue” their wife/mother, cremate her body, and flush the ashes. The rest of the film depicts their accomplishment of this feat. It is also about what leads Ben to tone down (but not much) his radicalism and allow his children to attend a mainstream school to help with their socialization.

I can see how all of that reminded Patrick of his life with Peggy and me. The next posting in this series will briefly review that life to set up a contrast and evaluation of the way I’m now living.