WELLFLEET – Chuck Cole is of the land, and he is of the sea. There is a lot about Cole, whose family roots go back to the Mayflower, that is quintessential.
“He’s a hippie flashback kind of guy,” said Cole’s friend, the artist/musician Harriet Korim of Wellfleet.
Cole is a 64-year-old sailer, surfer, hippie, peace activist, quirky community radio host, and Mayflower descendent living in his own off-the-grid homemade yurt compound, complete with an outhouse, on land in Paine Hollow that has been in his family since 1630.
In Cole’s own words, he has “become somewhat of an institution” on the Outer Cape.
“Anybody who resides on the Outer Cape eventually meets Chuck Cole,” said Bob Seay, of Eastham, former executive director of WOMR, the popular community radio station where Cole has had a Thursday morning program since 1984.
“He’s very active, very visible, and his roots are very deep,” said Seay. “Every town has personalities that exemplify what the town is about. He’s from the Outer Cape.”
“Anybody who resides on the Outer Cape eventually meets Chuck Cole.” – Bob Seay, former executive director of WOMR
With his shock of long gray hair, matching his long gray beard, ever-present WOMR ballcap, overalls adorned with political buttons, drums, political signs and friendly wave, Cole has every week for more than a decade taken a peace vigil to both Wellfleet Town Hall and the Eastham Windmill, just to remind folks that believing in peace matters.
“He has been the voice of conscience beating the drum, literally, for people to be aware of the cause of peace,” said Seay.
“I don’t think we’re convincing anybody,” said Cole of his weekly vigils, often joined by others, that started after September 11, 2001. “But we’re holding the space for peace on a weekly basis. They may not notice, but they notice when we are not here.”
Bill Edwards of Orleans, who has joined him at the vigil in Eastham on Route 6 in recent years, said he was impressed by how Cole has been “steadfast in what he was doing.”
Edwards said 97-1/2 percent of those passing by are supportive of their message, but added, “we actually enjoy getting flipped off.”
“It keeps us real,” said Cole.
“He’s a throwback to independent thinking, to living off the grid, to creativity and to sticking to pacifist principles and not compromising,” said Bob Weiser, a DJ at WOMR who has known Cole for decades. “There’s a lot to be said for that.”
“There are those who think that his lifestyle is that of a lazy person. That’s obviously not the case. It’s hard work to be who he is. It’s not laziness. It’s principle,” Weiser said.
Cole heats with fire and eats fresh oysters that he pulls from the sea. He is rooted in this place and in his principles. For instance, he does not eat meat. “I became a vegetarian when I was 19 for the violence reason,” said Cole.
His daughter, Sky Freyss-Cole, who lives in Brewster, said, “There’s so much thought and emotion that’s involved in everything he does. He’s very deep. He’ll do simple things in the way that the act is simple but the meaning is very deep and profound.”
Cole really is off the grid – except for that most modern connector, Facebook.
On his half-acre of land in part of a rural family 12-acre compound in one of the most desirable towns in New England, Cole has spent decades building a life that he lives in a handful of specific-use yurts, from a sauna to a summer residence and more, all removed from modern conveniences and most of them stuffed with books.
“When I started building my crazy place, I used the terms pre-existing non-conforming. But now I use the terms, pre-conforming, non-existing… I live a little more on the edge than the building codes are used to. I am basically off the grid.. I heat with wood… I love it that way,” he said.
And while he is, essentially, completely off the grid, Cole is part of the fabric of Wellfleet. He is very active in all sorts of civic endeavors involving music or peace activism or community, or all three.
“He’s the unofficial mayor of the town,” said Korim. “There may be more than one, but he’s definitely one of them… He’s very, very rooted in this place. His history goes way back.”
In other words, Cole is as plugged in to the town as he unplugged from the grid.
But using a signal from his deceased mother’s house a few hundred yards up a hill from his yurt compound, Cole is, with a booster, able to be on his laptop in his yurt and access Facebook, where he is very active.
“He is a man of many faces and contradictions,” said Seay.
But Cole sees it as being consistent with who he is. “It’s a lot about community and those circles. I’m active on Facebook because it’s the best bulletin board in the business.”
“My father was a Navy captain,” said Cole. “He drove ships.”
And thus, “I was a Navy kid,” he said. “In 12 years, I went to 12 schools.”
Cole was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, “but I found out I was conceived in Paine Hollow in Wellfleet,” he said, in what seemed an important clarification.
“My father’s father was a railroad man. He didn’t have any salt water in his blood at all,” said Cole. Cole’s father was raised in New Haven, Connecticut and went to Yale University, and then got a commission to the Naval Academy.
The salt water in the blood, explained Cole, came from two generations back and earlier. “They were schooner skippers,” he said.
According to Cole, his father was in the same Naval Academy class as future President, Jimmy Carter, and then his father went to MIT for a degree in electrical engineering. He was working in Los Alamos when Chuck was born.
“My father decided he wasn’t interested in the nuclear Navy. He wasn’t interested in submarines,” said Cole. “He wanted to drive ships.”
As often happens in military families, the family kept moving. Polly Cole, his sister, recalled, “Both of my parents always strove to give us interesting places to live. My mother would never live on a military base. She searched out cool houses that were close, but not on the base.”
“My family was solid,” said Cole. “When my Dad was away, my Mom carried on. We were on the same team,” he said.
Cole said, “Polly and I did really well in school.” He remembers road trips with “spelling bees in the car.” Polly is one year younger than Chuck.
One memory from childhood sticks with Cole. “In 1963, my father was stationed in the Pentagon and he was in the war room when Kennedy was doing the Cuban missile crisis. I remember he brought home a short wave radio for my mom and she said, ‘Dear, I don’t think we can afford that,’ and he said, ‘I don’t think we’ll ever have to pay for it.’ During that time, he honestly didn’t think we were going to survive.”
But they did, and they kept moving almost every year. In the midst of all that Navy kid moving around, there was one constant in Cole’s life: summer in Wellfleet.
“Whether we were in Virginia or in Newport, we came back to the Cape for the summer, every summer,” he said. “It was like coming home.”
Cole said, “This is a playground here in Wellfleet. What are we going to do today, go to fresh water or go to salt water?” He recalled “going with my cousins blueberrying at Marconi.”
Describing himself and his sister, Cole said, “We were in kid mode… We were here as the (Cape Cod National Seashore) national park kicked in. And we were avid fans of the park ranger’s guided tours. We got better at the lectures than some of the newer rangers. We would correct them.”
“The first time I was down here in the winter time, it was a revelation. It was cool. There was nobody on the beaches. You could shoot .22s on the beach. There was nobody around,” he said. “It was pretty backwards down here.”
Polly, who now lives in Thetford, Vermont, said the family visited both Wellfleet and Vermont when they were children. “I felt about the mountains the way my brother felt about the ocean,” she said, as an explanation of how these two kids from a Navy family ended up where they did.
Polly recalled visiting Wellfleet when they were kids and “wandering in the backwoods when there were almost no houses.” And, she said, her brother “took to sailing and surfing very early.”
But Cole had a one-track mind when it came to his future career. “I never had any question in my mind when I was a kid. I’d go to the Naval Academy and be a Naval officer like my father.”
But then at 14, he had to get a pair of glasses and was asked if he’d like to take a color blindness test, which he then failed. It wouldn’t really affect anything in his life except that he would not be allowed into the Naval Academy, he was told. “Other than that, no big deal,” Cole recalled being told.
The failed color blindness test gave Cole “a blank slate after that,” he said. “I didn’t have to follow in my father’s footsteps.”
When Cole was 16, his father had an international posting as a skipper of a destroyer in the Persian Gulf. Cole’s junior year of high school was in Bahrain and his senior year was at a high school near Istanbul, Turkey, he said.
“I was 16 and pretty naive in Bahrain when I fell into a group of ex-pat Brits, who were heavy smokers. They always had a Benson and Hedges in one hand and a Bacardi and Coke in the other. I was the naive yank drinking a lemon shandy. But at 2 o’clock in the morning, they’d tell me I was the smart one,” said Cole.
He was in a crucial teenage time of life, a time he now calls “an amazing couple of years living in the Persian Gulf.”
“But then I discovered hashish in Turkey and it was a much different world,” he said. “It’s been a friend and ally ever since.” Cole is pro-marijuana. He does not smoke every day and said, “I never wake and bake.”
There was something going on, even though it may not have been happening in South Wellfleet or Paine Hollow.” – Chuck Cole
When he was 17, a few important things happened to Cole that would shape his future adult outlook.
Already close to his father, Cole recalled hanging out with some sailors in Bahrain who told him, “Your old man is so cool because most skippers are going nuts in their cabin, but he’s an engaged, active person, always doing something.” It is a lesson that seems to have stuck with Cole.
Cole said as the 60s evolved he and his father “had an argument over my hair at one point,” but they always got along and bonded over sailing.
And then that Christmas, Cole said, his grandmother went to a local bookstore in Wellfleet and asked what her 17-year-old son should get for Christmas and she came home with the Last Whole Earth Catalog. “My grandmother had no idea of the sex and drugs and rock and roll stuffed between the covers,” said Cole.
He discovered people living on land, building their own boats and houses. “It gave me a portal… of freaks, counter-culture kinds of people. There was something going on, even though it may not have been happening in South Wellfleet or Paine Hollow,” he said. “The Whole Earth Catalog gave me a portal to a population of people who were writing their own script.”
Soon, a new script would begin to be written right in South Wellfleet.
“I bought right into it right away,” he said. “I knew where it was coming from. It was a revelation that there were so many other people out there like myself.”
Cole attended Middlebury College and then University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he received a degree in education.
Cole then returned to Wellfleet and taught at the elementary school “before I went sailing,” he said.
Cole’s great uncle, Charles, had left him an 8-foot by 14-foot cabin and a half acre of land in Paine Hollow and Cole came there, joined a food co-op and volunteered in the school system before getting a job as a teacher.
“I was just making by. I’d do carpentry. In the summers, I’d work at the general store in South Wellfleet,” he said.
He was also building a 22-foot sailboat from cedar when he met his future wife, now his ex-wife, Anne Freyss. In the late 1970s in smalltown Wellfleet, Freyss said, “My parents knew his grandparents.”
They met through a choral singing group and when Cole told her of his boat project, Freyss said, “I was intrigued by the boat building. He said, ‘I need some help.’”
And so a partnership was born. “I was at a place in my life where I needed to break out of the mold,” said Freyss. “We hung out together for a number of months. It turned into a two-and-a-half-year project.”
With a year to go before the launch, Freyss moved to the yurt with Cole. “It was great, very different. It was a challenge, but really fun,” said Freyss.
With a first mate to help him, Cole said they powered through and finished the boat and launched it in April, 1979.
“Chuck’s dream was to go surfing in warm waters, and to have his home with him,” recalled Freyss. “That’s what we were doing.”
“He’s so enamored of surfing,” said Freyss, who does not surf. “The whole picture of it, the lifestyle of it, the beauty of it and the power of the ocean and the feeling you get when you’re out there riding a wave. It’s alive in him, even when he’s on the land.”
One of his yurts, in fact, has surfboards that Cole built and surfed over the years serving, essentially, as siding.
They sailed under an Earth flag, said Cole. They sailed their way down the East Coast to the Caribbean, including Tortola and Vieques.
When they left Wellfleet, Jimmy Carter was President and when they returned four years later, Ronald Reagan was in the White House. They left with themselves, a dog and a cat, and they returned with the dog, the cat, and a two-year-old son, Cedar Oceanus.
“It seemed like it was a great name,” said Freyss. “We both loved the cedar swamp, and the boat was made of cedar. And he is related to Oceanus Hopkins, a child born onboard the Mayflower.”
Back in South Wellfleet with a two-year-old son, the young couple began to build a life in the woods.
It wouldn’t last forever. They divorced after 18 years, but they remain close and Cole, in fact, suggested that Cape Cod Wave reach out to his ex-wife as a source for this profile.
The yurt compound began to grow and their son got older and they began a new project in 1983, a 38-foot, 11-ton sailboat that is still under construction.
In some ways, Cole is looking to recreate some earlier magic when he found a first-mate and sailed away to chase warm weather waves. He’s looking for a new first mate now, and this time the plan is to go to New Zealand.
“He is a naval person, in terms of the original root of the word,” said Korim. “His soul is with the boat and with the water. It’s the peaceful warrior thing,” she said.
Weiser, his compatriot from WOMR, said, “The fact that he’s been working on that boat for decades, I don’t know how to process that any more than you probably do. It didn’t seem nearly as far-fetched 15 or 20 years ago when I first met him.”
It’s not at all far-fetched to Cole. When he started it, it was as real as the trip he had just finished. “When he gets excited about something, he jumps in with all four feet,” said Freyss.
Even now, sitting nearly finished in his yard among his yurts, it doesn’t look far-fetched. It looks close to finished, but not finished.
“He has great starter energy,” said his daughter, Sky. “He likes to do things with other people. He loses some steam when he doesn’t have the crew. My parents separating was a big slowdown. In many ways, he’s been seeking that sailing partner ever since… I really want my Dad to finish that boat.”
When he had that sailing partner, they began to build a life that Sky, years later, remembers as, for a time, “magical.”
November Sky Freyss-Cole was born in the yurt in what she has learned was “the most hippie magical birth that ever happened in South Wellfleet.” She was born at 5 a.m. on November 1. Her parents always intended to call her Sky and because of her birth date, her real name is November Sky.
“For many years, my Dad used to email me on my birthday and tell me the story of my birth.” It would be a little different every year, she said, with different details, various ways of telling the same story, obviously so important.
“It was so poetic the way he described it,” she said. “His letter was especially long one year. It was basically the story of my life from his perspective, with a long list of all my friends and the people in my life. His ability to notice the people around him and what’s important to them is a special quality,” she said.
Sky remembered at Christmas time there was a spot they weren’t allowed to go “because the elves were working.” In fact, Cole was hand-making his children dollhouses, skis, snowboards and more. “He was always figuring out how to make things with wood,” she said.
“As a kid, I did homework by a Kerosene lamp,” she said.
After his divorce, Cole found another partner for a while, and had another child, Soleil Osprey, who is 20.
“They are all good friends,” Cole said of his children. “They’re good to me and to each other. They love their Mom and Dad. And they still love their names. Children of the counter culture, sometimes they run the other way. But they have embraced it.”
“My Dad used to say to us, we may live in the woods in South Wellfleet, but we are part of the community, and that’s meaningful,” said Sky. “And beyond that, we are human beings and we are living on the planet, and that’s meaningful too.”
This ability to find and often express meaning in every little thing spread not only to his children but, in fact throughout Wellfleet and the Outer Cape, where Cole is active in many things. One of those is the old Pond Hill School, which is being refurbished.
Cole is the local project coordinator for the Pond Hill School Community Hall project, which is restoring an 1857 schoolhouse on Route 6, once known as the Fisherman’s School, into a useable library and meeting space.
“My great-great grandfather went to Pond Hill School and grew up to be one of the teachers in the school,” said Cole on some of the reason why he expends so much energy on the project. “I am the head cook and bottle washer,” he said of his role.
“He was always engaged and politically active, said Sky. “I grew up going to Town Meeting. All the Town Meetings, all the things he volunteered at. He was an avid public engagement person.”
“First and foremost,” he’s a teacher,” said Sky. “He was that cool young hippie guy on the playground throwing a frisbee to the kids with his dog running around. He was that guy.”
Sky, who currently works as a facilitator for leadership and organizational development, said, “He planted the seed in me. I’m constantly seeing the fruits and blossoms he planted in me as a child.”
“As a little kid, I just wanted to live in a big white house,” said Sky. “I wanted the other because I wanted to fit in.” Eventually, she realized her father fit in more than most.
“My Dad has always been involved in the community and committed to the betterment of the planet and the people around him.”
Korim said she first met Cole in the early 1980s because “I was a campground person in South Wellfleet… He was definitely part of the South Welleet atmosphere. There was a campground with outdoor live music and walking the beach and music was definitely a big part of it.”
Music is a big part of Cole’s life. “He plays the dulcimer,” said Korim, who plays the bowed psaltry, which she described as a “triangular bowed instrument that’s strung. Korim plays in a group called the Beat Greens at the Wellfleet Farmer’s Market, and Cole “is a defacto member of the Beat Greens,” she said.
Cole also does sound for concerts at the First Encounter Coffeehouse.
And he runs the Wellfleet Drum Circle and he shows movies, often surf movies. “If I charged money, I could get 20 or 30 people to go,” said Cole, who has a unique view of capitalism. “But it’s free, so I get six or eight people instead.”
Beyond music, Korim said she bonded with Cole over his peace activism. “With his peace vigils and other things, his dedication is as if it was a military commitment,” she said. “His discipline about things is very powerful. He shows up.”
It took seven years for WOMR, community radio in Provincetown, to get on the air, said Cole, who began volunteering for the station two years after it went on the air. Essentially, Cole went sailing to the Caribbean for four years and “when I came home I found out there was a radio station.”
Cole was enthralled. “I was listening to programs that made me cry. They put tears in my eyes, literally.”
When one of those programs was going off the air for a while, Cole volunteered to be part of a temporary replacement plan. Soon he had his own show.
“It felt like the hippies were waving this radio flag,” said Cole. “We could say and play what we want. That’s freedom.”
Freyss recalled, “When the station started, we both got interested… He just jumped right in. And he’s been faithful every single week, leaving at 4 a.m. to get to the station. And he’s good at it. He has a great ability to retain names and information about music.”
“It felt like the hippies were waving this radio flag. We could say and play what we want. That’s freedom.” – Chuck Cole
Thursday mornings on WOMR, community radio from Provincetown, are for “Thursday First Light With Chuck Cole.”
“He exemplifies, to me, one of the most attractive things to me about community radio,” said Seay. “Sometimes, you get a program that you would just never get anywhere else.”
“The first hour is usually some kind of chanting,” said Seay. “The show is called First Light, to gradually bring you into consciousness.”
Cole puts a lot of thought into his program, and the songs he plays, once he gets into the “folk and roll” part of the show, all have a message. Cole doesn’t so much preach his message of peace as he lets the music do the talking.
“Peace and enlightenment are two things he tries to bring to his show,” said Seay.
During his show as he talks about the music, Cole’s voice is understated, soft, almost monotone. And then, near the end of is show, he spends 15 minutes reading a book aloud on the air, and he becomes something of a a professional narrator, full of drama and inflections.
“I’ve read 35 complete books on the air since I’ve started my program. I read aloud every week for 15 minutes,” said Cole. “Most of them have been sailing stories,” he said.
It is impossible to underestimate the role that reading, and books, have played in his life.
“I’ve read 35 complete books on the air since I’ve started my program. I read aloud every week for 15 minutes. Most of them have been sailing stories,”
As Korim said, “There’s a lot of books in that yurt that have been weathering the climate.” And a key decision he faces on the inside of his nearly finished boat is where to put the bookshelves.
Sky said, “He has a profound respect and love for all the books that he has.”
And his kids, when they were young, were involved in Cole’s radio show and, in fact, said Sky, “We were learning to read on the air.”
“When we were young, we would go with him to his radio show. He’d wake us up at 4 in the morning, and there’d would already be blankets in his truck and it was warmed up. It wouldn’t be every week, but definitely on a regular occasion,” she said.
“We would sleep in the truck. He’d park it right outside the radio station so he could see us. It was Provincetown at 5 in the morning, it was safe. And then whenever we’d wake up, we’d join him on the radio show, reading the community announcements.”
“It was awesome. As a Dad, he saw us as little people. He had no qualms whatsover about what anyone thought,” said Sky.
“He got us reading on the air at at really young age,” she said. “Or singing along too. We were the three, or four-year-old version of Lady Di (a WOMR deejay well-known for singing along to songs she plays).”
“What most moved me about Chuck,” said Seay, “was how he cared for his aging mother.”
After their father died, Polly Cole said her brother, who lived down just down the hill from their mother, spent time with her and then, in her later years, she developed Alzheimers disease.
Although Polly would return from Vermont and other relatives and friends would help, it was Cole who was always seen with her.
“He took her everywhere, said Polly. “Even when she wasn’t that aware of people, he took her to concerts, the Fourth of July parade, all over. He’d just load her in the car and take her along.”
“It was very moving to see that kind of dedication,” said Seay. “It was moving because he could have easily parked her in a wheelchair and just gone to see her once in a while.”
As Weiser pointed out, “His mother lived down there in that hollow for pretty much her entire life, except when she was overseas with her husband. And at the end, she was not put in a home. Chuck stayed with her and took care of her and got other people to help. I didn’t do that with my Mom. Did you?”
“When I say he lives by his principles,” said Weiser, “he really does. That’s a lot to do.”
“It was one of the most beautiful and meaningful things I’ve ever been a part of,” said Sky. “Along she went wherever he went… He’s such a member of the community and involved in so many things that she gained a lot of friends in those years. She was along for the ride. It was really sweet.”
“Do you like oysters?” Cole asked.
Quick disclosure: When I visited Cole, he gave me the best oysters I have ever tasted. All Wellfleet oysters are spectacular. These, he got from his secret spot close to his yurt compound.
“Wherever my Dad goes, any pot luck or any concert or any gathering, he brings oysters,” said Sky. “He gets them from down the street near chair rock. It’s a rock that looks like a chair.”
And he bring the oysters he gets himself to these gatherings, said Sky. “And for him, the best part is he will sit and shuck the oysters and people will come by and chat with him.”
She recalled telling her father of being invited to an event that had an oyster contest. “My Dad went out and found the most beautiful oysters,” she said. “Each one was perfect. It was a cold time of year, but he was so happy to go out and get them. He literally picked every one. And of course, my Dad’s won.”
Korim recalled seeing Cole on the first day of spring this year, when a friend had a spring equinox gathering. “It was the epitome of the off-season, there was one person left,” recalled Korim.
“Chuck showed up and brought some oysters with him that he had gotten that morning. That’s Chuck, showing up and sharing quintessential Cape stuff, epitomized by the oyster.”
“It’s a real tribute to his parents that they allowed him to be what he really wanted to be,” said Freyss. “His parents were so loving and accepting of him.”
Cole has passed that on to his own children and he seems to want to bring that to his community, through all of his activities as well as his radio show.
“I think the important thing is that you don’t have to be loud to be noticed,” said Weiser. “If you go about living in a principled way, it has its impact. Does it have as much of an impact as somebody on reality TV, or buying an ad in a newspaper? No it doesn’t. But it does have an impact.”
“He’s always had that hippie ethos of freedom and justice,” said Seay. “I love Chuck. He’s a free spirit, that’s for sure.”
Sky recalled a moment from her childhood. The family was returning from a trip to Maine on the sailboat.
She remembers details. The next day was Dad’s birthday.
“It was August. It was the middle of the night,” said Sky.
Cole said it happened at midnight on August 22, 1991 at a very hight tide.
“We had hit the rocks at Jeremy Point. I get woken up by my Dad. He said, ‘We hit the rocks. We’re sinking. We climbed in a little dinghy.”
Cole said he later found a hole the size of a watermelon in the boat.
“I was about 6 when it happened,” said Sky. “Everything was floating away. It was kind of disorienting. We knew we weren’t very far from home, but the currents were really hard, and my brother was getting scratched up by our cat.”
They eventually, in what “felt like hours” got their way to Jeremy Point and rode out the night to discover their boat sitting on a spit of land, not as damaged as they thought.
Later, he even set up a clothes lines and dried out his books in the sun while he fixed the boat and told the story to all who asked, said Sky.
But what she most remembers is the row to Jeremy Point. “As he was rowing, I remember all of us remarking how the phosphorescence was absolutely amazing. In the middle of the mayhem, we had learned to notice the magic in the sparkling water. That kind of sums up my father.”
“It might be a little crazy,” said Sky. “The boat may be sinking but there’s ways and time to notice the magic and be together in the moment.”
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