When Charles Kap was nine years old, his father took him to see the movie The Buccaneer, starring Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson and Yul Brynner as the pirate Lafitte. The movie is about the defeat of the British at the battle of New Orleans, but the scene that made Charles sit bolt upright in his seat was the one where the British troops begin to advance on the American lines in the film’s climactic battle. The British are led by lines of bagpipers, and it was the bagpipers who caught Charles’s eye. Born to Scottish parents, he was orphaned at five and adopted by an American couple at six; the bagpipers were the first sign of his native country he had seen in three years.
“They thunder up,” he remembers, describing the sound of hundreds of bagpipers beginning to play at once, “and I was just jumping up and down in my seat, saying to myself, ‘AH right, the Americans are really going to get it now!’ But all the Scottish guys just got cut down, and I was thinking, ‘Hey . . . why are all the good guys dying?’ ”
Charles owns a video cassette of The Buccaneer now, and he has seen it so many times that it takes him only a few minutes to flip precisely to the scene where the bagpipers make their dramatic march toward the Americans. His Scottish roots are important to him; they are just about the only thing that has been with him all thirty-two years of his life, a life as bizarre and eventful as any screenwriter could dream up.
Charles is not a tall man, and his belly is beginning to bulge a little more than he would like it to. With his long-ish, wavy black hair and drooping mustache, his T-shirt, jeans, and grimy yellow baseball hat, he still looks very much like the welder he was until two years ago. In those days he traveled up and down the West Coast, working wherever he could find a steady job, eating junk food and sleeping in dingy motels. Charles has worked in shipyards in San Diego and on high-rise buildings in Seattle. Once, a fall from a building nearly cost him his life.
But that was a long time ago, and things are different for Charles now. Very different. Now Charles is a millionaire. He didn’t invent anything, although he admits he would like to, and he didn’t win his fortune on TV game shows or at the slot machines in Las Vegas. He inherited it from the woman who adopted him twenty-six years ago, a rich American who picked him out of a line of kids in an orphanage “because I had the cutest smile or something.’’ For Charles, the inheritance came as a complete surprise; in all those years his adoptive mother had never discussed finances with him.
There are elements of Charles’s life that sound like a fairy tale. But rather than comparing it to the Frog Prince or Cinderella, Charles and his wife Rene say it is more like Alice's Adventures Under Ground. It has not all been good, not even the inheritance. There have been long and bitter legal battles swirling around the money, and the two of them have lost a few friends in the struggle to adjust to being instantly rich. Then there are the phone calls. Two days after Charles’s mother died, someone phoned his mother’s lawyer and said now that Charles Kap was a rich man, his wife might try to kill him. Neither Charles nor Rene thought the suggestion was very funny, and they’re still trying to figure out who could possibly have known he had inherited anything. The other phone call came more recently, after Charles and Rene moved to their new house last year. “I’m sure it was a prank," says Rene, “but someone called in the middle of the night and said, ‘Lock your doors.’ That’s all, just ‘Lock your doors.’ ’’The thing is, the two of them are in no position to take pranks like that lightly. They’ve gained financial security, but lost security of another kind: the security of being anonymous.
For these reasons and others, Charles asked that a few precautions be taken for this article. Rene isn’t his wife’s true name, and Charles Kap isn’t his, but both names are close to the real thing. A few locations have been judiciously fudged so that no one can use them to track Charles down. It isn’t as easy being rich as you might think, Charles insists, although at times he is able to see the lighter side of his situation, too. For one thing, he told me, “It’s kind of creepy when you get to know your IRS man by his first name."
The house where Charles and Rene live lies in the rocky hills near Ramona. It is scrub oak and manzanita country, and on an August day the temperature can reach 110 degrees and the hordes of flies — “the national bird of Ramona" Charles likes to joke — can be ferocious. Charles used part of his inheritance to buy this house with its ten surrounding acres, but although it cost him $250,000, the house itself is nothing opulent. The interior is paneled with oak, there is an immense stone Fireplace, and the bathroom sink is made from a giant conch shell; other than that it’s a pleasant but unspectacular house. Some of the furnishings are things Charles and Rene have owned for years, and others once belonged to Charles’s mother. The two styles tend to clash, reflecting the way the Kaps’ lives have been divided into two distinct periods — pre-inheritance and post-inheritance. Nothing illustrated this better than the dinner they invited me to one evening not long ago: the food was served on Wedgewood china, on an old wooden table that Charles picked up years ago at the Salvation Army.
We sat in the kitchen as Charles told me about his life. He sometime speaks with a light Scottish brogue that tends to appear, he said with a wink, after he has had a few beers. Charles doesn’t remember much about his original Scottish parents — just that they raised sheep or sheep dogs, and lived in the mountains in Scotland. But they were in Ireland — Charles doesn’t know why — when they went to a livestock auction to sell some of their animals. “Best I can remember is, they sold something, and made a pretty good chunk of change. So I was sent to the local pub with this older friend to get a couple of pints to celebrate.” While Charles was out buying the ale, the auction hall with his parents inside was obliterated by a bomb thrown by a member of the Irish Republican Army. “I can remember flames, and sheep parts all over,” said Charles, who was five years old at the time. “It was a big building, and parts of it were still standing. I was too young to really know what had happened, but old enough to realize it was bad. There I had seen my parents with this money, and then, boom. I was one big tear gland. And after than I went to the orphanage in that town, which I think was Londonderry.”
Less than a year later, the couple who would become Charles’s new parents journeyed to Ireland to adopt a child. Anton Kap was a Hungarian who came to the United States between world wars to seek his fortune. The woman he married, Bentonia Green Kap, was the daughter of a wealthy Seattle family which owned, among other things, a chain of banks and a number of other buildings and properties in downtown Seattle. The Kaps had had a son of their own, but the child died in its infancy, and afterward Bentonia Kap became sterile. By the time she and her husband decided to adopt a son, they were nearly fifty — too old to be accepted by any adoption agency in the United States. So they traveled to Ireland, where the adoption laws were much less strict, and it was there they selected Charles. They took him to Seattle, but his lungs were weak and he coughed a lot, so they moved to Tucson and Palm Springs, where the air was drier. It was also a lot hotter; too hot, in fact, for any of them, so they moved one more time, to balmy San Diego. That was in 1958.
For the next three years Charles lived in a succession of houses in Bird Rock and La Jolla Shores. He went to the beach often and enjoyed it, but in general his childhood years in San Diego were not happy ones. His mother was a recluse — she often voiced fears of being kidnapped — and she became fanatically protective of Charles, too. “Every time I wanted to go to the beach, she would bring out this little book with newspaper clippings on every possible kind of accident — drownings, shark attacks,” Charles remembered with a sigh. “She totally overprotected me because she had lost her first son. It was her own way of showing how much she loved me. Of course, at the time I was always saying, ‘God, Mom. . . .’ ” Charles’s new parents also tried to avoid any mention of his Scottish past. The memory of it still makes him indignant. “It sounds kind of cruel to say, but I was acquired to be a toy for their benefit and nothing else,” he said. “My mother believed I was her natural child, and my father just tried to go along with her.... He had a temper, and they were both very authoritarian in many ways, so I never questioned them. I felt outnumbered. But I mean, it was almost blatant lying. What was the masquerade? I knew.”
Throughout the time Charles was growing up in San Diego, his mother’s family continued to live in Seattle. There were few big family get-togethers, but when Charles did see his relatives, he was uncomfortable. A foreigner in a new country, he felt like an outsider in his new family, too. “I just didn’t fit in. It was just the feeling I got. I wasn’t really well liked, because I was the foreigner. My father was a building contractor, and occasionally one of the kids from Seattle would come down to work for the summer as a kind of apprentice. And we went to Seattle once in awhile, too. I have one cousin I love dearly, but she was the only one who would come over and play with me. . . . Everybody else would kind of look at me like, ‘Oh, there it is.’ ” Now and then, Charles said, his cousins would tell him that some day he was going to be rich, but they would never say anything more about it, and he finally concluded they were teasing him.
In 1961, when Charles was eleven, his father arranged for him to attend the San Diego Military Academy in Solana Beach. Soon after that, Anton Kap began building the house of his dreams on a vacant lot in La Jolla Shores. By 1963 the house was finished enough for Kap and his wife to move in (Charles was living most of the year in barracks at the academy), but within a few weeks Kap contracted pleurisy and died. After his father’s death, Charles remembered, his mother “locked herself in [the La Jolla Shores house] and never came out. That was her fortress. You couldn’t blast her out of that house.”
Attending the military academy was a mixed experience for Charles. While he was there he became interested in drumming, and for seven years he played snare drum in Ihe academy’s military band. (The drum was another throwback to his Scottish heritage; before his original parents were killed, a neighbor of theirs had once shown him how to play the snare drum, which is an integral part of a Scottish pipe band.) But as he grew older, he began playing bass guitar in a number of rock and roll bands, and the short, military-style haircuts he got at the academy made him feel foolish when he was with his musician friends. He also resented being told what to do virtually every minute of the week. In retrospect, Charles says, the academy “was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. We weren’t allowed to be ourselves, and what it did was, it instilled discipline. You went out of there with your head together.”
At the time, though, the main thing for Charles was getting out of the academy, period. When he finally graduated in 1968, he and his girlfriend eloped to St. Joseph, Missouri, where her parents lived. He grew his hair long, and found work in a chemical plant; later, he worked as an (unlicensed) trucker hauling frozen food from Missouri to New Jersey. Charles hadn’t bothered to tell his mother where he was going, but she hired detectives from the Pinkerton agency to find out what had happened to him, and they tracked him down in St. Joseph after just a few weeks. It wasn't the Pinkertons that made him return to San Diego, though. The moist Missouri air kept giving him lung problems, just like he’d had as a boy in Seattle, and he began to long for the beach. After only four months, he and his wife returned to San Diego, where Charles received a tiny, tiny taste of the money that was in his mother’s estate: a $10,000 trust that became his because he had married.
Charles took the money and put himself through welding school (he had become interested in welding while working at the chemical plant), and settled down to be a blue-collar family man. For the next few years his wife raised their young son and daughter while Charles worked as a ten-dollar-an-hour welder in shipyards on heavy equipment, and on high-rise buildings. He bought a house in University City, on Florey Court, and his wife and children stayed there while he traveled wherever he could find a good job: Texas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle. “When a welder booms out, you end up working fourteen- to fifteen-hour days, seven days a week," Charles explained. “The whole thing is, you live cheap and travel cheap. You stay in flophouses and send all your money home. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be worth it.” The job has its hazards, he acknowledged, but they never really bothered him; at least, not until 1972.
Charles was working on the twentieth floor of a high-rise in Seattle that year when he unhooked his safety belt from the girder he was working on. He had finished welding one section, and was going on to the next, but a crane operator below didn’t see him moving along the building’s framework. “I saw the crane’s boom coming toward me,” Charles told me, “and then — phhht. I fell inside [the building], and I just kept falling, inside, outside; I’d roll down something, then fall again. They figured the total fall was 160 feet. But I lost it after about the third hit. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground. I looked at myself, and I was just in pieces. . . . Then I passed out. I had no pain until later, but then, oh, Jesus Christ. My back was broken in two spots, my neck was broken, my jaw was broken, my skull was fractured, both arms, elbows, and wrists were broken, my right leg had been crushed. The list goes on. . . . I was in the hospital for about six months.”
He returned to work as soon as he was able to, but the pain of his injuries stayed with him over the next few years, and he had to avoid certain welding jobs, particularly ones that required climbing. His marriage began to go sour — partly because his physical condition precluded spending much time with his wife, he admits candidly — and the rest of his life seemed to be slipping out of control, too. Although he had joined a union, there were weeks when welding jobs simply couldn’t be found, and Charles had a lot of bills to pay. About that time, he met Rene.
“I had an Ozzie-and-Harriet childhood,” Rene told me. “It was the most boring childhood in the world. I’m just a typical Californian. I mean totally, man, really.” She laughed. A green-eyed beauty with long, wavy brown hair, Rene was the third of her parents’ four children. Her father worked as an installer for the phone company, and Rene grew up in Clairemont and graduated from Clairemont High School, class of ’75. After graduating she worked as a telephone operator at the Sheraton Hotel on Harbor Island, and briefly moved out of her parents’ house. But she was living with them again when a guy who lived next door invited her to go see a garage band he was managing. The band practiced in the garage of a house in University City, on Florey Court.
“I just thought he was so cute,” Rene said of Charles, who was playing bass in the band. “But he was married and had two kids. I thought, ‘Oh well, too bad.’ But then I found out he was getting a divorce. Poor guy, he had no food, no car. . . .”
Charles’s living situation at the time was peculiar, to say the least. His wife’s boyfriend had moved in with them, and the two of them slept in the master bedroom of the house Charles was buying, while Charles slept on a couch in the living room. His wife had become bitter about their impending divorce, Charles explained, and was just being nasty. When they finally split and sold the house, his ex-wife got half of the sale price. “She got the gold mine and I got the shaft,” he said, quoting a popular song.
“We went out for three weeks before he kissed me,” Rene continued. “We never spent any money; we didn’t have any. We hung around at the beach and went for walks in Balboa Park, stuff like that. And then we were married in November, 1978, a week after his divorce was final. The whole wedding cost $500. Our big honeymoon was, we spent one night at the Sheraton Harbor Island Hotel. And then we immediately went back to my parents’ house in Clairemont, and lived in my old bedroom for three months.”
Soon, however, Charles and Rene were able to buy a small house on Dwight Street in North Park for $41,000. Wages for union welders had gone up to nearly twenty dollars an hour, and Charles had obtained a steady job on the Coronado Bridge, putting up a permanent painters’ scaffold. “We got a lot of ‘supplies’ off the bridge,’ Charles remembered with a chuckle. “Eight feather pillows, a dil-do, a hundred-dollar bill, three ounces of marijuana. Things fly out of people’s cars as they drive by; they don’t even know they’re gone.” He also got flattened one day by a spare tire that fell off a jeep as it sped by. The tire was struck by a car behind the jeep, flew thirty feet, and smashed into Charles as he stood in the back of a parked truck, breaking his collarbone and knocking him unconscious.
Charles recovered without trouble from that accident, but the injuries from his fall in Seattle continued to plague him. “He was in constant pain, but with this guy you’d never know it,” Rene said. Eventually, the pain became so intense that he was having trouble sleeping, so in 1979 Charles went to a clinic in the North County whose doctors specialize in treating severe injuries. They injected him with curare — the poison used by South American Indians on their blow-darts — on both sides of his spine, to deaden his damaged nerves. Over the next twenty-four hours “it was like this little cold area moved all the way down from my head to my legs, and just eliminated all the pain,” Charles told me, wonder in his voice. “The only trouble I have now is with my right knee here. You never really recover from a fall like that, but I feel a lot better now than I did.”
While Charles and Rene were living in North Park, they visited his mother from time to time in La Jolla Shores. Bentonia Kap had contracted Parkinson’s disease, and was virtually bedridden, but Charles and Rene would sit and watch TV with her, or talk. Rene had given birth to a son in May, 1979, and Charles’s daughter from his first marriage had come to live with them a few months before that, so sometimes they would bring the kids over for a swim in their grandmother’s pool, too. Bentonia Kap had lost none of her protectiveness; when she saw the children in the pool, she would tell Rene, “No, sweetie, no!”
“I must have told her my name a hundred times, but she always called me sweetie, or sometimes by Charles’s first wife’s name,” Rene remarked. “She didn’t seem to realize Charles had been divorced.”
“She had her good days and bad days,” nodded Charles. “Sometimes you’d be talking to her, and she’d start bringing back all these details from sixty years ago, when she was a little girl. Sometimes I’d just let her go on for hours, you know, because she enjoyed it. It was her way of escaping.
“I thought my mother was going to live forever,” he went on. “She was seventy-eight years old, and she was sick, but you didn’t think it was something where she would go all of a sudden.” But Bentonia Kapdid go all of a sudden, of a perforated ulcer, on December 6, 1980. “And then all hell broke loose,” said Rene. “Charles had never told me about any inheritance." There was a reason for that.“ I didn’t know shit about it,” Charles explained.
Charles had to make all the arrangements after his mother died, including contacting his relatives. A number of Green family members came down from Seattle for the funeral. Throughout it all, he never expected there would be much money left in his mother’s estate. She had had maids, nurses, a housekeeper, and numerous doctor bills for the last fifteen years of her life; he was only hoping there would be enough money left “to pay off our house and put some money in the bank, maybe get a car that ran.”
When he got a call from his mother’s lawyer telling him to come down to the office for the reading of the will, Charles figured it was just one more distasteful detail he had to look after. “Just when you think you can kick back, you’ve got to go to La Jolla, got to go to the lawyer’s office, got to sit down in these big chairs. And they say,‘You’ve inherited. . . .’ And they start naming off all these figures with zeros after them, and you start getting this massive headache. You’re in shock; you’re in the space cadets, man. It was like it wasn’t happening.” The lawyers weren’t sure exactly how much all the stocks, bonds, and properties his mother had left him were worth, but they estimated it was a total of about $13 million.
“Look at this place. It’s a fortress,” says Charles. He and Rene and I are standing in the living room of his mother’s old house in La Jolla Shores. There is a huge mirror with a gilded wooden frame over the fireplace, and the walls are paneled with walnut. As Charles takes me on a tour of the rest of the home, he points out a number of touches his father put in when he built his “dream house.” There is not a closet in the whole place, but there are handmade wardrobes with rollers on them in almost every room. Every one of the five bedrooms, as well as the maid’s room, has its own bathroom, and there are light switches on practically every wall. “My mother liked the lights on for security,” Charles remarks as we go from doorway to doorway. Outside, a small rose garden fronts a patio and a swimming pool.
We sit at a small table near the swimming pool. Charles and Rene are both heavy smokers, and at the beginning of the conversation they toss a pack of cigarettes on the table, like a bet in a poker game. Then they reach for it time after time as we talk. Charles also sips a can of Pepsi, a drink he is very fond of. Addiction may be too strong a word, but if someone told him he couldn’t drink Pepsi any more, he’d holler.
Charles and Rene moved into this house two days after his mother died. The first night, they say, they saw a ghost in the bedroom, a woman in white who simply stood in the middle of the room, looking at them. When Rene woke Charles up to point out the ghost, he didn’t think much of it at first, because he was used to seeing his mother look in on him at night when he was younger. “All I can say is, we both saw the same thing at the same time," Charles sums up with a nervous laugh.
Charles’s mother had actually left him two estates. One included the house in La Jolla Shores and assorted stocks, bonds, and bank accounts, with a total value of about $1.2 million. The other estate was her twenty-percent share of the Green family corporation, which owns the chain of banks in Seattle as well as additional stocks, bonds, and properties. Charles’s lawyers estimated that this estate was worth about $12 million, and almost immediately he began a long legal wrangle to sell it at what he considered to be a fair price. He didn’t want to be involved in the family corporation, and he doesn't believe his relatives wanted him in it, either. But the corporation’s bylaws prevented Charles from selling his share outright. The other family members in the corporation had the first option to buy it. (It is common for a small or “limited” number of partners who own a corporation to retain the first option to buy any share of the corporation that is offered for sale.) So he offered his newly inherited coiporation slice to the rest of the Green family. That was when the bitter negotiations began.
“They didn’t offer me anything for months and months, and we had this [federal] inheritance tax that we had to pay within nine months of my mother’s death. They had me over a barrel. [The Green family] was trying to dictate what they were going to pay, when they were going to pay it. . . .” It was for more money than he would ever need in his life, but still he ref used it. “I just assumed they didn’t w;.nt to give me anything they didn’t have to,” he says. “Obviously, when they waited six months to give me an offer, it was going to be a low offer. And I was willing to gamble. I figured this was a once-in-a-lifetime shot, and I went for what I thought was right.”
When Charles didn’t get a second offer from the Green family, he threatened to advertise his share of the corporation for sale in a Seattle newspaper. He couldn’t have actually sold it, but he figured the ad would have embarrassed the family. “All of a sudden this little nobody living in another state lists every damn thing they own, and what [my share] is worth,” Charles explains with a chuckle. “They knew me well enough to know that I would probably do it. So then they came back with [a higher offer], and I said it still wasn't enough. Dicker, dicker, dicker, dicker. We wound up with $5.6 million. I probably could have sued them [over the difference between that figure and what his own lawyers estimated his share of the corporation was worth], but it could have gone on for years and years. At the time, I was really drained; for months, nothing else had been on my mind. So I took the chicken shit way out. I figured it was already more money than I would ever want.”
In the end, Charles received about $6.8 million from the two estates, before paying inheritance taxes and nearly $120,000 in lawyers’ fees. He shrugs off the lawyers’ fees as money well spent, but he speaks disgustedly of the fact that the Internal Revenue Service was able to take more than $2.5 million in taxes from him. Still, what he and Rene have today is four million dollars’ worth of property, stocks, bonds, and cash — quite a turnaround for a'welder who considered $2000 a good month’s earnings. The dividends from the Kaps’ investments alone now average close to $40,000 a month; the monthly bank statements come on four pages of large computer paper, listing in tiny print every stock and bond they own. “I try to go through [the statements],” Rene tells me, “but. . . Her tone indicates how difficult and boring she finds such tasks. Charles does not look at the statements at all. It is enough for him to know that he has more money than he could possibly use.
“One thing you want to do when this first happens is tell everybody,” Charles says. “Then you start finding out who your friends are.” Charles and Rene says they have lost at least five friends in disputes over money in the last two years, ironically, “not because we didn’t lend them money, but because we did lend them money,” Rene says. In a typical incident, they loaned one friend a few hundred dollars to get his car repaired. The friend never bothered to repay the loan, apparently thinking his rich acquaintances wouldn’t care. ‘‘It’s a Catch-22,” Charles complains. “If you lend them money, that happens, and if you don’t lend them money, they think you’re stuck up.” Another time, friends who had rented the Kaps’ Dwight Street house began to pay only partial rent, assuming their rich landlord would let it slide. When the tenants accidentally punctured a freon line while defrosting the refrigerator, they expected Charles to pay for that, too. ‘‘When you feel you’re definitely being taken for granted, that’s what hurts,” Charles says.
Other aspects of their lives have changed, too. “Before [the inheritance], we couldn’t get a loan on a coffee table,” says Rene. “Now we get offers all the time. E.F. Hutton calls us on the phone” — she giggles at the ludicrousness of it — “and they want to talk to us! You know how hard it is to get just the average American Express card? American Express sent us the forms for the gold card. And they don’t want to know anything; they just want us to sign our names.”
Charles and Rene have been deluged with offers like the one from American Express, but they have turned them all down. They have only one credit card, and it is the same one they had before the inheritance — a Sears card. They use it mainly as a second ID for cashing checks. They buy nearly everything with cash, they say, and they have instituted a “system” of going home to think about it first if they see something they want to buy. They have asked the bank that handles their investments to pay them a fixed income of only $2500 a month. “We’re so conservative,” Rene laughs.
“Not conservative,” Charles corrects her. “Stingy. But if you allow yourself to buy a few things you normally wouldn’t have, that’s enough to appreciate [the money]. If I want to get myself a Lamborghini sports car or a yacht, I know I can go out and get one. And then what? Big deal. Some of those things you always dream about, when you can actually have it, you don’t really want it. It sounds weird, but you have to be in the position. . . .”
The two of them have splurged on a few things. To make up for the honeymoon they never really had, they took a week-long trip to Hawaii last summer. Charles donated $1000 to the Ramona Volunteer Fire Department for the purchase of a jaws-of-life emergency device, and Rene once went to a supermarket and bought thirty chickens and twenty jars of peanut butter for the Community Christian Services Agency, a charity that distributes food to needy families. But they have not bought fancy cars or clothes, largely because they are afraid of attracting attention to themselves. Along with the money has come a growing and morbid preoccupation with various things that could happen to them, including kidnapping. “When you’re wealthy, you can’t trust anybody,” Charles declares. “Think about kidnapping. Just because you have something . . . you’re open to it. You lock your doors at night, and you start to conjure up these scenarios, and you start to believe them. And the sorry thing is, they could happen. That’s why people in La Jolla live in these big fortresses. That’s why our profile is so low.”
Charles reaches for another cigarette and surveys the swimming pool nearby. For a year after his mother died, he and Rene lived in this La Jolla Shores “fortress,” but although he had previously lived in the house off and on while attending the San Diego Military Academy, “there were no happy memories for me here,” he says. “It was just a place I was for a while.” Rene disliked the house, too. The only neighbors they ever met were the maid and the butler who took care of the house across the street, she says, and she “felt isolated. When we lived on Dwight Street, people were always stopping by. But people wouldn’t come to visit as often up here. And when people did come, I was afraid what they were thinking about us. They’d bring friends sometimes, and I’d wonder what they were thinking. Besides,” she asks rhetorically, “have you ever tried to clean five bathrooms in one day?”
Last summer Charles and Rene began to look for a different house, and in December they bought and moved into their new place near Ramona. (They sold the Dwight Street house as part of the deal; Rene’s parents now live in the house in La Jolla Shores, which Charles still owns.) More recently, there was a reconciliation of sorts with the Green family in Seattle. In March, Charles and Rene flew up to attend the wedding of one of their cousins, and afterward there was a family dinner. “It was a sit-down dinner for about one hundred people,” Rene remembers. “It was in this hall in a private club that was built in the 1800s; it was like something you’d see in a movie. There was silver, and crystal, and waiters, and candles, and pate — all this fancy, fancy stuff. And we
found out the family hadn’t really been involved in all the [business] hassles with Charles, that it was just their business people. And we got on good terms with the whole family. But Charles is still an outsider. He’ll never be on the inside.”
‘‘They know who I am, and where I live, and that’s about it,” Charles adds. ‘‘And that’s just fine.” He laughs, and pops open another Pepsi.
One evening in August, Charles took me for a drive from his house to Ramona through the Chicken Shit Valley. We climbed into his truck, and Charles pressed the starter button. He had to press it several times before the engine roared to life, setting off a racket inside the cab as the seat and the steering column began to vibrate and the gearshift rattled against the uncarpeted steel floor. The truck is his baby — a 1953 military ‘‘power wagon” that was once used in the Korean War. Jacked up nearly three feet off the ground, it resembles a cross between a jeep and a half-track. Partly because of its thick, military tires and its quarter-inch-thick steel body, it weighs 6000 pounds. ‘‘It only gets eight miles a gallon, and top speed is only forty-five, but if I wanted to get to the top of a mountain, I could go straight up the side of it,” Charles told me enthusiastically.
After coaxing the headlights into coming on — and staying on — Charles set off for Ramona. He had wanted a truck like this for years, ever since he watched one pull his father’s car out of a marsh in Washington. It is one of the few luxuries he has allowed himself to buy since his inheritance, and it is the only thing he owns that he wouldn’t immediately translate into dollars when I asked him. The truck bounced along the dirt road near his house like a speedboat slapping across swells, but Charles was utterly serene until we came to a junction. Suddenly braking hard, he announced, ‘‘Some of our local wildlife,” and jumped out of the cab. A tarantula had stopped in the beam of the truck’s headlights, and Charles scooped it up with his cap and dropped it into the weeds on the side of the road. ‘‘Don’t want it to get run over,” he said with a shrug. Soon he was back in the truck, rattling on down the road toward Ramona in the cool evening air.
Charles said he will always have a blue-collar outlook, but he admitted his inheritance has pushed him into white-collar ranks and beyond, “without my own choice,” he complained. He hasn’t worked for eighteen months, ever since his last job as a welder on the Imperial Bank Building in downtown San Diego. He had already received news of his inheritance by then, but he liked the work he did, and he particularly enjoyed the company of his fellow workers. They were one of the few groups he ever felt he really belonged to, he said, “even though some of them are pretty rough, and I’d just as soon they didn’t know where I am today.” But one day when he was fourteen stories up on the Imperial Bank Building’s steel frame, he looked over the side and was suddenly dizzy. “I couldn’t move for about a minute. I was scared. And I thought, ‘I’d better get out of here.’ Once that feeling hits you, you’re unsafe for your partners and yourself. I left work that day, and I never went back. I analyzed it later, and I think . . . because I knew Rene and I were financially okay, that I began to realize the danger of what I was doing. It had never bothered me before. But I didn’t have to do it any more, and I didn’t want to do it any more.” Charles also mentioned it was pointless for him to take work away from other welders who need it, particularly when his wages would be snapped up by the government because he is in such a high income-tax bracket.
We were roaring across the Chicken Shit Valley by now — a valley near Charles’s and Rene’s house that they have named after its high concentration of chicken farms. Even at night the sour, acrid smell of chicken manure hangs heavily in the air, and Charles said that on a day when the temperature is over a hundred degrees, the smell can be overpowering. “You always know when you’re coming into the Chicken Shit Valley,” he observed. Charles spends most of his time these days ferrying his nine-year-old daughter to school and dancing lessons, looking after his three-year-old son, and practicing the snare drum for the Scottish pipe band he plays in. He has been playing in the same band for about five years, but he has become engrossed in band-related activities since his inheritance. Earlier this year he even journeyed to Inverness, Scotland, to take lessons from a world-renowned drummer. The trip had emotional highs and lows. It was the first time he had set foot in his native country since he left it more than twenty-seven years ago, and it was beautiful, he says; on the other hand, he realized for the first time he was truly an American, not a Scot. ‘‘The last few days, I had just about had it,” he told me. ‘‘It was like I had an A [for American] burned into my forehead.” His clothes were different, his hair was cut differently, and although he spoke to the natives in his strongest Scottish accent, ‘‘I wasn’t easily understood.” Except for the drumming instruction, he said, the trip was disappointing.
Rene accompanied Charles to Scotland, but she grew homesick after only a few days and couldn’t wait to return to San Diego. She says she isn’t ready for long-distance travel yet, and she seems less certain than Charles about the future. ‘‘Charles is happy; I’m bored to tears,” she had told me earlier as we took a walk around their property. ‘‘We’ve spent a year and a half in limbo, just surviving. It’s horrible, it’s boring, it’s sickening. The first couple of months are great. But after that, doing nothing gets old, so old.
‘‘When something like this happens to you, you have a lot of time to think about things. We’ve gone through thousands of ideas [for investments]. Some are jokes. Like dirigibles — motor-home dirigibles. Wouldn’t you like to have a little blimp of your own? With a little kitchenette? We finally realized, no, no, it wouldn’t work. Someone would shoot you down.
“But,” she went on, ‘‘when I die, I don’t want them to be able to say, ‘Here lies Rene Kap. She lived like a rich person, and never did anything.’ That’s really important to me.” She and Charles are considering buying some apartment buildings, she explained, and they have gone through a number of other schemes, from trucking companies to health spas. Recently she enrolled in a painting class, but she says, ‘‘I don’t really know what I want to do. I just know the desire is there. We’re living like a retired couple, and I haven’t even put my time in yet. There are days I just feel guilty and useless.”
As he maneuvered around the hairpin curves on the way to Ramona, Charles explained that part of his and his wife’s indecision has been caused by delays in receiving the bulk of the money from Seattle; it was “released” from a bank there only recently. But he seems to realize that Rene, who is only twenty-four, badly needs more stimulation in her life and wants to develop some kind of career. It is one more new thing he must find an answer for now that he is rich, one more problem to add to the list of friends who don’t repay loans, people who call him with offers to double his money, worries about kidnapping, and lying to people he is introduced to. “What am I going to say when people ask me what I do for a living?” he asked me, gripping the steering wheel and swinging the power wagon around a particularly tight curve. “Tell them that I’m a multimillionaire? That I don’t do anything?”
We had been driving for some time, and it seemed that Ramona should be around the next turn. But we continued to wind our way across valley after valley with no sign of the town’s lights. I told Charles that most people would consider him to have it made, and he shook his head. “It’s not what you’d think. Some people, you can’t convince. They’ll probably read this story and say, ‘Ah, rich fucker.’ Sure, you get financial security, but all this other bullshit comes with it. And it would be that way for anybody, I don’t care who they are. Is it worth it? I don’t know. There are times I wish I was back in North Park, trying to make ends meet.”
I went to hear Charles play the snare drum recently. He practices one evening a week with his band, in a recreation hall in a San Diego city park. The bagpipers and drummers stood in a circle while they played, and Charles was among them, wearing a green T-shirt and old jeans. His drum hung from his shoulder on a thick white strap, and he tapped his foot as he played.
During a break, he stood around joking with the other band members, his drum sticks tucked casually into a back pocket of his jeans. He seemed to be relaxed and enjoying himself. When the young pipe major called for his band members to assemble again, they took up their positions in rows at one end of the hall, which was about the size of a high school gym. The drummers stood in the back, and at a signal snapped out a drum roll as the group began to march forward, arms swinging and feet stepping in perfect unison. On cue, the pipers hoisted their pipes and tucked them under their arms, and a thunderous drone filled the hall. In the climactic scene of The Buccaneer, when the Americans first hear the bagpipers approaching with the British troops, a worried old solider looks at Charlton Heston and says, ‘‘It sends shivers up and down your spine.” Grim-faced, Heston replies, ‘‘Yes sir, it’s meant to.” I have heard a lot of bagpipe music in my life, but I felt shivers again as I watched the band march down toward the far end of the hall. Charles was in the middle row, in the back, part of the group. □