A life apart – Driven into exile by obscure disorder, a family starts anew
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As he camped with his children at the eastern foot of Oregon’s Cascade Range, Don Kaput heard the sounds of an Eden far from his frenzied world ” the wind whistling through his ears, the zinging of the fly-fishing lines in the nearby Deschutes River, the gurgling of nearby streams, his children shrieking as trout leaped in the water.
But it was what Don Kaput didn’t experience ” the incessant ringing in his ears, erratic thumping of his heart and bouts of night vomiting ” that liberated his soul on that vacation in 2000.
Among the tall evergreens and rushing waters, away from cell phones, the Internet and cramped highways, the symptoms of his mysterious illness had vanished.
Soon, he would trade his old life in suburban Seattle for one in a rugged, tree-lined Sierra Nevada canyon near Downieville. There, Don Kaput would find his escape from electrical sensitivity, a potent allergy to most forms of electricity.
Some might see his large family’s abrupt move off the grid as self-inflicted isolation. But in fact, his family has survived and thrived away from two-way pagers, microwave meals and must-see TV while living on a hidden patch of wilderness that was once home to a cattle ranch and hardy gold miners.
“We have everything we really need,” said Don’s eldest daughter, 15-year-old Samantha Kaput, who also has shown symptoms of her father’s rare ailment.
Don Kaput, his wife and seven children live removed from most of civilization in an effort to quell the symptoms of a syndrome that has no known cure and more than its share of skeptics.
There are those who believe electrical sensitivity to be nothing more than a hypochondriac’s myth.
But to the family that deals with it every day it is real, and it almost cost Don his life, or so he thought back in the summer of 2000.
“I was writing out these big-ticket checks because we thought he was going to die,” said Don’s wife, Melissa Kaput.
At one point nearly four years ago, the Kaput family began drawing up Don’s will.
“We didn’t know what was killing him, but he was close to death,” said Melissa Kaput, who married Don 18 years ago.
For more than a year, Don Kaput had battled the symptoms of a mysterious disorder as some of the most basic aspects of the 21st century seemed to be making him ill.
By 2001, some of the most mundane tasks ” calling his wife on a cell phone to remind her to pick up a gallon of milk, watching the Seattle Mariners on TV or shopping at the mall ” often sent Don retreating to his darkened room, where he’d spend hours trying to quell the dizziness, nausea and throbbing inside.
Don Kaput and his wife had been to doctors and specialists, and they found themselves considering acupuncture to determine just what was making him sick.
At one point, Don Kaput made an appeal to a higher power, asking God for an explanation.
“I was praying the whole time, ‘Just give me an answer,'” Don said, his dark eyes darting around the kitchen of his Downieville home on a brisk fall morning.
The answer began to appear when he traveled with his family out into nature. For the first time in quite a while, he heard no voices, low hums or clicks. When he returned home, the sounds and symptoms did, too.
Don and his family believe those symptoms of electrical sensitivity most likely appeared years before his wilderness odyssey began, after he developed an aversion to oil-based thinners and solvents used in their painting-contracting business.
The fumes often made him nauseous, and later on his knees and joints swelled, making it hard for him to walk. He developed a skin rash and headaches and would often feel disoriented.
The progression of his chemical sensitivity led to a tinnitus-like sensation in his ears whenever he’d go indoors near electrical components.
“I said to the wife, ‘I feel like (my) ears are clogged all the time,’ that they were dirty,” Don Kaput said. “It got to the point where I thought, ‘I’m going to have headaches for the rest of my life.'”
The headaches, swelling and ringing soon developed into a syndrome, Don and his family believe, brought on by modern conveniences ” such as his 17 years of sleeping on a waterbed heated with electrical currents, which Don said made him vomit during the night.
A family who once couldn’t live without cell phones soon discovered the devices’ low-level radiation could be killing them.
Three years ago, Melissa Kaput fought the construction of a Sprint PCS cellular tower adjacent to their Woodinville home outside of Seattle and said she has found research suggesting the phone towers contributed to her husband’s illness. Her aversion to the towers was so strong that she unsuccessfully pushed for a moratorium on cell phone towers in King County, Wash.
Her proof of the towers’ destructive effect on her husband is a large cardboard box stuffed with copies of affidavits, court files, texts and articles reprinted from the Internet about electrical sensitivity.
Don said he survives now because the mountain they live on blocks signals from the nearest microwave tower near Downieville School. It could be years before cell phone service comes to Lavezzola Ranch, the rugged patch of rolling hills and grassy meadows where the family’s hand-milled house stands today.
Melissa Kaput, a small, bespectacled woman originally from the San Francisco Bay area who serves on the nearby Sierra-Plumas Joint Unified School District board, is convinced such towers and a bombardment of exposure to electrical devices made her husband sick.
“It can be nothing else but that,” she said. “Once we found that out, we didn’t need to validate it to anybody.”
The skies above the Lavezzola Ranch are threatening rain in mid-November 2003 as the seven Kaput children and their three dogs sprint down a steep mountainside, dodging thistles and gopher holes on their way to Lavezzola Creek. Little Jaimeson, all of 2 years old, ambles haltingly, his hands clutching a half-eaten bag of potato chips.
Guests to the ranch often cling to a makeshift harness of ropes tied to metal plumbing pipes in an effort to keep from slipping down the sharp descent.
Melissa Kaput brings up the rear, staying behind just long enough to place a chocolate cake in the family’s antique-style wood stove. The hulking oven is heated by large cedar chunks chopped from the trees around the home, which sits at the crest of a hill.
In minutes, the Kaput children ” Samantha, 15; Danielle, 14; Ryan, 13; Emily, 12; Benjamin, 8; Tessa, 6; and Jaimeson ” have scampered from the home and descended to the banks of the creek, begging Dad to bring their fishing poles.
The ranch itself is a Sierra anomaly at 4,000 feet. Towering cedars and evergreens surround a giant swath of golden carpet once used as a cattle ranch. In the 1930s, the land was worked by Tony Lavezzola, said Cindy McCreary, whose family has owned the Sierra Hardware store in downtown Downieville for more than 50 years. Tony Lavezzola was Cindy McCreary’s grandfather.
Remnants of the past are all over the ranch, including boarded-up cabins, some with stoves and cooking utensils still locked inside.
Down by the creek, Don Kaput hears nothing but crunching leaves underfoot and the rushing creek below.
In Washington, Don and his family lived within two miles of two large department stores. Shopping trips to the mall were commonplace.
“To be a block away from everything was our life,” Melissa said.
Now, they have to travel a quarter of a mile just to knock on a neighbor’s door. The nearest paved road is over a half-hour away. Their perishable food must be eaten quickly, since their propane-powered refrigerator can only be turned on a few hours each day.
Don spends his days home-schooling the couple’s children, rarely venturing off the family compound. Melissa divides time between the couple’s wallpaper-hanging business, ferrying her brood to classes for aikido and performance dance, caring for her husband, and devoting herself to finding answers to her husband’s strange syndrome.
They have lived for almost two years at the top of a hill on 40 acres they found on the Internet and bought with the family’s life savings.
Their house was milled from cedars and Douglas fir felled on the property. The dwelling has no phone and is off the electrical grid. For baths, water heated on the stove is poured into a tub. The Kaput family lives here willingly in an effort to keep its patriarch alive.
While Melissa and Don take their new roles in stride, their children
have adapted remarkably well to a life more suited to the Amish or Swiss Family Robinson.
“People take this as if we’re trying to take away their toys,” Melissa Kaput said. But she and her family insist their choice was made because of Don’s health needs and was not some bizarre back-to-nature stunt.
Convincing people of the reality of her husband’s ailments and caring for her children has become a full-time job. The couple lives largely off of savings garnered from the sale of its large home near Seattle.
Don Kaput and his family are in hearings to determine if he’s eligible for federal financial assistance. Because electrical sensitivity has not been accepted into mainstream medical publications, they’re unable to determine if Don can receive benefits because of his illness.
On the Lavezzola Ranch, Don busies himself with chopping wood, fishing, hiking and tutoring his children.
No longer able to paint houses, Don says he’d like to someday become a full-time farmer or lead outdoor excursions on the trails near his home.
The son of a Japanese mother and German father, Don was born in Taiwan, where his father was stationed as a member of the U.S. Air Force. None of his family members ever developed a sensitivity to the environment like Don did.
These days, Don misses simple pleasures, like being able to turn on the TV and watch a ballgame. Save for a gas-powered generator that he fires up occasionally to run the washing machine, lights and refrigerator, “we’re practically out of power all the time.”
Melissa Kaput often has to coax her husband into staying home, knowing that a trip in their 10-year-old Chevrolet Suburban to watch his brood’s martial arts and dance performances in Grass Valley will leave Don dizzy and nauseated for days.
Home is definitely where Dad’s heart is now, he acknowledged.
“I’ve accepted what has happened to me, whether you believe it or not.”
Long ago, Melissa Kaput said her husband dreamed of living on 40 acres with a wild trout stream. “Be careful what you wish for,” she said, adding that home often feels like her husband’s prison.
Her children, however, have embraced the rapid change with a resilience that belies their years.
In addition to their dance and martial arts classes, all but the toddler, Jaimeson, play stringed instruments, continuing a passion for performance that began when some of the couple’s children were as young as 3.
While they don’t own a Sony PlayStation, surf the Internet or keep a separate phone line for themselves, the children find plenty to do despite the apparent limitations of living an hour away from modern entertainment.
They choose instead to make the fun themselves, having spent the
past holiday season participating in “The Nutcracker” at Grass Valley’s Center for the Arts.
The children have become autonomous in many ways. During a recent visit to their home, Ryan and Ben are seen playing the violin from the balcony of their bedroom as clothes hang on a line, drying in the damp air.
Nearby, Danielle, Emily and Samantha practice for a talent show at Oak Tree School on the San Juan Ridge. Danielle, who has been dancing since she was in diapers, whispers instructions to her sisters from the middle of the long bedroom, which is crammed with textbooks, blankets and beds for each of the children. There is a TV, but it’s rarely, if ever, turned on.
Asked if he’s ever bored, Ryan pulls out a slingshot and baseball-sized rock and lets fly from his bedroom’s balcony.
“There’s too much to do up here.”
When he’s not at school, in aikido class or rehearsing for plays, Ryan is fishing, mountain biking, or climbing hills and trees. He’ll often go tracking for deer or coyote nearby or engage in target practice by the creek.
Ryan, who wears shaded glasses, shares a bunk with Ben.
“You could say it’s OK,” Ryan admitted. “We’re working it out.”
Working it out means sharing chores, activities, even toys. It also means watching out for each brother and sister, two of whom are suspected of having mild forms of their father’s ailment.
Ben, who played Fritz in the recent production of “The Nutcracker,” the orphan boy who turns into a mouse, says he often has a ringing in his ears when he comes to Grass Valley. “It feels like a really big headache.”
Like his father, Ben used to have a waterbed, which he said made him throw up constantly.
“I’m still wondering what woke me up every single night,” Ben said.
Samantha, too, has exhibited some symptoms of electrical sensitivity and experiences ringing in the ears and headaches if she’s been in Grass Valley for a long time.
But Ben, like his brothers and sisters, prefers not to dwell on his family’s ailments.
Don’s illness has forced the children to become independent. They’ll often pair off together, grouped by age, Ryan said.
Danielle and Samantha, who look nearly identical with their long dark brown hair, glasses and dance suits, have become inseparable. The two often finish each other’s sentences.
The transition from adolescent suburbanites to artistically inclined home-schooled young women hasn’t been difficult, both of them admit. Instead, they’ve chosen to focus on helping their family and, like any one else their age, chase dreams.
“What Dad has just came on so suddenly. We all just up and left,” Danielle said. “I thought that’s just the way it was supposed to be. … I never thought about it. It was like, ‘OK, whatever.’ We just sort of went along with it.”
Looking out for each other, Samantha said, comes naturally.
“We’ve all worked together so well, we just sort of clicked.”
Since moving to the woods, Don Kaput has returned to being gregarious and fun-loving, his children said.
He goes dredging for gold and is always looking to build something,
“I think he’s back to his old self.”
Ryan spends time fly-fishing with his dad these days. “He has more energy and doesn’t complain as much,” Ryan said.
Recently, father and son found a gold nugget Don presented to Melissa for her birthday.
During the “Nutcracker” rehearsals at the Grass Valley performance hall, Danielle and Samantha helped director Bon Marie Askew with stage directions and dance schemes.
Dancing, they say, keeps them alive.
“I just love feeling the music, being in the light,” Danielle said. “Not being the star, but a part of it.”
Samantha, who has performed in such stage productions as “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” agreed.
“I just like to know that I’m someone else for a while.”
The siblings’ energy pours across the stage, Askew said.
“That’s what happens when you turn off computers and television.
You’re forced to use your creativity and imagination, and I think it’s a blessing for these children.”
Don’s illness, Melissa said, has strengthened her family, despite the challenges it brings. Don might be lost or homeless without his family, but that’s not why they stick together.
“I married him ’til death do us part. Everything in my life just turned on this,” said Melissa, who met her husband on the Russian River in Sonoma County in 1982.
Since moving to Downieville, the family has struggled to make ends meet. That hasn’t stopped Melissa Kaput from ensuring her children can live full lives, even if it means she must sacrifice for the good of her family.
For two weeks, between Thanksgiving and the opening of “The Nutcracker” Dec. 11 at the Center for the Arts, she hauled yards of fabric and a sewing machine down the hill from Downieville to the Grass Valley building’s Van Gogh room, where she sat sewing, stitching and cutting fabric for dozens of costumes in the show.
Because of Don’s illness, working over a machine at home was out of the question.
Melissa Kaput stitched and sewed furiously for 14 hours each day, stopping temporarily only when two of her children dropped the sewing machine as they carried it down a flight of stairs during the last dress rehearsal before the curtain lifted.
With one day to go before the show opened, as children shuffled between the room and the stage to rehearse, Melissa fiddled with Ben’s costume as she hunkered over a borrowed 1941 Singer electric machine.
“This is kind of cool, but I feel kind of embarrassed,” she said, stitching Ben’s pants together. Nearby, Samantha and Danielle helped Tessa, her hair festooned with ringlets, into a party dress.
Melissa spent days sewing dozens of soldier’s suits, pants, ruffled dresses and coats in preparation for “The Nutcracker.”
In all, Melissa made a quarter of the 80 costumes needed for the performance, relying on her background as a costume designer in college for expertise and ideas.
Moments like these, when Melissa is indulging in her own passions, are rare.
“I really get a charge out of designing things.”
“It’s been mind-numbing,” she said, “but I knew what I was getting into.”
Back at the ranch, the old Suburban roars to life as Melissa Kaput heads down the narrow dirt trail to Downieville after a day of exploring the creek and surrounding hills. She gingerly taps the brakes and alternately shifts between high and low gears as the trail snakes past the creek below.
The tiny burg is six miles of rutted dirt and a half-hour away.
For Melissa Kaput, who spends hours periodically researching her husband’s sensitivity to electricity, each sunrise brings fresh challenges, skepticism from outsiders and new discoveries. Some believe her husband to be mentally ill; others believe his syndrome to be purely the product of a wild imagination.
“How would we ever know?” she asked, the vehicle bouncing along a now rain-slicked road. “This is real. This is what it is.”
The challenge, Melissa Kaput vows, is one she and her family will continue to meet.
“My husband is not a burden,” she said firmly. “He’s somebody we have to accommodate for, because we love him.”
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