By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2004
As the last tourists were leaving Appomattox national park Saturday night, Kyle Thompson was just arriving, in his specially equipped van with the handicap tags and his tins of suckers and his recording equipment. They had come to mark the deaths of soldiers in the Civil War. He had come to mark his own.
When Thompson learned three years ago at age 37 that he had Lou Gehrig’s disease, the California chef who grew up surfing in the Pacific saw his life rapidly narrow into a question: What was to be his legacy?
The disease, which often kills people in less than five years, already had left his arm muscles twitchy, too unreliable for pots of boiling water and sharp knives. Then the hand cramps took care of the guitar-playing he’d loved since he was a teenager. These days, the muscles in his throat sometimes fail, leaving him endlessly sucking butterscotch candies or Altoids to keep from gagging. And his doctors warned it could soon get worse: He could lose his ability to sing. That’s what brought this great-great-grandson of three Confederate soldiers back to a quiet Southern field on a Saturday night.
Accompanied by a motley crew of musician friends, a few groupies and a park employee being paid overtime to work off-hours, Thompson began putting his dream in motion: to use his music to honor those who served and died in the Civil War; to record songs he’d written about the soldiers at the battlefields where they died; and to give the proceeds to a national group that keeps the sites from becoming shopping centers. After months of planning and requests to National Park Service superintendents throughout the East, that dream was launched Saturday night, when the group turned one of the Civil War’s most famed sites into an impromptu studio, with a $1,000 store-bought recorder set up on a card table in the foyer of the McLean House, mere feet from where Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant signed Lee’s surrender, marking the beginning of the end of the war.
Tomorrow night, he heads to record at Old Salem Church, at the Battle of Chancellorsville site in Spotsylvania County, and then to sites north.
Thompson, in jeans and sneakers, began with a song he’d written about the war, a piece based on a diary of a Union soldier, while friends from California played guitar and violin. While Thompson had been writing songs about American history for years, playing them just for friends near his home in Orange County, Calif., his diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis changed everything: Now the clock was ticking on his time to explore his own history, and the topic of fighting for your life had become real. He began devouring books about the Civil War.
"Before I would just write for my own therapy," said Thompson, a bear of a man at 6 foot 1, 220 pounds, who looks healthy and broad to the untrained eye — except for when he winces as he swallows. "But when I got diagnosed, I wanted to do something with it. I wanted to give a voice to all those unknowns." He paused and began to smile. "I’m like the unknown voice for the unknowns!"
Thompson grew up playing Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and he aspires to their lyric-oriented, soft folk style. His music is simple, like early country tunes or ballads. The words are haunting, though, particularly as they are infused with Thompson’s newly charged connections with his past and his conviction about having a meaningful future.
"As I write to you dear, there is nothing I fear into battle tomorrow I’ll go . . ." he sings in "A Letter From Shiloh."
"From the fields I hear them callin’ From the fields, where they fell . . .
From the fields there comes a’ singin From the fields, a mournful song From the fields I hear them callin’ Grab your guitar boy and come along. . . . " he writes in "From the Fields," the title track to the CD he’s aiming to have on sale by next Memorial Day, hopefully in national park gift shops and Civil War-oriented magazines.
An aspect of Thompson’s seven-day recording trip, which ends Friday at Gettysburg National Military Park, is his entourage — four friends who took off a week from work and their California lives to play music, schlep bags and simply be present for what they see as an inspiring, life-affirming journey. So while the basic premise of the journey can hardly be called light, the ambiance of the group is celebratory, like a bunch of kids who ran away from home and realized there was a big, wide world out there.
There is little talk of illness and lots of laughing, with Thompson poking fun at West Coasters’ cluelessness about the Civil War and them teasing him for bringing a bottle of Tabasco sauce with him on his road trip, an effort to add more zing to fast food. They make do with their improvised "studio" — they brought beach chairs and will plug the recording equipment into the cigarette lighter of Thompson’s van at every place after Appomattox because the sites don’t have electricity.
"I’m in awe of him," said Tonnie Katz, 59, who retired as editor of the Orange County Register in 2002 and describes herself as "a groupie" on the trip. Her husband, Tad Korn, 63, is the violinist. "To set this goal and to see his vision through — for anyone to do that, and especially for someone facing death," she said.
Thompson picked all four of the sites for this trip for historical reasons: the McLean House, the Old Salem Church, the Dunker Church at Antietam and the Lutheran Seminary Chapel at Gettysburg, although in March he and Korn went to the dome-shaped Illinois Monument at Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi and recorded some Civil War-era violin solos because of the acoustics in the marble-walled structure.
Thompson plans to produce the CD on his own and give all proceeds of any sales to the Civil War Preservation Trust, which buys battlefield land to keep it from being developed. According to the Washington-based group, 20 percent of the country’s key 384 battlefields already are developed; 17 percent have been protected.
He’s also written to the New York Yankees, asking if he could record a song he wrote about Lou Gehrig — whose fight with ALS attached the ballplayer’s name to the disease — in Yankee Stadium, the proceeds of which he says he’d give for ALS research.
The quietest, most unassuming member of his party, Thompson is also reserving energy for what will be a grueling, if euphoric, week for him. While he doesn’t look sick, he said he physically doesn’t have good days anymore, as the degenerative disease attacks his brain and spinal cord and such minor chores as drying himself off after a shower can set off a series of cramps and twitches that leave him exhausted. "A bad day a year ago is a good day today," he said with no inflection.
"My view is, we all die of something; all our times are coming. We have to accept it graciously."
And that’s what Thompson did about 9 p.m. Saturday, after cutting short his recording session because his throat was tired. He’d just explained his song "A Soldier’s Diary," in which a soldier far from home and tired from killing proclaims it "a fine day" because he was paid on time.
"I guess," Thompson said, "every day is a fine day when you’re still alive."
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