What does it mean to be a musical celebrity on the Civil War preservationist circuit? Kyle Thompson can't believe he knows.
More than eight months ago, the 43-year-old Californian began putting into motion his dream to raise as much money as possible to save Civil War battlefields and to do it by recording folk songs he'd written about a war three of his great-great-great-grandfathers had fought in on the Confederate side. The catch: He had to do it fast. Diagnosed at age 37 with Lou Gehrig's disease, Thompson has seen his arms and hands atrophy and his throat muscles weaken.
Thompson's story touched National Park Service superintendents throughout the East, who let him record at historical sites after hours, including the Old Salem Church in Spotsylvania and the Dunker Church at Antietam. Backed up by four friends from California and the cigarette lighter in his van (for electricity), Thompson recorded "From the Fields," hoping to persuade a few parks to sell it in their gift shops.
But things went a lot further than that.
The Civil War Preservation Trust said Thompson's CD has raised $1 million. About $258,000 came in a fundraising drive the trust did using his story. A foundation that works with the group matched that figure, and government funds will match that half-million. Donations to the trust are typically doubled by matching deals.
Thompson recently moved from Orange County to Arizona, where he and his wife could afford to build a home that would accommodate his growing special needs. While he said he is increasingly tired, Thompson won permission in June from the New York Yankees to record a song he wrote about former Yankee Lou Gehrig -- whose fight with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis attached his name to the disease -- at Yankee Stadium.
He's hoping the team will play the song at games and raise awareness of the degenerative disease, which attacks the brain and spinal cord and often kills in less than five years.
Why do you think your CD had such an impact?
A lot of people are touched and moved that I wanted to do this when I could very easily lay here and not do anything. I hope to a certain extent above and beyond the ALS portion that the poetry of the lyrics moved them.
How do you think people in this region view the Civil War battlefields?
I think more people are moving toward conservation. They realize it's a commodity for their communities to preserve these things.
How do people in California, where you are from, see this issue?
They don't at all -- it's a nonissue and a nonsubject. And that's sad. National parks in general are our heritage, and that stuff should be preserved for people to enjoy.
What was the most interesting thing you saw in your journey making the CD?
When I was reexamining the photos from the trip for the CD, there is a ghost on one [at Dunker Church]. There is the face of a soldier in one of the windows. I enlarged it more and more and all of a sudden this guy's face comes out, with a uniform and a moustache. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.