Jim Lighthizer, president of the American Battlefield Trust.
July 15, 2017
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that they don’t make heroes anymore.
If you’re anything like me, you probably have several Civil War heroes . . . people you greatly admire for their strong character, their indomitable courage and their selfless commitment to a higher cause.
Trust me on this one: in about a minute, you’re going to have a brand new Civil War hero.
That’s because I write to you today not only to tell you about an urgent opportunity we have to help protect 74 crucial acres at the Appomattox battlefield, not far from where General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant . . .
. . . but also, literally, with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to save this land while honoring a man who is giving, in Abraham Lincoln’s immortal words, “the last full measure of devotion” to our shared cause of battlefield preservation. Let me explain . . .
That man’s name is Kyle Thompson, and I first introduced him to Civil War Trust members about ten years ago. This 54-year-old California native shares our passion for the Civil War. You, Kyle and I have read all the same books, seen all the same movies, and visited all the same battle sites.
Like you and me, he feels an extraordinary, emotional connection to America’s Civil War battlefields, and he is appalled by the rampant sprawl that is obliterating them.
And just like you and me, he wants to do everything he can as soon as possible to save the hallowed, sacred ground that means so much to him.
There is just one very crucial difference between you, me and Kyle Thompson, however . . .
. . . you see, fifteen years ago, his doctor told him that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS — otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a fatal nervous system affliction with no known cause or cure. People with ALS usually succumb within five years of the onset of the disease.
Kyle Thompson, however, is a living miracle. He has managed to live fifteen years post-diagnosis, putting him in a class of fewer than 1% of sufferers from this terrible disease.
But it has not been easy. Each day, Kyle endures the relentless attacks from ALS as it destroys the spinal-cord nerve cells which control his muscles. The disease does not affect his mind, however, so Kyle is fully – cruelly – aware of his inescapable, inexorable deterioration. He knows that, eventually, he will likely be entirely paralyzed . . . and not long after that, the muscles that control swallowing and, ultimately, his breathing, will cease to function.
When he was first given this horrifying diagnosis, Kyle’s doctor told him that he should take a long vacation, then work to put his affairs in order.
Kyle Thompson and his dog.
If your doctor gave you that tragic news, where would you choose to go? Well, to prove to you that — without question — Kyle Thompson is our kind of guy, he did something that he had always wanted to do: He embarked on a six-week, cross-country campaign to visit Civil War battlefields.
While visiting Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and the Wilderness in Virginia, he was shocked and outraged — as we all are — at the explosion of urban sprawl that threatens each of these priceless, irreplaceable parts of America’s history.
But rather than simply go back home after his battlefield visits and meekly wait for the inevitable, Kyle Thompson — as audacious as Robert E. Lee and as determined as U.S. Grant — decided that, in the dwindling time that he had left to make a difference, he would dedicate himself to saving the sacred historic places that he so loved.
An amateur songwriter since his teens, Kyle drew from the deep well of powerful emotions that his battlefield visits had inspired, and, over the course of several months, he composed more than a dozen songs about those battlefields and the soldiers’ experiences on that hallowed ground.
He felt such a deep, abiding connection to these historic sites that it was his vision to record his songs directly on the battlefields themselves while he still had a voice left.
So, with the strength in his muscles ebbing to the point where it was becoming difficult for him even to strum a guitar, and even though he had to constantly suck on butterscotch candies to keep from gagging, Kyle and several musician friends “hit the road” again, heading for the battlefields.
In the hush of the evening, usually after all the park’s visitors had gone home, Kyle recorded his songs in such places as Wilbur McLean’s parlor at Appomattox Court House, the Old Salem Church in Spotsylvania County, the Dunker Church at Antietam, the Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg . . . even inside the Illinois monument at Vicksburg!
But it wasn’t enough for Kyle to put some songs on a CD and offer it for sale, raising awareness for battlefield preservation. Even if that was all he had done, we would still owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.
Kyle went the extra mile, however. He believes so deeply in the importance of our battlefield-saving work together that he donated all the proceeds from the sale of his CD to the Civil War Trust!
Think about the enormity of what he has given us for a moment . . . if you found out that you had only a short time left to live, how do you think you would spend your waning days? How would you want to be remembered?
When I speak to audiences across the nation, I often ask them to consider what kind of legacy they want to leave behind them. For most of us, this is a parlor-game question that we have the luxury of pondering at our leisure, or even putting off indefinitely, if we don’t really want to face it.
Kyle Thompson can’t do that.
Here is a man who is the embodiment of what you and I are facing as we race to save battlefields . . . just as Kyle is now measuring out his remaining time, perhaps in months instead of years (despite his incredible luck thus far), we are facing a similar, rapidly closing window of opportunity at many of America’s most sacred sites, including those in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, that so inspired Kyle.
Just as Kyle is painfully and completely aware of the unyielding nature of his progressing disease, we are all too aware of the ruthless malignancy of sprawl that is destroying our nation’s history right before our very eyes.
And just as so many of those courageous soldiers more than 150 years ago filed into battle lines, under withering fire, and marched across those open fields to face certain death, today, Kyle Thompson – one of the bravest men I know – is likewise facing a deadly foe, his head held high, unflinchingly pressing onward without a hint of hesitation, doing what he sees as his duty for the cause he loves.
Where do we find such men? How do we honor such heroes? And how do we prove ourselves worthy of their valor?
Kyle Thompson has defined his legacy: He has dedicated his remaining time and strength to saving America’s Civil War battlefields.
And personally, I cannot tell you how utterly inspired, awed and honored I am by his courage.
Again, I say to you: Don’t ever let anyone tell you that they don’t make heroes anymore.
Don’t let anyone tell you there are no such things as miracles. That Kyle Thompson has lived for 15 years after his diagnosis — three times longer than most ALS patients — is a miracle, and tells me that the Good Lord might not be quite finished with him just yet.
And don’t ever let anyone tell you that one person can’t make a difference. Kyle Thompson is making a huge difference. And today, so can you.
Even more important than Kyle’s generosity — from a man who just as easily and justifiably could have taken it easy and done nothing, mind you — is the reward that his generosity of spirit will bring to our cause.
At the beginning of my letter to you, I mentioned that we are working to acquire 74 acres on three separate tracts of property at the Appomattox battlefield. The properties combined will cost $685,000, but with some matching funds in place, we can save them for $386,500.
As this letter is already very long, let me tell you that these are some of the largest and most significant remaining intact parcels of this battlefield still available to buy — all are shown in yellow on the map.
I can come close to doubling every dollar you send today for this hallowed ground at Appomattox, allowing us to preserve and restore this land. This is important, because on the square 5-acre northern tract, there is a non-historic house that we must tear down. The danger is that if we do not save this land now, someone could buy it, demolish the older home, and construct a new “McMansion” overlooking that portion of the battlefield and historic village!
Again, don’t ever let anyone tell you that one person can’t make an enormous difference.
To help preserve the 74 acres of the historic land at Appomattox, our portion of the $1.80-to-$1 match works out to $4,036 per acre. If you would like to “buy an acre” of that hallowed ground symbolically, I will be forever in your debt. (Of course I can’t send you a deed for it, but you will be able to tell people you saved it!)
There are songs on this CD to appeal to both the Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs still among us; I know you will enjoy it, and I know you will appreciate the heart, soul and effort that Kyle put into it . . . for all of us.
See . . . I told you that you would have a new Civil War hero. But in my book, you are one, too! Thanks again for your help and commitment, and I can’t wait to hear back from you!
P.S. In talking to Kyle before writing this letter to you, he wrote the following note:
“I’m doing okay, I suppose. I have bad weeks, and then I have really bad weeks. In one of Bruce Springsteen’s songs he writes, ‘You get used to anything’. . . sooner or later it just becomes your life.
“I’ve gotten used to the everyday pain, I’ve gotten used to the hundreds and thousands of muscle twitches (except when they are in my facial muscles or diaphragm or ribs . . . those you can’t ignore), I’ve gotten used to the cramping in my muscles that sometimes is so bad it feels like muscle is being torn from bone. I’ve gotten used to frequent gagging attacks (well, no, I lie, I haven’t gotten used to those . . . I hate them, LOL!) and difficulty I sometimes have swallowing certain foods.
“I’ve gotten use to my limitations, accepted them without a lot of grief or self-pity. I still feel incredibly lucky to be alive! I had no idea I’d still be here, some 15 years after the emergence of the symptoms of ALS, let alone still walking and independent. I’ve said it many times; I’m like the sole survivor of a 747 that crashes into a mountain killing all on board . . . except me. Apparently, less than1% of those diagnosed with ALS have progression rates like mine. It’s like having 100 soldiers in a line of battle and 99 of them are killed . . . it’s lonely being a survivor.”
Kyle helped us raise more than $250,000 ten years ago, to help save battlefield land at Gettysburg. Maybe the Almighty isn’t done with him yet . . . maybe Kyle’s purpose is to help us, once more, save the hallowed ground that means so much to him. I’d like to think so, and I hope you do, too. I look forward to hearing from you.
California native Kyle Thompson, former chef, musician, and victim of ALS, recorded a CD of original and period music at Civil War battlefields across the nation, donating the proceeds to preservation.
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