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Running on Blind Ambition

One man's outlook on hobbies, passion and living with blindness.

The lacquered white paint of the 1967 Chevrolet C-10 pick-up shines brightly in the early autumn sun, and in small red decal letters on a lower side panel is the truck's name, "Blind Ambition."

Stepping briskly up to the truck, 59-year-old Oak Hill resident Gene Thompson, wearing a striped conductor's hat adorned with a pin of an American flag, lifts the hood and begins to point out the changes he has made to the engine.

"When we first got this, there was a big chunk missing out of the firewall back here, so we had to get in and fix all that," he said, pointing directly to the back of the engine bay before moving his hand up to the inside of the hood. "There was also a big hole in the hood, right here, so we had to replace that as well."

Thompson has revitalized the antique truck over the course of several years into a multiple-award winner at local car shows — and he did all this without the use of his eyesight.

A LIFELONG RESIDENT of the same plot of land in Oak Hill that he and his family have owned for decades and a former roofer by trade, Thompson was diagnosed at 18 years old with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited condition that causes degeneration of photoreceptor cells in the eyes. The condition caused a progressive loss of eyesight until he was classified as legally blind in his 30s.

Despite having to retire early and collect Social Security, his blindness hasn't caused him to slow down on living his life on his own terms.

Aside from rehabbing antique cars — he's rebuilt two and is currently working on a third and fourth — he is an avid skydiver, continues climbing trees to cut overgrown branches, plays in a bluegrass band and does most of the household chores such as the laundry and mowing the lawn.

"He's got a real good attitude, he's a survivor," said Steve Johnson, a fellow car enthusiast from Thurmont, Md., who has been friends with Thompson since the mid-1980s. "The way he's able to carry on his life and live it so richly, despite having a handicap is a real positive inspiration for anyone who meets him."

KEEPING THAT POSITIVE and proactive attitude, Thompson said, is the key to dealing with a condition like blindness.

"I remember when the doctor dropped the bomb on me when I was 18 that I was going to go blind ... and my mom was crying and I just looked at him and said, 'Is there anything you can do about it?" Thompson said. "When he said no, I just shrugged and said, 'Well then, I'll just have to deal with it.'"

"The doctor just had a dumbfounded look on his face, but that's all you can do, there's no sense crying over it."

Thompson continued his work as a roofer and, at 18 years old, built the house that he and his late wife Karen Stevenson, lived in for four decades. Stevenson passed away last year from leukemia; Thompson continues to live in the house.

While the recent death of his wife does still cause him sadness, Thompson said that he continues his life as normal, waking up every morning to face each day with a sense of purpose and duty.

HIS MOTHER, 84-year-old Mary Thompson, who lives in a home about 100 yards downhill from her son, said that it has been Thompson's persistent attitude that has allowed him to live his life as he has despite his blindness.

"I remember years ago when he was young and I told him, 'Gene, you can't do that,' and he looked at me and said, 'Mama, there's no such thing as can't,'" she said. "He's just always lived by that."

And danger due to his blindness has never seemed to be a large hurdle for Thompson to overcome.

He often climbs the tall trees surrounding his home to remove excess branches in addition to his work as a mechanic.

And while he typically works on his cars with the assistance of a friend or family member, there is the constant threat of injury from putting his hands into potentially dangerous parts of an engine. A couple years ago he nearly severed his thumb while working on an engine.

"I remember when the nurse saw my hand she gasped and I said, 'What, is it bad?'" Thompson said of his hand injury. "She just said, 'No, it's just so dirty.'"

As if these dangers weren't enough, Gene hopes to continue his hobby of tandem skydiving by making three jumps in the coming year.

When asked why he skydives, his answer is simple.

"Why do people climb mountains? Because they're there," Gene said.

DESPITE THOMPSON'S personal triumph over a major hurdle towards a normal life, he said that he often is at a loss of words for people who go through similar experiences.

"I'm not sure what to tell people who go through things like this, people who lose a limb or have health problems," he said. "All I can say is that the mind is a very powerful thing. I don't let it control me, I control it, and that's how I get through the tough times."

Even with his positive outlook, Thompson said that he has needed to snap himself out of depression in the past and that he has used his devotion towards projects, hobbies and household tasks as his number one remedy.

"You can't just sit in your chair and feel sorry for yourself, get out and go do something," he said. "When I've got nothing to do, I go out and sweep the garage, I always keep myself busy."

Realizing that his condition is a bit different from some, in that the loss of his eyesight was progressive as opposed to an overnight development, Thompson said that continuing life is all about tolerance and control.

"Some people can't deal with a parking ticket, sometimes the littlest thing can cause someone to go off the deep end," Thompson said. "What it all comes down to is your ability to tolerate what has happened to you."

HIS NUMBER ONE GOAL at the moment is rebuilding a 1955 Chevrolet Cameo, of which only 2,200 were made.

Sitting in his immaculately clean kitchen and flipping a model of the truck around in his hands, Thompson describes the parts of the vehicle that make it unique, smiling as he ponders the challenge of building it from the ground up.

While the last thing that Thompson would describe himself as is an inspiration, to Johnson, the example is clear.

"When I speak about [Thompson] to people, they just can't fathom how he does all the things that he does," Johnson said. "It's just unbelievable what he's been able to accomplish."

"He's a real inspiration."