My dad told tall tales.
He told me that he was in the field artillery in World War I. OK.
He told me that he was a track star who played football against Notre Dame. Maybe.
He told me that he built an ice hut one winter and cooked jackrabbits. Hmmm.
You can see where his credibility started to wane a bit.
But no matter what tall tale he told, Thomas Cummings Sr. was, is and always will be my hero.
I’ve never put this in writing before, but my dad was not my real dad. He was my great uncle who adopted me when I was nine months old.
Not long after he retired as a cattleman/civil service worker in Oklahoma, he visited his sister and my single teenage mom — his niece — on a Menominee Indian reservation in Wisconsin.
My biological father was nowhere to be found. Relatives have told me that beer was poured into my baby bottle to stop me from crying, which might have been common in Wisconsin, but it didn’t sit well with Dad, who was the son of a Baptist minister.
As Dad had done with his wife’s relatives, he saw an opportunity to open his home and provide. Dad convinced my birth mom and her parents that I would be better off in Oklahoma.
So Thomas and Mildred Cummings brought me to Oklahoma. And my birth mom was given a full year to decide whether she’d allow me to be the Cummings’ son.
A year later, I had grown attached to this nice couple from Oklahoma. My birth mom granted the adoption. My birth certificate was altered and my name was changed to be Dad’s junior. I didn’t see my birth mom again until I was 24 years old.
Over the years, I was never told of the adoption. It might have been the best-kept secret in the county. I suspected and even researched it, but it didn’t matter at the time. Thomas Cummings Sr. was, is and always will be my father.
I remember how’d he’d sit on the porch and recall great war stories, including one of how his horse-drawn artillery unit was pinned down by the Germans in the French forests.
I would thumb through his yellowed World War I picture books that he brought back. I would stand on his bed and stare at the horizontal, sepia-toned panoramic photo of his unit that hung in his room.
His doughboy outfit hung in our stable for years. Over the fireplace, we had oval portraits of U.S. Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing (even though he was an Indian fighter) and French Gen. Ferdinand Foch. I played with the gas mask that kept Dad alive during the mustard-gas attacks.
One of Dad’s brother-in-laws fought for the British Royal Army in World War I. When he was in from Arizona, they’d sit on the porch and compare war stories.
Nothing much bothered Dad. He was a very confident man. He commanded respect but never swore and didn’t drink. He gave off this tough persona — except when he’d hear the playing of Taps. Tears would well in his eyes. When that happened, I’d hop onto his lap and do my best to divert his attention. No one likes to see their dad cry. Years later, I realized that he was remembering friends lost in the war.
I also loved the great stories of his youth. He told me that he had been a track star, but he’d broken both legs, once when his horse fell on him. The other leg was broken playing football against Notre Dame. He said.
That didn’t seem right, but I certainly wasn’t going to debate this bigger-than-life man.
Just when you bought everything he was telling you, he loved to throw a curve. That’s when he told the jackrabbit story.
In grade school, when everyone else had much younger fathers, Dad was always there. He demanded that I make good grades. He was firm and, when I was punished, I deserved it.
He provided educational materials — encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs, news magazines and called me when it was time for us to watch news on TV. He’d go to my band concerts and my piano recitals. At my junior-high graduation, where I was tasked to giving a speech, he got emotional and told me that he was proud of me. Best graduation present ever.
Dad died when I was 14. He had suffered from symptoms of Alzheimer’s for the last four years of his life. I felt like I had barely known him. Later, as I moved away home for college and to start my own adult life, rural thieves had destroyed or stolen much of the memorabilia at Dad’s house, so a lot of records were gone.
But these people couldn’t destroy my memories of Dad. His legacy continues with my son, Thomas III, and my grandson, Thomas IV.
A few years ago, Ancestry.com provided free access to 90 million records during a Memorial Day promotion. I searched Dad’s name and found his draft card.
The card indicated that Dad had suffered a broken leg while a student at Haskell Indian Institute in Lawrence, Kan. Obviously, he couldn’t, and certainly wouldn’t, fib on a government document, so that part was confirmed.
A few days later, and in good timing, sports novelist Sally Jenkins released her book about Indian schools. She wrote that the Indian schools of that era would play actual games against the elite college football teams.
Wow, then it could be true. No wonder Dad hated Notre Dame.
Like I mentioned, I’ve never written these memories down, but I’m glad I did.
I knew that serving his country made him a hero to others.
For obvious reasons, he’s my hero. Always will be. Love you, Dad.