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Coach Tommy Thompson and the Boys of Sequoyah
By Patti Dickinson
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2009 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
We Only Have Each Other Now [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]
APRIL 10, 1915
Eleven-year-old Tommy Thompson sat straight and stiff in a wooden chair in the superintendent's office, panic and a passel of unanswered questions filling his head: what had made his father show up out of the blue and haul him and his sisters to an orphanage? How long would they be here, and would they ever see their father or their aunt and uncle again?
Framed by the tall cathedral-style window, Mr. Griffith, who said he was the superintendent of the Cherokee Orphan Training School, looked and sounded important enough to be president of the United States. A fancy brocade vest showed beneath his black coat, and the stiff collar of his white shirt seemed to be holding up his double chin. Sitting ramrod straight, he peered at papers on his desk through gold-rimmed spectacles perched on the end of his nose. Tommy watched the superintendent jot down notes as Robert Thompson haltingly explained that he could no longer care for his son and two youngest daughters.
Care for us, Tommy thought. You never cared for us, not for one minute. His mother, Rose, had been the one Tommy and his four sisters counted on. He felt his sister's hand on his shoulder. Thirteen-year-old Susie stood behind his chair, her grip telegraphing that she wanted no part of this place. Dark-haired little Sammie, seven years old, leaned against his leg and reached for Tommy's hand, interlocking her fingers with his. Barely three when their mother died, she was about to be taken away from the aunt who loved her as her mother had done.
"My wife Rose died four years ago, and I ... ah ... I am away from Tahlequah a good deal of the time." Robert glanced at his sister-in-law sitting to his right, her round brown face impassive. "Nancy and her husband took my children in when Rose died, but I can't ask that of them anymore."
His aunt stiffened at the remark. She shot Tommy a glance that said, Your father does not speak the truth.
"I see," Mr. Griffith said. "Evidently Thomas did not attend school regularly. Eleven years old, he should be going into the fifth or sixth grade, but these records indicate he will enter grade three."
Robert shifted in his seat. "He got a late start because his birthday is in October, and he missed some school because of pneumonia." He glanced at Nancy as though expecting her to confirm what he said, but her expression told Tommy she wasn't going to help his father do this.
Just then, a movement through the large window behind Mr. Griffith caught Tommy's eye. A column of boys marched into view from the deep shade of a giant oak, its branches tipped with the new growth of spring. His father paused, distracted by the drumbeat.
Mr. Griffith turned and glanced out the window at a boy with a bass drum strapped in front of him and nearly as tall as he. "Ah, yes, the drum and bugle corps," Mr. Griffith said. "A fine group of young men, they're practicing for our graduation in June. Perhaps your son would like to join the corps."
His father shrugged but said nothing, which Tommy interpreted as not caring one way or the other. Tommy stared at the boys dressed in khaki uniforms, the bright midday sun dancing off the black shiny brims of their military caps. Each one wore black boots that reached almost to his knees. The group moved in perfect cadence, rifles angled against right shoulders, left arms held straight and swung smartly forward then back to the beat of the drum. As they marched out of sight, Tommy exchanged an anxious glance with Nancy, whose eyes glistened with unshed tears.
Mr. Griffith returned to his notes. "The children did well in public school?"
"Yes, but their mother was full-blood. I know she would want them to go to a Cherokee school." He spoke in a monotone, the same voice he used during the rare times Tommy accompanied him to the feed store in Tahlequah to buy a sack of chicken mash. To Tommy, it was a relief that he wasn't slurring his words this morning. "I have two older daughters, Eloise and Ida, at Haskell Boarding School in Kansas. I want Tommy and Susie and Sammie to get a good education, too."
How could you know what Momma would want? You were never around. Tommy felt helpless and abandoned, just as he had four years ago. One minute, it seemed, his mother had said she didn't feel good, and the next minute she was gone. Everything had fallen to pieces after that. Nancy had cried; his father had dabbed at his own eyes and told them, "Your mother has gone to heaven. She's in a better place."
Tommy remembered thinking that if anybody made it into heaven, it would surely be his mother. Hearing that she had gone to a better place, though, did nothing to ease his or his sisters' hurt. They had cried inconsolably. He had cried too, outside, by himself.
But not this time.
Tommy stared at his father's back as resentment gathered like storm clouds at this man whom they did not see for months at a time but had now, with a few words, turned their world upside down. Dressed in overalls, a faded shirt, and worn boots, he didn't look like someone who lived in a big house with servants to do all the work. From his rumpled clothes, you would think he'd just come from working in the fields—until you saw his hands. Anybody could see they'd never held a shovel or a hoe.
Tommy pictured his mother sitting at the kitchen table across from his father, whose hands cradled a bottle of moonshine that he would sip from until it was empty. Though he never heard his mother complain about the drinking, Tommy had seen the sad, silent glances she exchanged with his older sisters. He wanted to holler at his father and make him say out loud why he never remembered their birthdays or shared Christmas with them.
All questions vanished when his father reached for the pen and dipped it in the ink bottle. Mr. Griffith slid a paper across his desk. "Sign at the bottom, if you will." Robert nodded and scrawled his name, then stood up and shook Mr. Griffith's outstretched hand. "I'm sure I don't need to tell you, Mr. Thompson, that your children are fortunate to be accepted at Cherokee Orphan Training School. There are far more Cherokee youngsters needing homes than spaces for them."
His father merely nodded and put on a faded felt hat.
Mr. Griffith glanced at the signed paper. "They will receive an education and, when old enough, be given appropriate vocational training."
Vocational training? Tommy's heart skipped a beat. He waited, hoping his father would ask what that meant, but Robert said nothing.
Mr. Griffith went on. "This release surrenders custody of your children to Cherokee Orphan Training School for five years. Thank you, sir, and good day."
Behind him, Susie gasped. Tommy dropped Sammie's hand and bolted to his feet in time to receive a passing embrace from his father, who was on his way to the door. Opening it, Robert stood waiting with his hand on the knob. Nancy came up to Tommy and touched his cheek. In Cherokee she whispered, "Be strong and make the best of this." She embraced Susie and mouthed something in his sister's ear, then opened her arms to Sammie. Tommy glanced at his father as Sammie buried her face in the folds of Nancy's dress. Robert Thompson's expression showed no emotion. Nancy untangled herself and, wiping tears away with the back of her hand, hurried out the door.
Tommy stared after her, his hand still raised in an aborted wave. Five years: the superintendent's words hung in the stillness. Stunned, Tommy jerked his hand down to his side and rushed to the front window in time to see his father climb into the wagon and wait as Nancy pulled herself up on the other side. Both looked straight ahead as he snapped the reins. The mules responded and the wagon pulled away.
And then they were gone.
She's never coming back. The finality sent a shock wave through Tommy as he stared after them. What little courage he'd mustered evaporated as the wagon disappeared from sight. What would happen to Sammie and Susie without Aunt Nancy? And to me, Tommy thought. Five years. I'll be sixteen years old before I get out of here. He glanced at his sisters; they were clinging to each other, crying. The superintendent indicated with a nod that Tommy should comfort them.
Dumbfounded, uncertain what to say, Tommy made his way to them on shaky legs. Mr. Griffith cleared his throat, a prompt for Tommy to say something. "We're ... we're still a family," Tommy mumbled in Cherokee as he embraced them.
"English, Thomas. You must speak only English while you are here."
Sammie and Susie stiffened at the statement, and Tommy struggled for English words to comfort his sisters. "Aunt Nancy made us promise to make the best of things, so that's what we're going to do." Defiance crept into his voice as he whispered in Cherokee, "I don't care what he says, we'll speak Cherokee when we're together."
On the floor beside his chair were three flour sacks filled with clothes Nancy had washed and ironed. Tommy handed each sister her sack and then picked up his own, surprised at how heavy it felt. It held something more than clean clothes. Tommy peeked inside. On top of a folded shirt lay his mother's Bible, the one written in Cherokee that Aunt Nancy read to them each evening after supper. She had showed them the page at the front where, in their mother's writing, they read their name and the day they were born. But there was something else.
Cradled on top of the Bible in a handkerchief edged in lace embroidery lay a white Cherokee rose. Involuntary tears welled as Tommy breathed the fragrance captured inside the sack. The mother he had loved for too short a time was gone, and now so was Nancy. But he knew he had to be strong. Nancy was telling him to make the best of this; that was why she had sent the rose.
Tommy and the girls glanced at each other, exchanging an unspoken message: We only have each other now.CHAPTER 2
The Three R's—Rules, Rules, and More Rules [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]
Like the boys who would come years after him, Tommy saw his world changed in the blink of an eye from a small log house filled with family to a huge military-run coeducational institution with 350 Cherokee students, their lives dictated by a steam whistle. "White man's time," the boys in his dorm room grumbled when they were sure the matron couldn't hear. The whistle blew at 6:00 A.M. to get everyone out of bed and then a dozen or more times during the day to signal breakfast, lunch, morning classes, afternoon classes, dinner, and study time. The last whistle sounded at 9:00 P.M. for lights out.
The Cherokee Orphan Training School, which began as the Cherokee Orphan Asylum in 1872, was operated by the Cherokee Nation until Oklahoma was admitted to the union in 1907. Statehood resulted in the federal government's dissolving the Cherokee Nation and its educational system. The orphan asylum remained open, but its management and operation came under the aegis of the Department of Interior through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In 1914, after growing in size and expanding its functions, the institution was renamed the Cherokee Orphan Training School (COTS). In the heart of Cherokee County, surrounding residents went about their quiet lives unaware that World War I was gathering steam. News of calamitous events taking place in Europe did not penetrate into the rolling hills of eastern Oklahoma. In July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Early in August, Germany declared war on Russia, then quickly added France, Belgium, and Great Britain to its list of enemies. Great Britain reacted by declaring war on Germany. By November, more than twenty countries had issued declarations of war. With additional countries, colonies, protectorates, and commonwealths being insidiously drawn into the conflict, the nations involved numbered thirty-one by 1915.
In the spring of 1915, young Tommy was confronted with his own dilemma. Bitter over what his father had done and the callous way he had done it, Tommy's attitude toward COTS was anything but receptive. The three siblings talked secretly about running away, but they only talked. When it came time to execute their plan, Tommy couldn't follow through, for he remembered his promise to Aunt Nancy to make the best of their situation. By September and the start of the new school year, Tommy and his sisters had adjusted. Resignation gave way to new friendships and to a curiosity that caught them up into school life.
Located a few miles west of Tahlequah, the Cherokee Orphan Training School campus consisted of forty acres of rolling hills dotted with oak, maple, sycamore, and pecan trees. A lone three-story brick building sat at the foot of a knoll atop red dirt that sprouted wild grass in the spring from plentiful rain and turned brick-hard and dusty in the summer's fierce heat.
Personal interviews recorded and transcribed with two female former COTS students, conducted by a Sequoyah teacher and historian, speak of strict rules, unbending routine, and having to wear military-style uniforms. The girls wore middy dresses; the boys wore coats, pants, and military boots. The clothes were said to be better than the ragged hand-me-downs most students had on when they arrived. The two women mentioned having to line up and march to everything, but they emphasized having their own bed with clean sheets. They also remembered good food, including fresh-baked bread served with meals and turkey dinners at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
COTS graduate Sadie Parnell remarked about one Thanksgiving when the students found a pitcher in the middle of each table. Though the pitchers ordinarily held milk or gravy or syrup, on this particular Thanksgiving they held celery sticks, about which she said, "Nobody ate them, because we thought they were some sort of flowers." Sadie remembered Saturday supper as traditionally being chili, jerky, and corn bread: "Good chili and all the corn bread we could eat."
When asked about beatings or abuse, the interviewees said there had been none, though Sadie Parnell did recount getting her mouth washed out with soap when caught speaking Cherokee. "They should never have done that, but I guess that was their way of civilizing us," Sadie said. She added that "sometimes if a boy did something really bad they'd make him run a hot line between two rows of boys, each one holding his belt to whack the boy's backside as he went through."
Pictures during Tommy's years at COTS reveal normal school activities and functions of the time: proms with girls in long dresses and graduations with smiling seniors dressed in caps and gowns. Other photos show children at Christmas parties or May Day celebrations with them winding streamers around a Maypole. How much Tommy participated in these events is unknown. According to his children, Tommy and his sisters at first made a point of speaking Cherokee when they were alone but spoke English more and more as time went by. Tommy also expressed that he did try to make the best of things, something his children said seemed very important to him.
Tommy followed orders. He lined up for classes, for meals, and to take a shower on Saturdays. Every morning he lined up to brush his teeth and wash up in the boys' bathroom. Sometimes he even had to line up to use the boy's outhouse, which in 1915 may have been bigger and built better than a family outhouse but was still freezing cold in the winter and sweltering in the summer.
He took part in mandatory daily marching drills and morning exercises and, as time passed, began to enjoy the physical demand of calisthenics. Able to do more than the teacher asked, Tommy welcomed the good-natured competition that arose among the boys in his class. His greatest difficulty came from having a whistle dictate every moment of his day, from the time he woke up until lights out. Students were reminded not only of when a chore had to be done but also of exactly how: towels hung straight and even, dorm floors polished with no visible scuff marks, and each bed made with folded military corners and top blanket tucked tight enough to pass the student captain's bouncing a quarter off of it.
Sports offered Tommy welcome relief from the regimented rules and routine. He excelled in track, baseball, and basketball as in no other area of his life. Academically Tommy did average work, but he could outrun everyone in track, and it was rare for him not to score one or two runs in a baseball game or make baskets against COTS' best guards.
Excerpted from Coach Tommy Thompson and the Boys of Sequoyah by Patti Dickinson. Copyright © 2009 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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