Monday, January 23, 2017
It started as pilfering. Every time Whitie (my dad) opened a new pack of Pall Mall’s, which was about once a day, I’d wait until he’d smoked a few and then sneak one out of the pack and carefully into my pocket. I figured he’d never notice. But I had to be really cautious, because Whitie was nothing if not fastidious in his obsessive-compulsive tidiness. If you wrinkled or damaged the packaging in any way or left bits of tobacco lying around, he was going to notice. But, like any pre-teen, I figured I was way cleverer than he was. I was about twelve at the time.
His neatness was also what made it easy. He never liked bulges in his clothing, so whenever possible, he would leave his smokes lying on an end table, or on the telephone table, or on top of the TV, or wherever else they’d be handy without his having to carry them on him. He never used cigarette lighters for the same reason. He always used book matches that lay flat in his pockets and didn’t make a bulge.
Once I’d managed to nick one, I didn’t rush right out to smoke it. Instead, I’d take it to the room I shared with my little brother and, after making sure he wasn’t around—since he, Jim, would squeal on me for sure—I would place it in a piece of tinfoil with other purloined smokes, carefully re-wrap them, put them away in any of a number of hiding places I’d devised, and save them for a time when I could slip off by myself and “enjoy” them.
At this stage of my relationship with tobacco, “enjoy” was hardly the right word. Blowing the smoke out through my nose without actually inhaling caused a sinus pain not unlike “swallowing” water through my nose at the pool. And trying to inhale the way I’d seen Whitie do—deep and with apparent satisfaction, since he seemed to genuinely enjoy each smoke—made me cough, made my throat burn and made my eyes water. And usually, one deep drag was enough to make my head spin and make me feel a little nauseous so that I would have to sit down and put my head on my knees until the vertigo stopped and I got to feeling okay again. Of course, as soon as I did, I’d inhale again and have to go through the whole process all over. But, hey, practice made perfect, right?
Indeed it did, and it wasn’t long before I could smoke an entire cigarette without so much as a single cough, tear or dizzy spell. Most of my smoking I did down by the river, which was my haven as a boy, a place to be alone or with my closest friends and to do pretty much whatever I wished. It was there that, with my friend Dave, who lived across the river from me, we began acting out our Huck Finn fantasies, building log rafts and camouflaged shacks like hunting blinds in the scrubland behind his house. And part of that Mississippi fantasy on “our” Auglaize was corncob pipes. We fashioned them ourselves from dry cobs found in the cornfield along the riverbank with hard-dried hollow reeds as stems, stuck into holes worked open in the sides of the cobs with the leather punches on our pocketknives, once we’d used our blades to hollow out a bowl.
Most of our “pipe tobacco” was meticulously recycled from butts recovered from the trash when my dad dumped his ashtrays and Dave’s mother dumped hers. If we got lucky, Whitie would toss a San Felice cigar butt, but he usually only smoked those at work, because my mother, Reba Mae, didn’t like how they stank up the house. We kept our painstakingly harvested and rare assortment of “fine tobaccos” in small leather pouches that Dave generously provided. At home we had to carefully hide them from prying eyes. But they had extra-long drawstrings so that when we were living our fantasy lives down by the Auglaize, we could wear them like medicine bags around our necks in the tradition of the Shawnee braves who had made their home on these very banks a couple of centuries before us.
This kind of smoke was a nasty combination of stale, overdrawn cigarette filler and raw, scorched corncob inhaled through a moldy-tasting reed, but it fit so well with our adventures and our narrative that we could think of nothing finer than to sit by a small twig fire, puffing on our “Ohio Meerschaums” and swapping stories about everything from pirates, bank-robbers and murderers to the ghosts that supposedly rose up from the old, abandoned cemetery behind Dave’s dad’s barn and walked these riverbanks by the light of the moon.
By age fourteen, I had a habit. Not a bad one yet, but a habit all the same. Even before that I used to buy a pack of my own about once or twice a month besides swiping smokes from Whitie. I nervously bought them at corner grocery stores, always ready with some elaborate story about “buying them for my great-uncle who was up visiting from Florida,” or whatever. But seldom did anyone ask who they were for. So I started trying different brands until I found some that I liked better than Whitie’s harsh, filterless Pall Malls: smooth L&Ms, recessed-filter Parliaments, mentholated Salems (“one puff and it’s springtime”). Cigarettes that then made smoking the ones I stole from my dad seem a little like inhaling a brush fire...but smoke them I did, anyway.
Then I discovered cigarette vending machines and gas stations and there was no longer any need to make up stories of any sort. The machines were ubiquitous and often in the entrances of stores or restaurants where nobody paid any attention to who was or wasn’t buying cigarettes, and gas station attendants couldn’t have cared less whom they were selling smokes to.
I was in a teen rock band by this time. We were playing at teen centers and living the fantasy of one day becoming stars. Joe, our bass player, was the oldest boy in the band and had an old station wagon that became our band van. The rest of us were no older than fourteen at the time, but three of us were already regular smokers. Joe himself didn’t smoke, but with the way the rest of us left the inside of his battered old wagon smelling, he’d never have been able to convince his parents of that, I’m sure. He was, however, a really good and easy going guy and generous to a fault, so he not only let us smoke in his car and took us to our gigs and never wanted any extra for gas, but he also gave us driving lessons out on the rural back roads surrounding our home town. Joe was a hard guy not to like. Only his shy, quiet nature kept him from having more friends than he did.
Dave, our lead singer and guitarist, was a wild kid who had no apparent complexes about his smoking—or anything else, for that matter. Pint-sized, bespectacled and as funny, entertaining, impertinent and irreverent as any teen could be. It was all part of his rocker persona. But keyboards man Ron and I (the group’s drummer) were often consumed by guilt about our habit (brought up as we both were in Methodism, where obligatory guilt and self-chastisement seemed almost as prevalent as in Judaism). Frequently, as we were lighting up, Ron would say, “God, man, I gotta quit doing this! I don’t want to get hooked.” And then, after a deep drag, “Do you think we’re hooked?”
Until finally, it started bothering me that he spoiled every other smoke I was about to have and I would snap, “Hell yes, we’re hooked! You wanna smoke, smoke. You don’t, don’t. But don’t lay this guilt trip on me!”
By fifteen, I was smoking, maybe, a half-pack or so a day. Still mostly down by the river. But now I also risked a smoke here and there at home: in my room with the window open and blowing the smoke out through the screen; in the basement, which had become my music studio, keeping the butts in a closed jar in an old cedar chest where I also kept my music books and percussion traps and accessories, until I could safely dispose of them; and on long walks around town that I often took after dark, my favorite places for a smoke being two of the bridges over the Auglaize, where I could stand as if gazing at the water and if anyone my parents knew happened by, flick my cigarette into the drink.
It was a few months after my fifteenth birthday that I one evening told my mother I was going over to the park to shoot some hoops with a couple of friends.
“Basketball players don’t smoke,” Reba Mae said, with a wry smile but a hurt look in her eyes.
I sputtered and started to think of something to say but she held up a hand to silence me. “God knows I don’t like it that you’re smoking, but I like it even less that you sneak around and think you can deceive me.”
“I didn’t want to hurt your feelings,” I said lamely.
“Too late for that,” she answered, cutting me to the quick.
When I came back from the park, I found her and Whitie together and said, “Listen, I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t want to sneak around anymore either. I’m going to smoke and want to smoke at home. No more sneaking around.”
Reba Mae looked stern but said, “Well I suppose at your age, if I try to stop you you’ll just do it behind my back, so...”
And Whitie added, “I’d like to tell you not to do it, Dan, but I’d be a hypocrite if I stood here and told you not to and then lit up myself, so I’m in no position to tell you what the hell to do. But if you gonna smoke, buy your own goddamn cigarettes and stop stealin’ mine!”
To be continued