I knew if I smoked I would go to hell. That was for sure.
This certainty I learned in boyhood (along with the other behavior that would send me there), and so I did not smoke, not for a long time.
My dad smoked cigars (now and then) and a pipe (standard issue for college professors of his era). But not cigarettes. I'm not sure why the Lord sanctioned cigars and pipes but declared you could ride Camels straight to hell. But He did. No question.
I did not smoke in high school (okay, I tried it once or twice--coughed and made a fool of myself among my fallen friends) and did not touch alcohol, either, which was another substance guaran-damn-teed to send you straight south.
But in college ... well, in the spring of my freshman year, I got dumped, and hard. So I figured I might as well go to hell. I could not finish my first beer (yucky taste), but I started smoking fairly regularly then. Most of my friends did, too. One summer school creative writing class was so small (there were two students) that we met in the professor's office. He told us we could smoke. We did.
Kent cigarettes had a reputation then for being kind of the "Beginner's Smoke." So I started with them. But soon advanced to Marlboros (I'd always wanted to be a cowboy), tried Camels and Lucky Strikes (too strong), eventually settled on Pall Malls, which I smoked until the day I quit.
I had no concerns whatsoever about health. I was young (i.e., immortal). I could quit anytime I wanted to. I'd quit when I was old, in my thirties. I do remember this: We were visiting my grandmother in Columbia, Missouri, and I went outside to smoke (she would not have it in the house). She came out and spoke to me: "Why would someone with such a strong healthy body want to do this to himself?"
I snorted derisively but didn't say much--you might snort with Grandma, but not say something. But I remember thinking: She doesn't understand a single damn thing about me.
|Nov 11, 1965|
I'm the dork at center, with pipe.
On my first job (Aurora Middle School) many (most?) of my colleagues smoked. We smoked in the teachers' lounge; we smoked on school field trips; we smoked at lunch. We did not smoke in class (standards!). But it was in that teachers' lounge that I perfected the art of bumming a smoke. Somehow, I could always find money for cigarettes ... I was a pack-a-day. ... Or so ...
And inside my car--a reeking mess of ashes and butts--I learned the art of cleaning the inside of the windshield, which, of course, soon became coated with the very gunk that was coating my lungs. I didn't like to think about that. Once, riding with a friend, I watched him flip a burning butt out the window, watched in fly right back in and down the back of his shirt, watched him swerve to the side of the road, yelping like a pinched puppy. While I laughed in Death's face.
I was smoking in the summer of 1969 when I met Joyce Coyne. On our first date, we played tennis at the public courts down in Firestone Park, then went for pizza nearby. Had a beer and a smoke. (I learned, very soon, that Joyce neither smoked nor drank--she was being polite to her addicted date. She did not do it again.) Joyce's mom smoked. Her dad had recently quit--too late. Lung cancer would kill him twenty years later.
And then ... not long after our marriage in December 1969 ...
The Aurora teachers were involved in some sort of faculty basketball league. I'd been a decent player in a bad league in high school and had played on the freshman team in college, intramurals thereafter. Well, the first time I got any extended playing time in the teachers' league, I discovered I could run up and down the court only a time or two before my lungs began informing me that they must (a) rest or (b) explode. I was startled. Frightened.
And so I quit.
A couple of times.
The first time, I made a pact with colleague Jim Wright. We would quit together. Cold turkey. Buddies bonding. Solidarity. And so we did. Well ... he did. I cheated. I thought it was funny when he found out; he didn't.
But then I quit a second time. And never really missed it thereafter. I was lucky. I've had friends who've had horrible experiences trying to quit--hypnosis, therapy, medications. Nothing seems to truly help the profoundly addicted. I claim no moral superiority here: I was flat lucky.
And I've learned something as the decades have roared by and have watched sickness flatten and murder friends and family: Illness is hell, and so is anything that promotes it.