"...an account of my own saga of temptations and falls from grace with nicotine"
"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" Lyrics by The Platters from "Hearts in Atlantis" Soundtrack
They said someday you'll find
All who love are blind
Oh, when your heart's on fire
You must realize
Smoke gets in your eyes . . .
Now laughing friends deride
Tears I can not hide
Oh, so I smile and say
When a lovely flame dies
Smoke gets in your eyes
Smoke gets in your eyes
A March 1999 Vogue article, “Up In Smoke”, came to hand in 2001. Sidney Urquhart, daughter of dramatist Sidney Howard, wrote a memoir of most everyone she knew, all consumed, literally, by smoking tobacco. Reading this moved me to put down an account of my own saga of temptations and falls from grace with nicotine. Here is a revised version.
I am 13 years old. I am smoking a pipe full of Sir Walter Raleigh tobacco. I'm in a large, discarded shipping crate that I had converted into my boyhood play fort. It was situated not far from home in the empty lot of an aunt and uncle who would one day build their home there.
I don't recall the steps I took to acquire the pipe or how I purchased the tobacco (or the shipping crate for that matter), but get them I did. Were legal restrictions and social norms of those times that lax? Of course, no adults in my family would have condoned my habit. If I was chided or forbidden to smoke, no change in my habit ever came of it.
Was my child's play-fortress a subliminal investigation of smoky caves of ancient times? Was it a subconscious purpose, a sanctuary, earth-womb, a reenactment of the dim grottos of prehistory,? What is it about psyche—even that of a child—that wants to descend into the dark places?
The shipping crate was my getaway, and meeting place with my friends. I don't recall sharing the pipe with the other kids—maybe a little. The smoking was my private claim of independence, a ritual drama of faux maturity.
I stowed my pipes and pipe cleaners in a box under a secret flap in the dirt floor of the fort.
Some years later, someone told me the story of his first experiment with smoking. He and some friends took some cigarettes from his father's pack. They ran off to the woods in the neighborhood and lit up. Choking and coughing, one of the boys threw a stick into the trees and hit a nest of ground bees. The bees swarmed around the boys, and they associated this harsh backfire from nature with the forbidden cigarettes.
I did not have such a negative conversion moment, but I wonder that I kept smoking through all the mess of the pipe cleaning process. Even at an early age, the human Spirit is enticed by the strange, grossness of the material world—shades of things to come. It's a trade-off at any time in life. For the mood altering effects of nicotine, the headiness of being “bad”, I endured the hot smoke drawn into my lungs and the terrible taste on tongue and in saliva.
That empty lot where I had erected my fort—that was the land site that my maternal aunt R and her husband B owned. Until they started building their home, I would be lord of this realm, and I was casting my lot for my destiny, yet to be played out—a smoker's life that was to last for decades to come.
Also yet to be played out, years after I had grown up, was Uncle B's fate as a life long cigarette smoker—lung cancer . As the dangers of smoking became more evident socially, the warnings began to be printed on the pack. B joked as he read the warning to me: “Smoking cigarettes is dangerous to YOUR health, Art.” He would comment ironically: “It says YOUR health, not mine.”
Another aunt and uncle were smokers. Aunt L smoked throughout my childhood, but quit when she retired and she lived to be 87. Uncle J had been a smoker in his youth and years as a World War II soldier. When he returned to the States, one day he just quit smoking. As he told it, he threw away a pack of cigarettes and never went back on his decision. Probably the rigors of withdrawing from nicotine were nothing compared to his bravery in the war. Also, he was of stoic Scotch heritage. He lived to his 91st year.
I never saw my father smoke, but he told of experimenting as a child. He was thought up clever play act. He had access to a store room where he would smoke in the second story room above his father's shop on a busy downtown street. He told of putting a plank on two boxes, then stepping up and walking back and forth in front of the shadeless windows in order to appear tall, as he smoked.
My mother was not a smoker, though she might have a cigarette on New Years eve with Aunt L.
Another uncle, J, died of lung cancer. He smoked throughout all the years I knew him, and nicotine only added to the taxing industrial work that he did.
In my mid-teen years I got my first grown up job as cashier in a drug store. The most grownup products I sold (and I don't mean condoms, which were purveyed from the pharmacy) were tobaccos and smoking paraphernalia: pipes, Zippo lighters, etc. I was a consumer as well: Chesterfield, Pall Mall, Old Golds, Camels, Lucky Strikes, Phillip Morris, and Piedmonts.
My favorite was Pall Mall which was pitched to my gullible attention during the broadcast of Friday night wrestling in prime time. “Pall Mall. . . famous cigarettes, and they are mild.” My grandfather smoked Italian stogies, and so did I eventually—trying for the tough guy look, even as a high school freshman.
Then a sudden awakening of a neglected heritage flashed across the nation—Marlboro filtered cigarettes. This represented something drastically different from the traditional images of nicotine—the manly, macho, Cowboy persona. I went for it.
At a smoke shop I discovered Egyptian cigarettes, Helmar, packaged in a small box with head of Pharaoh embossed on label. Now I felt more sophisticated. Many years later at the Santa Fe Flea Market I found an empty box amidst a jumble of dusty, worn out gewgaws.
Speaking of sophisticated. I became acquainted with suave people: the Jacksons—Charlie, his wife and daughter—fellow amateur thespians at the Wilmington Drama League, another venture for me out into the world. Charlie smoked unfiltered cigarettes and carried them in a case. He would draw one out of the case, close it, and then briskly tap, tap, tap it on the case to compact the tobacco. [ I put that bit of “stage business” into my character —still only a high school sophomore. ] Then he would light up, and the Zippo's metallic clink would ring through the air, along with cloud of fume and lighter fluid—the dramaturgy of smoking.
Kent (Famous Micronite Filter) dramatized smoking scenes on the back of LOOK magazines --- a young couple on a Spring afternoon having coffee, apples, cheese --- and smoking Kents.
I tortured and punished my young lungs, gums, mouth and teeth all through high school and beyond. The youthful body can take so much abuse without really showing. And I never gave it a second thought, nor did many other people all those years ago.
To read part two click here.