Both my parents smoked. Cigs were as much a part of my family as milk when I was a kid. I didn’t really pay attention to how much my parents smoked. It was always just there. And not just the house, but also inside the car. They smoked with the windows rolled up and this was just something that wasn’t questioned. In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties, riding along with the young woman that got me to start smoking and her insistence on rolling down the car window that I even had a second thought about ‘maybe it’s not a good idea to smoke in the tight confines of a car with the windows rolled up.’
I can’t recall what my parents smoked in the sixties…but by the seventies they were both smoking Benson and Hedges 100s. I vaguely remember them switching to these cigs with their seemingly elegant gold semi-foil package and discreet printing. They seemed much classier than say…Marlboros or Winstons. I believe that my Mother smoke Kool Filters for a while but she gave that up.
By the time I was a teenager, the message that cigs were bad for your health had permeated society. It was a mark of social status at high school whether you smoked or even experimented with cigs. I didn’t. When I was fifteen I couldn’t imagine myself ever smoking a cig. That was really uncool. Not to mention I recall my buddy Mark Eckert coming into class one day and somehow absolutely drenched in the stench of cig smoke. He smelled really shitty. I didn’t want to ever smell that way.
I wasn’t a very talented athlete. My skills were all erratic. My coordination was too undependable for anybody to rely on me in a game. I was quick and fairly strong but I was awkward looking even if I was playing ‘well’ in sports like basketball and tennis. However, those failings didn’t effect my ability at repetitive action sports like track, cross country running and swimming all of which I was good (but not great) at. I enjoyed cross country as I later enjoyed running for exercise in my twenties and early thirties. On any other cross country team I would have been a leader but it was my misfortune to run on a team with Mark Croucher. Mark was a truly gifted long distance runner. A Regional star who won distance races without ever being seriously challenged it seemed. He smoked.
After high school I went away to college and had no more inclination to smoke a cig than I had ever had. I’m not sure, but it seems like this was when Yul Brynner was diagnosed with cancer and made some commercials bitterly attacking the habit of smoking. It seemed so obvious as something you just wouldn’t do. If I hadn’t tried it as a teen why in hell would I consider it when I was twenty? The way it happened was this; As a sophomore in college I got involved with a senior girl (or young woman) who was a dancer in the schools top level ballet program. Actually, she was the star of the school program and in addition to that talent, she was incredibly bright and an “A” student. I sort of had my first ‘adult’ relationship with her. She had an apartment just off the campus (I was still in a dorm) and on weekends I started spending Friday or Saturday nights overnight. She smoked Salem lights.
It sort of made sense for dancers to smoke. First, they tortured their bodies. I learned ballet is an extremely demanding discipline for those who are serious about it. And dancers lived knowing that like pro athletes, their star would only shine for about a decade…most dancers don’t go much past thirty one or two. There was kind of an obsessive compulsion to burn the light as brightly as possible and in fact it was partially this driven ambition that attracted and fascinated me about her and her world. So, as it happened, she would, late in the night, offer me a cigarette. I think it was just ‘politeness’ or grace. Maybe a way for her to feel normal. And, I always said ‘no’. I don’t know why, perhaps it was because kissing her, I could taste her smoky somewhat flat breath…that was still somehow intimate and familiar…..and compelling, that one night I said ‘ok’. I smoked a Salem light. I can still see in my mind’s eye her ashtray with little lipstick marks on her cig butts and none on the one I had smoked.
Our romance lasted from the fall, through a lovely snowy winter and into the Spring. She was graduating and looking for professional companies to join. I went home to our little small town. Probably sometime in either late June or early July, I got the phone call. She was decent enough to talk to me rather than write me the letter. It was over and she was moving on. I had been dumped before…in a much worse way. I suppose I knew she had to move on. Still, I felt bad about it for a while. At the time, I was working on construction jobs. Heavy brute labor. It was ridicuolous to imagine she would be continuing a ‘relationship’ with me. Plus, I had received my notice from the college that due to my poor academic performance I had lost my scholarship. What the hell. I didn’t like the path I was on anyway and had blown all my grades hanging out with her. That’s when, I bought my first pack of cigs. When I started, I bought Salem lights. But, the summer before, one of my mom’s girlhood friends had come for a visit and brought her daughter who was a couple years older than me with her. They had just spend a long afternoon but I walked with the daughter out by my family’s barn where she fetched a camel no filter out of her bag and told me of a trip she’d taken to Greece…that’s when she started smoking Camels …burning the end with the label. I think she was high on something when she told me that story…but…later on the next summer I bought a pack of camel no filters. Smoked it on the job.
Later, my buddy and I went to Europe for the fall and winter using the money we saved up from working hard and long hours up until November at union scale. When we got there it seemed like all the backpackers smoked. We learned to buy pouch tobacco and roll our own. (Just like John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction). Drum made a very good …very good rolling tobacco. If anyone bought cig packs it was either Gauloise, Gitaines or the ubiquitous Marlboro. That winter of 79-80 to ride on a train in Europe was to immerse yourself in the heavy perfume of the Gitaines and Gauloise smoke. Everyone in Europe seemed to smoke. It was like drinking wine or sipping coffee.
I think by the end of that adventure…I had an actual habit.
End Part one.