Friday, July 6, 2012

The Tobacco Road Not Taken

I do not smoke.


I did smoke. Back in college. For a while.

But I was an English Major. And smoking for an English Major was pretty much a given.

At least back then.

So I succumbed to the habit.

Not that it ever got out of control. If I were to characterize my usage back then, I could honestly classify myself as a moderate smoker.

But it didn't last. And well before graduation, I quit. And haven't looked back since.

Both my parents smoked regularly. In fact, Dad imbibed not only in cigarettes but also, on occasion, a pipe.

Larks were their brand, and he started each day with a bowl of Wheaties, a mug of black coffee, and a smoke, all habits learned from his time in the U.S. Navy.

Mom smoked, too. Larks. And I suppose her habit was born from the stress and pressure of being an R.N. and working crazy hours in a demanding, life-and-death career.

They both quit as they aged, he as the result of a heart attack at 53, she as a precaution against the high blood pressure and other physical ailments that were starting to catch up with her.

But as for me, I walked away from the smoking demon because it seemed to be trouble, for the most part.

My interactions with tobacco were ill-fated, especially early on.

During my newspaper delivery-boy days, one of my customers was Jerry Crawford, who was then a Major League umpire (you can Google him if you have no idea who he was) but to me, a non-sports fan, he was simply "Mr.Crawford," customer, reader of The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.

Mr. Crawford was early on the route, one of the first or second houses.

One summer evening, while collecting my weekly fees, he was sitting on his stoop, enjoying the sunset and the waning heat.

And he was chomping on a chaw of tobacco.

I was fascinated. I'd seen chewing tobacco used on television. Old movies, mostly. But yes, the occasional baseball game, where the hock-and-spit action was grossly appealing, as it would be to any 13-year-old male.

I cannot recall how the conversation went, but I probably remarked that his chaw was "pretty cool."

And in his wisdom, he probably responded that it was a bad habit that he wished he had never embraced.

But somehow, I guess I persisted, and so he offered me this challenge.

He offered me a $5 bill, which was a pretty significant amount of money, if I could take a plug of his tobacco and keep it in my mouth the entire route.

COOL! The chance to not only earn some serious dough (the weekly cost of the paper, without tip, was a whopping $1.40, so he was basically offering me more than a month's earnings in one shot), plus I could earn some serious bragging rights.

"Okay!" I accepted eagerly.

He broke off a piece of the brown fibers and offered it to me. He even instructed me as to where to place it between the teeth and gums and how to chew it softly. I may have even gotten a spitting lesson or two in the deal.

He waved me on, and I mounted my metal steed (my Schwinn bike) and continued delivering.

First house, my throat dried up.

Second house, my vision blurred. My throwing became wildly inaccurate, and I was having to leave my seat to retrieve errant papers. And by then, my legs were getting wobbly.

Third house, my stomach began this uncomfortable rolling that caused me some alarm.

Fourth house, my bag of papers, pounding on my shoulder with each pedal, became and anvil-and-hammer in my head.

By the fifth house, I threw up not only the chaw of tobacco but also the remnants of my lunch. I continued to dry-heave into the gutter until even the vestiges of breakfast -- eaten a full 10 hours prior -- were gone.

I somehow finished my routine and returned dejectedly to the Crawfords. Mr. Crawford asked if I were okay, and I assured him I was. He also asked me if I still though chewing tobacco was "cool."

"Gah, no!" I said greenly.

"Good," he replied, sending me on my way.

You'd think a lesson like that would take hold and cause me to never touch tobacco again. And you'd be right.

Except for a sanctioned episode in high school.

Our senior year musical was My Fair Lady, and I was fortunate enough to be cast as Henry HIggins' sidekick and confidante, Col. Hugh Pickering. I donned my best British accent and got an Act 2 solo ("You Did It"), but the capstone in the characterization was smoking a pipe. Dad's pipe. And cherry-flavored tobacco.

Fortunately, this piece of stage business was limited to the scenes in Act 1 where, over time, Higgins and Eliza drill their elocution lessons. But I milked it for all it was worth, producing the pipe, stuffing the bowl, flaming the match, and puffing away.

It was more just creating a series of clouds that floated around the set than out-and-out smoking, but the effect was very convincing.

But as I said, in college, I succumbed a bit more fully to the allure of smoking.

And that ended badly, too.

I was driving to class one morning, late as usual, and fumbling with the car radio, the cigarette lighter, and the unlit coffin nail in the corner of my mouth. My attention wandered from the road for just a second or two, but that was all it took; I looked up and saw the back-end of a stopped city bus looming in my windshield.

I stomped on the brake, but it was too late.

Luckily, the result was only a fender-bender on my car and no damage at all to the city bus (which was blessedly light on passengers, for I was imagining case after case of whiplash litigating their way toward my future).

But that was enough.

Tobacco and I were through.

And as for smoking any kind of other substances, the appeal of that activity passed me right by. Not that I wasn't exposed to it at various parties in high school and college. But I could never quite see the point.

I've cautioned our girls on the dangers of tobacco. I've also warned them that I have become hypersensitive to the smell; so if they believe they can sneak a smoke, gargle some mouthwash, spritz on some body spray, and get away with it, they're dead wrong.

In adulthood, I've developed a weird association with the smell of cigarettes; it has become a trigger for the migraines that occasionally knock me sideways.

I also watched what an addition to cigarettes did to my mother-in-law, who could never toss that monkey from her back. Thanks to the cancer sticks, she fell victim to a very rough passing.

So all the associations I have with tobacco are now negative. Extremely so.

And I don't see anything changing that.

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