When I was barely a teenager and had just started smoking, I'd keep a cigarette in my coat pocket. That may not seem odd, except for one thing—it was lit. My late parents share some blame for this strange situation, something I'll get to later.
My initial attempt at smoking didn't go well. The other 13-year old boys I hung out with in the alleys of Columbus Ohio, were ahead of me in this, and I was anxious to become one of the guys. Tom McQuaid, my best friend at the time, tried to teach me to inhale, but it wasn't taking.
"Suck the smoke into your mouth, and then…kind of…um…swallow it," he'd tell me. I would try, but all I did was choke, with eyes watering, smoke spitting out of my mouth, and spittle creeping down my chin.
"I'll never get this," I told him, feeling despondent.
"Try this instead," Tom said. "Take some smoke in—not too much—and then take a deep breath. That's how you inhale."
More choking followed, with coughing and sneezing mingled in. But then, on the third try, with less smoke, it seemed to work. I didn't gag, and a thin wisp of smoke came back up, curling out of my nose. Suddenly, there was a feeling of lightness, as if a hole had opened up inside my brain, and I became slightly dizzy. More confident now, I took another small drag, inhaled, and slowly let it out of my mouth. The feeling of lightness grew stronger, and my head felt like it was about to float away. Then I hit the ground, hard.
We'd been standing on the side of a hill, so when I landed, I rolled sideways, not stopping until I was in the middle of the alley. There was a pickup truck fast approaching, but I was so out of it I couldn't move. Tom and another boy grabbed me by the arms and feet, and tossed me aside as the truck passed, the driver blasting his horn and cursing us through the open window. Just then I came to, looking up at the circle of faces surrounding me.
"That was great!" I said, smiling like the fool I certainly was. Little did I realize that this was the beginning of a 30 year love affair with 'ol devil nicotine, and that I wouldn't break up with her until I couldn't climb a flight of stairs without stopping to catch my breath.
But oh, what a wonderful affair it was!
Many have written extensively about the cigarette addiction, how it's harder to break even than heroin, but the main ingredient—nicotine—is an awfully good drug, as drugs go.
Nicotine is a mild euphoric, and has been shown to enhance concentration and help stave off sleep. And the cigarette itself is a bit of a marvel, insofar as it allows you to control your dose of the drug quite easily. All you need do is draw more or less smoke into your lungs to determine how much nicotine you consume. Unfortunately, it's not the nicotine, but the delivery system that gets you in the end. The repeated intake of hot gases, often adulterated with other chemicals to make the cigarette stay lit, is hell on the lungs. Just ask mine.
Beyond the delightful drug that nicotine is, the act of smoking itself, and the rituals surrounding it, are a big part of the attraction.
Opening a fresh pack (only after tapping it top down against your palm to make the tobacco compress inside the ciggies, of course), then pulling the thin strip of cellophane around the top, and tearing a small corner of foil to reveal those neat rows of round, paper banded tobacco, was like the beginning of a new journey. Now you held twenty of these beauties in your hand, each one waiting for the caress of your lips and the heat from a match to bring that affable small rush of nicotine coursing through your body.
And the best part was that, even when I wasn't doing anything in particular, maybe just standing around staring into space, smoking a cigarette meant that I was, in fact, doing something. I was "having a smoke"—i.e., enjoying seven to eight minutes of manipulating that little paper stick and watching the smoke leave my mouth and nose, maybe even blowing a smoke ring or two. No, I wasn't being indolent, I was doing something.
Almost killing myself, as it turned out…
As to why I stayed with the habit long past the point where I knew it was damaging my lungs, maybe my parents are to blame, or adults in general, or advertising, or peer pressure, or…?
In the mid-1950s it seemed that everyone smoked, or at least every adult I knew, and most everyone you saw on TV or in the movies. The lover lighting two cigarettes and handing one to his paramour became a trope, an intimate act that spoke of their connection.
Watching my parents and their friends taught me that adults did four basic things for fun: you smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, played cards and harmonized to the latest songs on TV's Hit Parade.
But back to that lit cigarette in my pocket. Some of the blame (credit?) goes to my late father, and a trick he was famous for.
On Sundays we'd climb into Dad's 54' Plymouth and drive to Buckeye Lake, a rough, public swimming "resort" a few miles south of Columbus. It was a place where people who couldn't afford the fancier swimming clubs in the city could spend the day on its small, sand beach and picnic, swim and enjoy the sun and fresh air. That's where Dad displayed his spectacular trick for me and my two brothers.
He'd light a cigarette (always a Pall Mall), smoke it halfway down, and walk out into the lake until the water was up to his waist. Then he'd turned to face us, the cigarette in his mouth, take a puff or two and turn his back to us. He'd dive in and swim underwater for twenty or thirty feet, stand up, and turn back around to face us again.
Not only was that cigarette still in his mouth, it was still burning!
He'd take a few more puffs to prove that somehow, impossibly, he'd just gone under the water with it in his mouth and it never went out!
My brothers and I pleaded with Dad until finally, at the end of the summer, he agreed to show us how he'd done it. He walked back out into the water, turned and faced us again with the cigarette in his lips. He stuck out his tongue, used it to grip the non-lit end of the cigarette, curled his tongue, and pulled it into his mouth, keeping the lit end safely away from his cheek. He dove under, came back up, opened his mouth to show us the cigarette still stuck to the tip of his tongue, put his lips around it and puffed away, while we cheered and applauded.
We'd never imagined that our own, very ordinary father was, in fact, a fire-eater!
Although I lacked the nerve to duplicate his trick, a time came when, walking down the street with a lit cigarette in my hand, a variation of it came in handy.
A fanatic about baseball, I always feared that Mr. Little, my coach, would catch me smoking. His rule was clear—you smoke, you're off the team. One day in early spring, with snow still on the ground, it happened. I'm walking down the sidewalk smoking when I see his car coming from the opposite direction. In a panic, I cupped my hand around the cigarette to keep it from burning my skin and stuck in in the pocket of my winter jacket. Coach Little saw me, slowed to a stop and rolled down his window. As we made small talk, I could feel heat from the cigarette growing. I glanced down to see wisps of smoke rising from my pocket and realized that it wasn't only from the cigarette. My pocket was on fire!
"Coach," I blurted out as I started to walk away, "I gotta get home. I can hear my mom calling me."
"I don't hear anything, Pat," he said, "But you know how bad my hearing is so, sure, so you better run along."
As he drove away, I took my hand out of my pocket and tossed the cigarette into the snow. I pulled the lining of the pocket out and saw that it was glowing red. I grabbed a handful of snow to put out the fire and relieve the pain in my palm.
One might imagine that this pocket-sized brush with disaster would have taught me a lesson, but teenagers are notoriously slow on the uptake. I not only continued to smoke, I also kept using that version of my Dad's trick to hide my habit from the prying eyes of adults.
From the age of thirteen through adulthood and into early middle-age, the love affair between me and nicotine blew hot and cold (pun intended). I tried to quit more than once. As Mark Twain noted, it's easy to do (he'd done it dozens of times), but it wasn't until the age of 44 that it finally took.
Three major events took place on August 12, 1992:
- Canada, Mexico and the United States finalized the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
- John Cage, composer and pioneer of the avant-garde movement in music, died of a stroke at age 79.
- At 11:00 AM I smoked my last cigarette.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of my affair with 'ol devil nicotine. Oh, I saw big improvements in my breathing almost immediately, and soon was running three miles a few days each week, but she got me in the end.
By my early 60s my lungs were beginning to fail from the long term effects of smoking: COPD and emphysema. By my 66th birthday it was a struggle to simply walk to the end of my driveway to pick up the morning paper. Then the miracle happened. I got a single lung transplant, and though the recovery took nearly half a year, soon I was not only walking to the end of that driveway, I was shoveling it!
I found that, to my relief, my life, a life that once had seemed so tenuous, would now go on, and I could look forward to many more years. I declared then and there that I would, as Shakespeare once said, "With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come."
Oh, and of course, "All's well that ends well!"