MY TOBACCO ADDICTION AND ITS EVICTION
Julian, Here is another one. One I could not send had I not quit cigarettes. Perry
When I was fourteen living on a farm with my grandparents and spinster aunt, the peers in my life were my cousins who lived on an adjoining farm. Their father and all the male cousins smoked. They bought tobacco in nickel bags and rolled their own. I soon was rolling my own and searching for a nickel to buy a bag. Fourteen years later I willed to quit and I did. And I haven’t smoked since. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be telling this story.
I remember my first puff of a cigarette as well as I remember where I was when I learned that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. I was with my cousins; and the eldest, Eugene, was smoking a rolled cigarette from a nickel bag of Buffalo, a trade-name. I asked him for a puff. And he devilishly agreed if I would do as he was going to do. He took a drag and inhaled in an exaggerated manner to let me know what I was to do with the puff. I took a drag and inhaled to the bottom of my lungs. The effect was similar to being suddenly punched in the belly followed by mild nausea. That should have been the end of my smoking tobacco.
But everyone smoked. My father smoked. My mother smoked. All my peers smoked. I never saw a movie in which the hero and heroine didn’t smoke. Every ball player of note smoked. Every Hollywood gorgeous smoked. The ads exhibited beautiful people enticing viewers to smoke. There were few people of note in any category who didn’t smoke. And Lucky Strikes had the most popular radio musical on Saturday night. So I became addicted.
While on the farm, I got the nickel and bought a bag of Buffalo and learned to roll my own. I was discovered and lectured at length by my grandmother and aunt about the evil of smoking. To them it was not a health matter it was a moral matter. Liquor, cigarettes and wild women were the lures of Satan. They were right but it often takes a lifetime to learn what elders teach.
During the Depression, a pack of Old Golds costs 10 cents. But it took an hour of work in the fields to earn 10 cents. So the nickel bag of flake tobacco with papers was popular. In fact, my cousins’ mother and aunt saved the bags, ripped the sewn seams and used the rectangular piece of clothe along with a hundred of other pieces to constitute the backside of a quilt. Also, they made underwear for the boys from feed sacks. Times were so bad for teenage smokers that they walked the highways looking for cigarettes butts thrown from passing cars. I know because I did it.
Smokers’ heaven was in the military during WWII. At the PX, fifty cents would buy a carton, ten packs, five cents a pack. While in Europe, GIs could buy a carton for fifty cents and sell it to the natives for three thousand francs. A GI could buy most anything with a pack or a carton of cigarettes. There was a racket: Trainloads of cigarettes were sold for francs and the francs exchanged for dollars and sent home to U. S. bank accounts.
While in training in the states, every GI smoked and left a trail of butts. Periodically, some intimidating sergeant would fall out a detail and announce that its object was to clean the ground of cigarette butts. He would order with loudness and authority: “All I want to see is elbows and ___holes.” After a while the ground was immaculate only to be rained on the next day with butts. The cigarette industry did its best to see that every GI had his smokes cheap. It had a vested interest not in just winning the war but in winning GIs to smoke cigarettes: To be addicted to cigarettes.
After the war, I smoked Lucky Strikes. I didn’t for years realize the irony of the brand name. Certainly, I have since learned that smoking any cigarette is not lucky. It is unlucky in every respect. It costs to buy it. It costs to smoke it in that one has less self-respect, and it costs in health in that eventually it will kill one in a manner that one should never have to die: gasping for breath like a fish out of water.
One day in my 28th year, I was on a ladder painting the ceiling of a porch. I reached into my shirt pocket and discovered that I had nothing but an empty pack. I thought then that it was the time to quit. I had thought so for many years and had calculated often the monetary cost of smoking: how much I could save in a year and in ten years. So, I didn’t come down from that ladder and go to the store for another pack. I sweat it out. I continued to paint and that was the end of my smoking cigarettes. Except, for the following episode.
During spring break at the University of Virginia, there is a Bacchanalia of unimaginable abandon: drinks of gin and grapefruit juice are dispensed from the drains of bathtubs elevated on timbers. I was there for one. I roamed the grounds partaking from tub to tub until I was intoxicated but still ambulant. Someone in the mob of drunks offered me a cigarette. The past having been obliterated by drinks, I took a cigarette and he lighted it for me. I took a puff and inhaled. I was immediately taken back to the day Eugene gave me my first puff, and I had the same reaction. That was it. It was the last. I have never puffed a cigarette since.
I am 90 now. I walk every day to the post office, the court house, the bank and other places and nearly always across the New River Bridge. I climb stairs at night to my bed. I am careful because I haven’t the balance I once had. But I am not dead or an invalid. I would have been one or the other had I not quit smoking at age 28.
My testament is that if one can quit smoking, he or she will celebrate the day as the day of liberation and have years more to celebrate it than had she or he not quit.