Of Cigarettes and Swing Sets

smokingIt’s a beautiful Saturday morning in 1975. I have already eaten my Cap’n Crunch (and the roof of my mouth is properly shredded). I have watched my fill of Saturday morning cartoonsThe Flintsones, Banana Splits, Shazam and Isis–and I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of the newest addition to the Trainer family. No, not another baby (thank God), but a brand new swing set. Yes, our yard will finally have an attraction that I will be able to use as leverage when I want to swing on Cindy’s tire swing or swim in Mike’s above ground pool.

I can hardly contain my excitement. I am there from the moment my dad, my Uncle Nicky, and a few of the other dads in the neighborhood begin digging holes by the rear fence—four holes for the four steel posts of the swing set. A few of my friends want in on the action, and before long, it seems like the whole neighborhood is in our backyard.

My dad and his cronies (that’s what my mom calls them) are busy fetching tools, swing parts, and beers, so there is a lot of commotion; a lot of people going this way and that. We are told to go play on the front lawn as the backyard  is now strewn with important materials. A few of us begin a game of TV tag. Now, I’m not sure if this game ever achieved national fame, but TV tag was one of those consummate ’70s lawn games. Someone would be “IT”, and everyone else would run around. As kids were chased by “IT”, they could kneel on one knee and call out a TV show. If they did this before being tagged, they were safe. How I loved that game. And, how I tried to call out the coolest TV shows before the others. If I could last long enough to shout out Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Love Boat, and Fantasy Island, then my mission was complete. No way did I want to be in the game ’til the end, since kids were forced to choose lame shows like Lawrence Welk and Hee Haw. Yeah, TV tag was far out, man. You dig?

As we are engrossed in our fun, my dad comes out to the driveway and walks across the lawn. He needs a tool from our next door neighbor. As he passes by, we stop the game. He says something funny, then tosses the butt of his lit cigarette onto the grass behind us. As he leaves, I have an idea.

I walk over and find the cigarette—still burning. My friends crowd around me in a circle. “Pick it up,” I hear (maybe in my head), and so I do. I hold it in my hand, rolling it between my thumb and forefinger. My friends stare at me wildly. OOOhhhh—that’s bad. But I don’t feel bad. I feel cool. As I raise the butt to my mouth, I see them– my father’s feet entering the circle that has formed around me. From my crouching position, I look up towards him. He towers above me. I pitch the cigarette to the ground as he grabs my arm.

“You should know better!” he yells. “Get up to your room.” “But I…” “Now!” he commands.

I look at my friends’ faces, their expressions all seem to say, “Yeah, we knew this was going to end badly.”

As I walk inside, I am flush with embarrassment, then shame, then anger. I stomp up the stairs. Each foot a THUD—punctuating my frustration. THIS (thud) IS(thud) NOT(thud) FAIR(thud)! I (thud)DIDN’T(thud) MEAN(thud) TO——SLAM! I shut the door hard, fully aware that no one is around to hear it.

For the remainder of the day, I watch all the activity from my bedroom window. My father and his friends work hard to get the swing set in by nightfall. My brothers and sisters play and laugh with their friends. Everyone breaks for a cookout. And I am alone. Alone. I don’t even remember eating that day. I like to think I was not allowed to eat—starved as a part of my punishment.

And as I stare at my dad in the yard, I realize why I am so angry. If I had known the word “hypocrite” as a six year-old, I would have called him one (under my breath of course). Because that’s what he was: a hypocrite. He said I should know better. Well, HE should know better. He shouldn’t smoke. He shouldn’t throw lit cigarettes near kids who are playing on the lawn. He shouldn’t punish me for the whole day. A time out should last ten minutes, not ten hours. Hypocrite!

And therein lies the curse of my father. Even when he was trying to show his devotion towards his kids, his anger and frustration would get the better of him.  A gesture of love and kindness, like installing a swing set for your kids, is marred by a man’s inability to see the effects of his actions. A day spent working for the benefit of  family is spoiled by too many beers and not enough patience. This curse haunts me as a father, when I overreact about something insignificant, or I blame the kids for something I know was my stupid fault, or when I am impatient because I didn’t allow enough time to get everything done. Being a father certainly allows me to have more empathy for my own dad. But one thing I try to never be is a hypocrite. I am not in favor of the old “do as I say, not as I do” form of parenting.

**********************************************

The next morning, I am eager to make up for lost time. It is very early, and no one in the house is up yet. I sneak  into my sister Erin’s room and wake her. We tiptoe down the stairs and out into the yard, our bare feet trekkinga118 (1) through the wet, dewy grass. We behold the swing set in all of its lime green and rust orange glory. We are like two warriors coming upon the hidden city. We hop onto the swings and start to glide; our legs travelling back and forth…back and forth… back and forth. The chains squeak with an oily newness. We feel special. The first to ride on our new toy. We smile at each other, laugh, and then BOOOOM! The entire set crashes to the ground. Erin and I fall flat on our faces and look up to see the swing set uprooted from its newly-cemented-as-yet-to-dry holes. Oh my God! What are we going to do?

Had we waited for the okay to ride on the swings, this wouldn’t have happened. We head inside. I am filled with a sense of dread at the thought of another day of being held captive in my room.

“Mom…? Dad…?”

I hear them waking. Drowsy footsteps come to the bedroom door. I take a deep breath.

This stupid swing set is nothing but trouble, I think to myself.

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86 comments

  1. Great story!

    I grew up in those times when everybody smoked and smoking was cool. My father was a three-pack-a-day smoker, yet I was raised to think of it always as forbidden, which was why I did it, at 13, before I even knew how — and why I had some kind of a romantic affair with smoking up until the last airline (was it AirFrane?) finally joined the others to turn it into a crime.

    But this is not why I connected with your story. The whole atmosphere of those childhood days just all came back, including the lazy hours, the joy over new things, the fear that you were less important than the stuff you broke, whether it was a new vase or a new swing set.

    Are you going to publish a book? Have you any books? Let me know.

  2. I am appalled you would put a picture of a kid with a cigarette in his mouth, looking cool, on your blog, and I am even more appalled wordpress would “Freshly Press” this.

    Having grown up with parents that both smoked my entire life children do not have a choice whether they are exposed to such a harmful environment and I in no way condone this photo.

    I ask you please take it down. Surely you can make your point without it. Thank you.

    1. This picture highlights the absurdity of smoking,and captures a time period when smoking was much more acceptable. The picture is of a toddler that was taken circa 1950–he looks ridiculous, not cool. The point of using it in this piece, and the theme I touch upon in other posts, is to emphasize how much times have changed in how we view raising children and the role of parents. If you read the post and the other comments, you will see many who (sadly) were able to recall similar experiences around cigarettes. One reader recalls how in the ’50’s, there were pictures taken of her husband as a toddler smoking on his grandfather’s knee–and everyone thought it was cute. To me, this picture is a symbol for how far we have come in changing our views as a society. I grew up in a family of smokers, too. And as a result, I smoked for a long time. I am sorry if it offends you, but I stand by my choice. Thanks for weighing in.

      1. While I understand your point, I must disagree. Pictures speak louder than words and I’m sorry to say many will not read your post but will see the picture, including young, impressionable children.

        There is a reason there are restrictions on tobacco advertising to kids. Smoking is addicting. My mother still smokes after 40 years and she has tried before to quit. She started in college.

        Even if this picture is decades old, the child in this picture does not understand the dangers of smoking or what he is doing. Some adult put the cigarette in his mouth and snapped the picture.

        I’m all about adults deciding whether to smoke or not for presumably they know the risks.

        Kids do not. And young minds seeing this picture (in my opinion) are not yet capable of making that distinction.

  3. You captured my childhood perfectly. Except for the part where the top bar caught me in the back of the head and gave me such a welt I was afraid my brain was going to swell and kill me. Good times. Kids these days don’t know anything about fun.

  4. Great post! Both my parents were heavy smokers as well, and both hypocrites! My father’s line was always, “If I ever see you smoking a cigarette, I’m going to make you eat it…lit!” Guess he didn’t follow through on that threat either though because my brother also ended up being a heavy smoker (I am not a smoker)….good times, indeed.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. I just was visiting your site–very cool–I really like the range. I also love the way you observe that “This blog is dedicated to those who know when its time for unpacking and translating moments that matter.

      And the traveling is easier when you meet people along the way. Won’t you join me?” I feel like beginning this blog has taken me to places that I didn’t imagine–and the travelling is definitely easier with all of these wonderful blogs I visit. Keep travelling.

      1. Michael,

        Thank you for taking the time and for your thoughtful response! Likewise, I appreciated revisiting moments that could have been my childhood on your blog. Do stay in touch! I hope to keep perusing your great insights on your blog as well. Again, thank you for doing more than punching like and running off to the next blog! -Renee

  5. You are blessed my friend. I could actually imagine what it would feel like living back in the 70s. It reminded me of the swing we set up in our garden, the smell of the walnut tree, cousins and all the wonderful memories. Thanks.

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