In a recent post titled Of Cigarettes and Swing Sets, I recalled a time when I got in trouble for picking up my Dad’s lit cigarette. Many people commented on the post, and what struck me was how many readers reacted to the smoking culture of the ’70’s. Numerous people reminisced about how “everyone smoked back then.” Everyone might be a slight exaggeration, but those who didn’t, certainly spent their time breathing in a cloud of second-hand smoke.
My mother, who quit smoking 17 years ago, was a champion smoker back in the day. This mother of 7 defied the medical theory that smoking during pregnancy lowers birth weight. All of her children were in the seven to nine pound weight range–I was her biggest at 9.9 pounds. Plus, she had the largest twins on record at our local hospital–8.5 and 8.2 pounds! That’s over 16 pounds of baby in her belly, folks. Yet, the stories she has shared about the smoking culture back then would make you choke on your venti, decaf, no whip, no foam, Chai latte.
When my mom delivered her first child in 1963, it was during a snow storm. The labor and delivery nurse called her midnight relief to pick up smokes for my mom and another lady who was delivering her baby that night. The two expectant mothers were worried they were going to run out of cigarettes and the snow would prevent family members from replenishing their supply. Such accommodating nurses. They were even happy to assist their patients in lighting the cigarettes since IV lines were affixed to a flat board on the patient’s arm. Nurses lighting patient’s cigarettes. Can you imagine?
Flash forward ten years. My mother is pregnant for the last time, with twins. After examining her, the doctor meets her in his office. He lights a cigarette for her, and then one for himself, and says, “You’ve done this enough times, Joanne. So tell me, when’s your due date?” Ahhh, nothing like a smoke break with your OB-GYN.
Cigarettes were a fixture in my childhood. I often remember running in to the drug store or up to the window of the gas station to buy my mom’s cigarettes: “Two packs of Newport Light 100s, please.” When on a field trip or at the boardwalk, someone was always buying a new ashtray for mom or a lighter for dad. My favorite souvenir was a glass test tube that held a single cigarette and a match. In bright red letters, the outside print read: “In case of emergency break glass!” Oh, how I always hoped I would be there to witness one of my parents breaking it in a time of great need.
One week at Sunday School, I learned that smoking could kill you. I think the lady who ran the church school had recently lost a loved one– a smoker. I remember walking home with my brother and sister determined to make our parents quit. We made “No Smoking” signs and hung them up throughout the house. We told our parents we didn’t want them to die, and proceeded to break their cigarettes in half or run them under water. That didn’t last long. They promised they would try and stop. Yet, our campaign was not successful, so I turned my efforts outward. In first grade, I entered a poster contest during Fire Safety Week. My compelling slogan: “Use your head! Don’t smoke in bed!” above a drawing of a man falling asleep in bed with a lit cigarette in his lap. I won third place.
The first time I smoked was third grade. I was eight years old. A bunch of boys in the neighborhood and I found ourselves in the woods one day with a whole pack someone had stolen from his parents. We each took one, lit it, and “smoked”–I learned later that I didn’t do it right. I blew out rather than sucked in, but the red end still glowed with fire, so I believed I was smoking. We visited the woods everyday that week to have a smoke. By midweek, someone had also brought a Playboy magazine they stole from an older brother. There I was, receiving quite an education. Of course, as a Catholic, I could not enjoy one moment of this. Between the cigarettes and the naked women, I was wracked with guilt. I peered into the future and saw, just a few short years later, my eighth grade self dying of lung cancer and being sent to Hell for looking at dirty magazines. The smoking visits died down in the woods, but someone shoved pages of the Playboy up in the hollow of a tree. We trekked back to the woods often to stare at them, until they were so weathered and worn the images were unrecognizable.
I went from breaking my parents’ cigarettes in half during my early elementary school days, to swiping a few from the pack to smoke with friends as I reached later grade school. I would sneak drags off my mom’s lit cigarettes that she left burning in ashtrays while she went to change a load of laundry, or to answer the phone–which was attached to the wall back then. By eighth grade, I was a full-fledged smoker. I walked around at night with my friends (thank God for the dog–it was the most exercise our beagle ever got). We cupped our cigarettes whenever a car would pass; we carried pocket warmers in the winter to use as a ruse in case we ever got caught. Ever paranoid, my friends would tease me, “Hey Mike, there’s an airplane! Better hide your cigarette.” Indeed, every car that passed I swore was my dad, until one time it actually was. As I approached his car, I was so nervous, I put the butt out in my hand (it was raining that night, so it didn’t hurt too much). “You guys need a ride anywhere?” “No,” I said, heart beating, “we’re fine.” In hindsight, I think he probably knew what we were up to, but could certainly relate– a lifelong smoker himself.
I went on to smoke through high school, college, and my roaring twenties. Luckily, I discovered running. And I ran long enough to realize I couldn’t be both a runner and a smoker. I am happy with my choice.
I don’t miss smoking. I DO miss the camaraderie, though. The excitement of meeting someone for a break in the routine. A chance to get away from it all for a few minutes. Also, smokers are a friendly bunch–my favorite people growing up were the smokers. It took me a while, but I learned that one still needs to take time out to enjoy a few minutes to himself, or catch up with a friend. The trick is to find ways to do that that won’t kill you.
I don’t really miss the good old days, either. As Billy Joel once sang, “the good old days weren’t always good…” So often we long for yesterday. We think perhaps times were simpler; we assume our life was less complicated. I never know how to react when someone laments for the childhood of a bygone era like the ’70’s: “When I was young, we didn’t have ‘play dates’, we ran around outside from morning ’til night. I only came in for dinner…” As a parent now, though, I think I might choose a play date over letting my kids roam free all hours of the day. I might suggest we all go for a walk in the woods, rather than let my eight-year-old wander there with kids of all ages. I do consider it a small victory that my son, who is the same age I was when I lit my first smoke, has never even held a cigarette–has never even seen one in this house. Plus, he has yet to look at porn. I’d say those are some small victories. And I hope to maintain them at least til he gets into the double digits:) As the great Virginia Slims campaign used to say, “We’ve come a long way baby!” We sure have.