Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em
Don, like most men of his generation, was a smoker.
Since he had constant access to cigarettes at the EZ Way Inn, he left half empty packs on the standing ashtray next to his recliner at home. Often a silver-colored lighter was tucked in next to the cigarette pack. After all, Don could easily pick up another lighter at the tavern where they were sold from a display rack on top of the cigarette machine along with bright yellow packages of flints and cans of lighter fluid.
Incidentally, if you recognize those last two products, I know how old you are.
At around age 14, sitting in my dad’s chair, home alone, watching television after school, I picked up the habit of flicking my dad’s lighter. It was, indeed, an attractive nuisance. The sound of opening the top, the weight and feel of the cool metal in my hand, the acrid smell were inexplicably wonderful. Using one hand to operate, thumbing the lid up and off, running same thumb down to strike the spark? It was a mysterious, satisfying gesture. One day, I fished out a Tareyton from the crumpled pack, slipped it between my lips, and used my perfected one-handed lighter skills to fire it up. I was still wearing my high school uniform, plaid skirt, green blazer with the Bishop MacNamara patch sewn on the pocket proclaiming that I was “Committed to Christian Excellence.” I didn’t inhale.
Thus began my high school habit of sort of smoking, non-inhaling about two cigarettes a week.
I loved holding the cigarette, waving my hand, stabbing the air with it to emphasize a point to my imaginary companions, flicking the ash casually or impatiently, and I adored stubbing it out angrily, thoughtfully, or deliberately. Cigarettes were perfect props, demanding so many gestures which displayed so many emotions. Yes, the tar and nicotine made them addictive, but even if the poison hadn’t been the evil hook, I would have become addicted to the great theatrics of smoking.
After I had not inhaled my first Tareyton, I noticed a few days later that my dad had switched brands. The next week, again, there was a new brand. Lucky Strikes, Winstons, Kents, Parliaments all made appearances on the standing ashtray. My dad, who I knew as a decisive solid thinker, appeared to be entirely fickle when it came to his smoking habits.
“So Dad,” I asked as casually as I could, “didn’t you used to smoke Tareytons?”
“Uh-huh,” answered my dad, not looking up from the paper.
“Why the switch?” I might be a new occasional sneak smoker of two or three cigarettes a week, but I was a steady watcher of television and the cigarette advertising that dominated commercial breaks.
“You don’t like the charcoal filter anymore?”
“What, honey?” said my dad, still not looking up.
“Do you prefer the recessed filter of a Parliament? I asked, “a neat, clean quarter inch away?”
“Huh?” asked my dad, lowering the paper so he could look at me more carefully.
“Winston taste good like a cigarette should?” I said, unable to resist repeating the most addictive jingle of them all.
“What are you taking about?” asked Don.
I explained, over-explained actually, that I was just curious about why he kept switching cigarettes. I said I had noticed the different packs and that it had nothing to do with actual smoking, since how would I know anything about that? I was just curious about why he hopped from brand to brand.
My dad glanced at the pack of cigarettes next to him. He let the newspaper fall on his lap, knocked one out of the pack and lit it, expertly handling the silver Zippo and drawing in a lungful of smoke.
“They’re all the same, honey,” said my dad.
“So you’re searching for the brand you like best?”
“Everybody knows they can’t be good for you, ” he continued, ”it’s just common sense.”
My dad picked up the pack and pointed to the newly mandated warning placed on packages that cautioned smoking cigarettes may be hazardous to one’s health.
“You know, I quit for a month or two last year,” he said.
Then I remembered that he had tossed out his cigarettes, just like that, because he had read a report on the hazards of smoking. He quit, cold turkey, for almost three months.
“Why did you start again?” I asked.
“I gained ten pounds and Doc said the weight was more dangerous for me than the cigarettes.”
My dad picked up the paper, conversation over, but then I remembered that he never answered my question.
“But, Dad, why do you switch brands?”
“I smoke whatever brand isn’t selling. Whatever we’re long on, honey. Whatever is left when I fill the cigarette machine. Understand?” asked my dad. When I nodded, he went back to his paper, cigarette burning in the ashtray.
What’s the lesson? How can any good lesson come from a discussion of cigarette smoking? Well, I think the lesson is that pragmatism works.
My pragmatic dad simply picked the least popular brand of the week for purely practical reasons. Pragmatism, using knowledge and experience, served him well as a saloonkeeper, a businessman, a father, a husband and a friend. And if only he had remained pragmatic in all things, and trusted his own knowledge and experience about the ills of smoking, if only he had quit for good, trusted his own common sense and disregarded the dubious medical advice he had received from his doctor, perhaps he might have avoided the lung cancer that took him too early at age 68.