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Gotta Smoke? The Veteran’s Edition

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I once heard Paul Harvey say

It’s the sound of work boots going up the steps, and the sound of bedroom slippers coming down.

Mr Harvey was comparing America to Europe at the time, and it was the 1960s.

(I’d like to think the Founders had an escalator instead of stairs in mind, with people coming and going in both directions at the same time. But that’s for another day.)

But it is also true that the trek up the steps in heavy boots is heavy laden with the sweet aroma of cigarette smoke.

So check this close-up of that picture at the top, far left:

The Empire State building took 13 months to build from the ground up, and in the 20’s and 30s’ “high-steel” was the most dangerous work in America. It was also the best-paying.

In the 1940’s getting shot at by Nazis and Japanese was the most dangerous, but at only a fraction of the pay.

I made a comment only recently that a million Camel cigarettes killed my dad, bit that wasn’t quite true. Black lung killed him, but three packs a day for 30 years sure helped. He told me he never started smoking until they hit the beach in North Africa in ’42. He tried them all, Luckies, Pall Mall, even Wings, but finally settled on Camels because hell, he was in the desert, and  Camels actually laid down a heavier smoke screen than the others and could keep those desert black flies away and cut the taste of dry sand out of his mouth. There were smells there you didn’t want to live with.

It’s just that way; smoking is part of every vibrant, movin’ on up society, especially the staying-alive part.  And It’s attached to so many more laws about civilization that it can’t just be amputated and then everyone continuing to pretend they don’t live in a one-armed society.

Mr Harvey made that comment during the Vietnam War, but it was not until I began traveling to the Third World that I saw how integral smoking is to economies that wanted to grow. It serves many purposes, none of which I ever contemplated when I first tried smoking out as a youth.

I first noted this in Japan in the 1970s, then China in the 80’s and Russia and the Eastern bloc in the 90’s and 2000’s.

Of course, a lot of this was just pent up demand for better quality products as all those countries already had tobacco and alcohol, only not of the highest quality or of the widest availability. Japan made bad cigarettes before the war, and rot gut whiskey after. Russian cigarettes were impossible to keep lit, and could stink up an outhouse. So Johnny Walker, Jack Daniels and Marlboro put a shine on their work boots at a time America was slipping into something a little more comfortable for the bedroom.

But as a general law of human dynamics, smoking is both a sign of what men do when under stress, and a sign that life is getting better. Smoking represents optimism as well as relief from tension.

There have always been social attempts to segregate smoking, often based on no more than good manners. My father smoked at the dinner table so it would be a long time before I learned that is really an impolite thing to do (the tobacco-nazis also say he was killing his children). In mid-winter, on trains, Russians would still stand in the breezeway between cars to enjoy a smoke.

In the 1990s I did a lot of international shipping. I took note of the break rooms where one or two of a 15-man dock crew would eat, while the remaining were banished to the back dock, outside, in good weather and foul, just so they could smoke.

Jump to Bulgaria, who tried to impress the EU (who would later invite them to join) by providing smoking and non-smoking areas in restaurants. A popular Serbian eatery in Sofia had a first floor non-smoking dining room and a smoking dining room on the second level, and in ten visits over 7 years, I have never seen more than five or six patrons dining on the ground floor, while the upper floor often had waits of an hour or more.

LAW: Some smokers will give up precious time and comfort to be able to enjoy a smoke with their beer and kielbasa.

And right up there with working in high steel, witness our lunch crew perched out on that girder, nothing can be more stressful than the few minutes that seem like hours, and hours that seem like days in a combat zone.

As a kid I remember the pictures of wounded soldiers being loaded onto stretchers, with heads bandaged, and someone handing them a lit Camel. (Men also didn’t seem to be all that particular about putting something in their mouths that had already been in someone else’s mouth. But that’s another story. Or maybe it’s not.)

             

But as a kid I never thought of cigarettes having a therapeutic effect at all.

In fact, as a kid I missed the entire purpose of tobacco.

Did you know that in the 1950s many doctors prescribed smoking, yes prescribed, especially to high-strung ladies, for an ailment you almost never hear about anymore, neurosis?

Why you never hear about neurosis anymore is that America is almost entirely neurotic, especially the Left. (I have this on good authority.) The Left no more looks at neurosis as a condition than breathing as one.

I have to ask, is there a connection?

At one time neurotics existed only in the wild, seen only in captivity after being  medicated with Virginia Slims, color-tipped Capris, and Canadian blended whiskey (yecch!)  from which whiskey sours and stuff like that were concocted. When I was in college no one told me they had originated as prescriptions for girls. I won’t even drink a blended scotch anymore.

But today neurotics are incubated in greenhouses under controlled conditions with progressive injections of a kind of leftist steroid, so as to provide that extra shrill octave in the voices we’ve all come to know and love, and that furrowed eyebrow and evil glisten that goes into making the insufferable and disapproving bitchy Democrat.

Speaking of Hillary, I often wonder how much nicer our country would be if just more people had smoked as youths.

And that really is my bottom line here.

Where did we turn wrong?

Since I’m part of that generation, I find it instructive to consider just how many of my generation were able to quit smoking.  And by quit, I mean cold turkey; no sissy patches, no gum, no medically-supervised plans paid for by insurance. Just quit

As Mark Twain once said, “Quittin’ smoking’s easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.” And it took me about five quits before one finally took, but I never ceased to marvel that my generation, considered the most weak-kneed, spineless generation in American history, while almost 90% of us would smoke at one time, over half of us would quit.

That’s a phenomenal percentage if you stop to think about it, and something of an irony, since I’m sure already more from my generation have probably died of some neurosis-borne episode than from any lung-based illness. (Don’t teat fits cause stroke? Where’s the university study on this?)

What this single fact, that over half of history’s most self-indulgent generation can quit smoking, tells us is that the “addictive” factors of cigarettes can’t possibly be as bad as modern tobacco Nazis would declare. Remember when they wanted to indict tobacco execs for perjury for saying they did not believe tobacco to be addictive?

Hard drug addiction is very difficult to give up and almost never without medical intervention. And chronic bitchiness, impossible, without God’s intervention. But when I quit I didn’t even get the sweats, just a toothache from all those jelly beans.

So why would the weakest generation in Christendom want to prohibit their children from a thing they did with glee and could quit as easily as lying to a barroom card-checker, by making it appear repulsive…then steer their kids toward far more dangerous and debilitating alternatives, such as easy sex without consequence or responsibility, drugs, or even self-adoration?

It makes no sense, as I have two Gen X’ers and have found both to possess far more intestinal fortitude than I ever had. If my generation could quite 50%, surely to goodness theirs could quit 75%. Maybe 80%.

If there was ever a safe generation to try smoking I think it would have been the Gen X’ers (who would be around 45 right now) for they could try it and get whatever forbidden pleasure they could from it, then quit…but only after they’d kicked the neurosis disposition. (Think of a cat being neutered or spayed. Tobacco has that effect on both the male and female bitchy gene I think.)

There are lessons here, for witnessing smoking in this new light had caused me to pause and reflect on my own life of smoking, habitually from 17 to about 42, and off and on since 12. For none of it has anything to do with work boots.

The curative powers of Sneaking

About 25 years ago I wrote an essay, in long hand, by the same title as this, and all I did for 3000 words was tell tales of my adventures in smoking. More specifically, sneaking to smoke.

I had a great life as kid, with mountains to climb and caves to explore, but by and far the best adventures I had were indulging in forbidden pleasures and trying to not get caught at it.

More of those adventures than I care to calculate had to with cigarettes; e.g., how to raise the necessary 35c for a pack (a guy I hitched a ride with to school always charged a nickle apiece for a Winston and even I could do the math), where to buy them (just like modern Indians and Arabs at 7-11, there were always men who do anything for a quarter and a dime…and we blessed their House weekly), where to hide them (behind loose bricks in buildings), how to bum one in a pinch, and how to spot one on the ground and see if there was still 3-4 good pulls left, or the filter wasn’t too chewed on (that’s where I drew the line).

And there was always the stealth. Furtive glances over the shoulder. And security. (Someone actually raided the loose brick a friend of mine and I shared.) Even lighting one up was an adventure, as every house in my town was a sniper’s nest, with eyes peering out of every kitchen window into the back alley, just looking for smoke signals rising up above the honeysuckle bush along the back fence.

When I think of all the times I’ve hunkered down behind an outhouse, trying to light a soggy Pall Mall with paper matches on a windy day, I get downright teary-eyed.

All that ended suddenly, when I was 18. I once told a fellow the best cigarette I’d ever smoked was the last one I smoked before my dad saw me smoke. With a snap of the finger, the thrill was gone and it was all downhill from there on, although it would be another 20+ years before I’d find the bottom of that hill.

Oh I had a few good cigarettes along the way, but two-three out of the pack was about it. That first coffee in the morning was one, but I didn’t take coffee up until I was in the Army. Pizza and a pitcher of beer and good friends was another, but how many of those were there? …and as you know, no where in America can four pards just sit around a noisy saloon anymore, over pizza and beer, telling lies with cigs hanging from their lips. Nazis.

Then of course there’s the post-connubial smoke…

…if memory serves.

I still try to get down wind of anyone I see smoking just so I can be transported to those many memories of my youth.

The day I quit sneaking is the day I started quitting smoking, but it would be another forty years before I ever took any great lesson from it, namely that to my father and my grandfather smoking was a sign of work boots marching up the stairs, not kids sneaking around in back alleys. It would be that long before I would disconnect my dad hunkered down in a wet foxhole in Italy trying to light a Camel and me behind Mrs Fawbush’s outhouse with the Camel I sneaked off his bureau.

We had it so good we never knew the real palliative effect smoking had in a really hard world.

We thought it was all a game. All we really had was the sneaking.

Still, in today’s world, when work boots aren’t even optional anymore, sneaking may still play a vital social role….especially if veterans led the way.

 At yard sales I’ve seen kids on bicycles finger and handle old Zippo’s and Ronson’s on the table, wondering, looking around if they should ask the price.

My heart soars, for I know an ancient tradition continues, each with its own ending, and most of them non-neurotic.

I wish more kids smoked… but only if they have to sneak to do it. For then they likely wouldn’t be sneaking to buy condoms, or alcohol, or drugs. We all can think of a dozen things worse than smoking in terms of long term harm. Fathering or mothering a child, or worse, paying not to have to, carries far more long term baggage than the kid who smokes and then quits after 10 years.

My guess is kids are always going to sneak to do something. I’d prefer to keep the risks at the low end.

Smoking’s the one sin they can all walk away from and be left better off than had they never tried it at all.

Think about it veterans, If you’ve smoked, just add 20 points to your resume score for saving American civilization. Sneaked? Add another 50.

 

 

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About the Author:

Vietnam era Army JAG, Asia, 17-yr Cold Warrior in Soviet-China Bloc green zone, Been shot at and hit, but in crime, not war; twice-broken nose for lying (same fellow) hence good law school candidate; Could have been Somebody in Corporate world and politics, but at every crossroad chose to be a man with a tawdry past instead. Gave up law and am now a redeemed American.
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Comments

  1. Allen  August 1, 2018

    LOL, I’ll accept the max points you’re awarding. I used to sneak Dad;s camel straights out of his truck. I gave it up in the Army ‘cuz you couldn’t smoke after dark, light discipline, you know. I dipped for many years, never spit though. Spittin’ is crude.

    reply

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