When society’s habits went up in smoke

A professor once told told me successful authors are fueled by a constant intake of cigarette smoke.  Which must explain why none of my stuff has ever wandered anywhere close to a bestsellers list.

But if there is anything to the theory about secondhand smoke being hazardous to health it’s amazing I’m still here at all. And if you grew up in the fifties or sixties the same probably goes for you.

Back in my butcher shop days, when I worked in one in a country store as a teenager, a tobacco salesman came in once a week to refill the racks behind the checkout counter.

He was a friendly fellow probably in his sixties who was either smoking or chewing some of his merchandise whenever he arrived.  One week he’d be enjoying a pre-rolled cigarette (one brand seemed to serve as well as another) and the next week he’d be smoking one he’d rolled himself in a lightning-quick process that required only one hand.  Other weeks he’d puff away at a slender briar pipe, or a drooping Sherlock Holmes model, or a simple rig fashioned from a corncob.  Occasionally he’d be smoking cigars, large or small, and he often would show up with a jaw full of chewing tobacco or a protruding lower lip filled with Garrett sweet snuff.

I asked him once why he kept changing.

He smiled – he was always smiling, possibly the effect of such constant and varied nicotine stimulation – and told me he enjoyed tobacco in all its manifestations.

I was probably a high school freshman at the time, not yet a wordsmith, and in all likelihood I had never heard the word manifestations.  But I got the gist of his philosophy.

I don’t know what became of him; he was a traveling salesman and didn’t live in Oakwood.  But he’d be well over a hundred now if he’s still alive.  Which is doubtful, given the many and sundry carcinogens he consumed.

Though that fellow did use more types of tobacco than anyone I ever knew, it wasn’t at all uncommon in the mid 1960’s for most of the customers in that store to be smoking as they did their marketing.  Folks smoked in the post office, at the eateries – the Bus Stop Café and Laurene’s – in Miss Flossie’s dress shop, and in the bank.  Ladies smoked under big hair dryers in beauty shops and men smoked while they got haircuts.  Some of the teachers at the school came into class from their breaks with smoke billowing out of their mouth and nose, and, though nobody smoked during services, the front porches of churches were stagnant and cloudy from the last frantic intakes before heading in.

My mother smoked unfiltered cigarettes until my sisters and I convinced her to switch.  Then she used Pall Malls, and I can still smell the unique stench of a burning filter from her transition period, when she as often as not lit the wrong end.  Still, we considered it a victory, hoping that the tiny filter would protect her from all that smoke.

It didn’t.  She died when she was younger than I am now after a long bout with cancer.

My father gave up cigarettes early on, replacing them with occasional cigars. He chose – no surprise here – the least expensive available: King Edwards.  By the time my mother died he had moved on to pipes, of which he had a handsome collection. He was an easy man to buy a present for; a new pipe was always appreciated. Until he remarried, that is, late in his life.  His new wife was intolerant of smoking – and a good many other things come to think of it – so the pipes got tossed.

I managed to get though all of that constant smoke – at home, in town, in the car – without taking it up myself.  Until I went into the army, at least.

When my battalion in Germany took part in month-long war games we had to eat C-rations, boxed meals consisting of horrible potted meats and canned cakes so hard and dry that they made good paperweights.  Each C-ration box also had a small pack of cigarettes.  Being thrifty – I was my father’s son – and not disposed to look gifts horses in the mouth, I started smoking them.

But I gave it up after several years, hopefully before any permanent damage was done to my lungs.

There’s a lot I miss about times gone by, but all that constant smoking going on in public places isn’t one of them.  I’m appreciative of no-smoking restaurants and hotels.  And I particularly hate to see kids lighting up, trying to look debonair, waving a cigarette around as if it were Harry Potter’s magic wand.

Because even though that tobacco salesman seemed to find some magic in his wares, I only have to remember my mother’s last years to know that it’s a very dark magic indeed.



One thought on “When society’s habits went up in smoke

  1. I have read that no one starts smoking after the age of 25.

    Thank again for sharing a charming remembrance. Life in the past wasn’t always better than the present.



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