There was a time when almost all of the adults smoked cigarettes. “Smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em,” was more than just a catchy saying. It was a way of life. That was the World War II generation, and you could say that during that nerve-jangling episode in world history there were more reasons to smoke than there are usually. The young adults of the time were self-medicating to an extent. The depression was just ending, and between that and the war there were tons of good reasons to be nervous and worried. Not just at the tip of the spear, either, not just the combat troops, but all throughout the rest of the military and into the population of most of the world. They developed the habits of drinking at every opportunity and smoking as close to constantly as they could manage. After the war, it was tough to stop, and most of them didn’t see any good reason to even try stoping anyway.
Many of us had family doctors who had served in the wartime military. My own doctor was one of the unlucky few who had actually treated combat casualties and been relatively close to the front. He was a steady kind of fellow that no one would say was the nervous type. He had picked up the smoking and drinking habits, though. He had a big ash tray on the desk in his office and he didn’t mind smoking while he was treating patients. He had a bottle of scotch in the drawer, too, and in between office appointments he would take a little nip. He left the rocks glass on his desk. I’m sure that he’d occasionally pull out another glass and share a drink with a patient if the situation called for it. He knew which of his patients had been in the shit during the war. Give ‘em a drink, let’s smoke a butt, reminisce a little. He was a good doctor, not like some of them who couldn’t handle their liquor. I still have a mark on my shoulder that looks like a small tattoo of the islands of Japan, left by a botched tetanus shot from another doctor who had been taking a few too many nips that day. He jammed the needle straight into the bone. He’d been in the war himself.
Camels sold their product with the pitch, “not a cough in a carload!” See, now I wouldn’t have recommended that saying to them. As the Romans used to say, “the guilty flee, when no man pursueth.” Why bring up coughing yourself? I’m pretty sure that was a mistake.
Lots of the members of that generation paid the price for all of that self-medication. My old doctor included. He suffered a fatal heart attack at a relatively young age. Several of my uncles paid that price, too, or got the cancer or something. They were certainly a bad influence on us Baby Boomers, that “Greatest Generation.”
The first cigarettes that I smoked as a boy were rush jobs, and I don’t really remember them. They were Pell Mells that a cousin and I had stolen from my uncle. Whether I enjoyed them or not, I do not recall, but I was not discouraged, that much is certain.
The first cigarettes that I do remember smoking were non-filter Chesterfield Kings that my friend Jackie and I stole from his mom. She smoked those things by the carton, more than a pack a day, so she’d never realize it if four of them went missing. We took a book of matches and the four cigarettes and went to the big park on the river in our town. There was a hill rising above a nice path along the river that was covered in dense, old bushes. We knew a spot where you could climb the hill with some difficulty and come to a “fort,” as we called such things. It was an open space covered by the bushes with enough hard packed dirt for two or three boys to sit comfortably. Facing the river there was a gap in the foliage that provided a nice view of La Guardia Airport, right across Flushing Bay. We were twelve years old at the time, still in grammar school.
It was probably the first time that I inhaled, so it would have been the first time that I got the full effect. And the effect of a Chesterfield (filterless) King was considerable. We smoked our two cigarettes apiece and we compared notes. I remember thinking, wow, no wonder the adults smoke these things. I thought they were great.
In the fullness of time, I tried a lot of other things as well. I must confess that I liked almost everything that I tried, and that I added a few things to the list of my, what? Habits? Sure, habits, why not. For want of a better word, although not, certainly, in the medical sense. Only those devices that one uses to comfort oneself through the difficult passages in life, which for many of us came pretty much every day.
Speaking now, in February, 2018, it’s been about a year and a half since I smoked a cigarette. It’s not like I was a dedicated cigarette smoker all of my life, I wasn’t. I went strong through my late teens, but after that I was an on again, off again cigarette smoker, and always more like a few, nothing like a pack per day. During my fifties, I literally smoked three cigarettes per day. That was hard for people to believe, but it worked for me. I enjoyed those three cigarettes, one in the morning; one upon returning home from work; and one after dinner.
During my sixties, and owing to stresses that would crush coal into diamonds, my intake went up to six or seven cigarettes per day. If you are still young, dear reader, God bless you, but please believe me that there comes a time in our lives when the handwriting on the wall is not only clearly visible, but it is also bursting into flames and can be read from space. So, I quit. It was not that the stress in my life was reduced, quite the opposite was true. It was just that I came to realize that the well-being of others was involved, not just my own wants and needs. I was not worried about second-hand smoke, because I only smoked on my balcony, and with the doors closed. No, I realized that every year that I could add to my life would make someone else’s life easier. There was someone who would miss me after I was gone, and who’s life I could make easier by my assistance and companionship. In other words, I selfishly sought to extend my life, because I enjoy this feeling of being important to someone.
I can honestly say that I never crave a cigarette. I never look longingly at the cigarette display in the convenience stores. I do kind of miss them, though, because I did always enjoy smoking them. Okay, add them to the list of things that I miss. The list is as long as my arm by now, and the cigarettes are the least of it.