“I have your lab test back and everything seems normal. But...” Doctor Williams said giving that look while sitting behind his desk.
You know the look, it’s the one every doctor gives a patient when they want to get their point across. Arms folded on the table, eyeglasses slipped low on their nose, giving that look of parent to child, as scores of sheepskin diplomas proving their wisdom hang on the wall. I’ve always thought there must be some secret course in medical school, which teaches that doctor’s look and once they’ve learned it they’re swore to secrecy never to share it to any living soul. It’s probably the same look God gave Moses when he handed him the ten commandments on stone tablets and said, “Here do this... but”.
Suffering from a case of Dr. Williams medical look all I could quietly utter was, “But what?”
“But, you gotta stop smoking.”
That was the worst news I’ve could have gotten. Stop smoking? Me? Stop? After all these years?
I just nodded and said, “Okay.”
“No. I’m serious this time, John! For the past three years I’ve suggested. Now I’m telling, stop smoking! I know you’ve tried different things but there’s this new pill. Here, I wrote a script for you. Now take it and get it filled and stop smoking while you got your health.”
“Okay.” I said as I took the sheet of three by five paper and stuffed it in my pocket. “I will. You’re right, I’ll stop smoking.”
I wanted to believe my words but I felt like a liar. How could I give up something that’s been so much of my life? “Christ, what’s he thinking?” I wondered leaving his office on the warm Christmas Eve morning. “That I’m superman? The man of steel who can bend his will to do whatever’s right?” I’m a smoker and every one knows smokers are weak and we slink.
You see us standing in door ways outside all sorts of buildings, as the world passes us by disappointed at our weakness for not being able to stop that dirty, nasty habit. We sneak into restrooms to grab a smoke like we use to do in high school. We even do it at home as our non-smoking spouse ask, “How many cigarettes is that today?” and we lie, give some low ball number when you should really multiply it by two or three.
Yes, smokers, slink and so do I. But I recall a time, almost a half a century ago when there was no shame in smoke. Returning home to inform my wife of the pleasant news of good health and the dreadful news of the doctor’s orders to change my habits I recalled those events, when memories were shaped by blue shapeless cigarette smoke suspended in the air.
Christmas Eve back then, when Eisenhower was President and Elvis the king, was colder and the snow was measured in feet not inches. That Christmas, my buddies and me were as excited as any nine-year-olds could be because all of us bought a special present for our fathers. Our one and only gift to our Dads was a carton of smokes, something they’d never forget for at least for a week.
Since Thanksgiving, when the first real snow arrived we, on Saturday mornings, fanned out like an army of ants at a July picnic. With snow shovels slung over our shoulders, we knocked on stranger’s doors offering to shovel driveways, sidewalks, roofs, cars and patios. Hell, we’d shovel anything to earn fifty cents to reach the magic goal of three dollars and ninety-eight cents for a carton. Then, right before Christmas, all of us had enough saved to see Mr. Reese’s at his store.
Mr. Reese, knew we were buying them for our fathers so he’d saved those special boxes sold only during the holidays. They were fancy wrapped with green, red and white colors; some had ribbon on them while others had shinny silver or gold foil. Each carton had a place where each one of us could write some special words to our Dads expressing our joy at being their sons. Mr. Reese was glad to sell us those priceless gifts because in those innocent times with smoke in the air, men knew when a son was doing something good and right for his father. Back then cigarettes wouldn’t kill you and smokers never slinked. In fact a man was known by two things, the job he performed and the brand of cigarettes he smoked. Chuck’s father was a welder and was a Camel man. Jerry’s, father was a house painter and smoked Pal Malls. My father was a doctor and smoked Lucky Strikes.
Driving home along the lake almost fifty Christmas Eve’s later, I remembered my father wore white starched shirts. He always put his cigarettes in his shirt pocket, you could see the red bull’s eye of the pack through the pocket of his shirt and he kept his zippo lighter in his right pants pocket. Dad was a man of iron will. He’d smoke one pack a day, no more no less, and if he ran out before the day’s end he said he’d go without. At least that’s what he said but I think he lied, because sometimes I’d clean the office after closing and find his ashtray was full of butts, a lot more than one pack. I never said anything because even back then I think smokers sometimes lied. What I remembered most about him though, was how he opened a fresh new pack and lit the first smoke.
Christmas morning after he said, “Thank you son” and my mother said, “That was the nicest present you could give your Father.” I watched Dad carefully open the carton to draw out a new pack. After twisting off the wrapping he’d pound the pack on the flat on the table to settle the tobacco. Then, opening the final seal, he gently tapped it so the cigarettes appeared in neat standing order. Placing one to his lips he’d light his zippo lighter and draw on the cigarette until the end glowed red as the smoke from his lungs filled the air with the odor of sweet tobacco.
He always held his smoke in his right hand and he never dropped the ash on anything but the ashtray. The burning cigarette ash could be inches long and it wouldn’t budge, it’d never fall on the floor, his white shirt, the chair or anywhere else. Whereas, in my years of smoking, I’ve dropped ashes on every conceivable spot and generally made a mess of more cloths, shirts, ties, desks keyboards, chairs, cars and restaurant table cloths, causing more trouble than I was worth. I’ve always thought my Father’s command of his cigarette ash was because he gave his smokes that gaze, which doctor’s give their patient to get their point across. He must have been the star of his class while being taught that look, because in giving that stare Dad was an expert.
Driving home to help my wife wrap presents for our grown and gone children I began to wonder of the mysteries and idiosyncrasy parents bequeath their children. The biggest mystery which my Mother and Father bestowed to me was a simple one, it was television. Television back then, during the days of smoke was like our lives, black and white and didn’t stay on the air late at night. But Friday and Saturday nights were special. Friday was the Gillette Friday Night Fights, Saturday was Gunsmoke and the mystery was why my parents let me watch the fights but not Gunsmoke.
On Friday night my parents would happily let me watch as two men climbed in a twenty by twenty ring to beat each other to bloody pulps; and if the fight ended with a knock out, so much the better, it was a good fight. They’d let me watch all the carnage, live, as it happened, in black and white never thinking twice. But on Saturday night at ten I had to go to my room, denied watching Marshall Dillon, Doc, and Miss Kitty correct the evils of the old west, as written by some screenwriter. It was all fake, the blood, the conflict, the death, the life; it was all pretend. Yet it was too violent. I had the last laugh though, because the next day on Sunday morning, while standing outside of church, I’d overhear my Dad and his friends recounting in great detail last night’s adventures of Marshall Dillon, while smoking their last cigarette before mass.
Standing among the grown men wearing their Sunday best, who towered above my nine year old frame, inhaling the cigarette smoke, I could almost see Marshall Dillon gunning down the bad guy and saving Dodge City from a terrible evil with Miss Kitty by his side. To this day, almost a half a century later, why I could watch one program and not the other remains a mystery shrouded in smoke. I didn’t much care for the Friday Night blood bath. I’d rather seen Gunsmoke, but it was where I watched the fight that held it’s value; it was going to Elmer’s that made fight night a highlight.
Elmer’s house was small and now we’d call it a doublewide trailer. His wife died before I was born and he lived with his daughter Mary Beth who was a high school girl’s gym teacher and was an old maid. Today, in the non-smoking days, where the air is clearer we’d call Mary Beth, a lesbian, gay, or alternative sexual choice, but back then, in the days of smoke, she was just an old maid. Besides my Grandparents, Elmer was the oldest person I’d ever encountered in my nine years and he smoked everything.
He was tobacco. He even looked like tobacco.
Elmer was tall, thin, skinny and his complexion was brown and wrinkled like a dried tobacco leaf. That wise old man was like a matured plant who’d seen the seasons come and go and took it’s lesson of growth and change to seed, ready to bequeath that knowledge to a new generation and his house was a veritable shrine to tobacco.
Elmer smoked anything, cigarettes, cigars, pipes and he even chewed the stuff. The appearance of his house proved his habit, tobacco stains marked the carpet while the walls, drapes and furniture smelled of smoke. Elmer’s chair in which he always sat was a throne to tobacco. Located in the corner of his living room, near the big television, that old leather chair was with complete with rips, tears and cigarette burns; and while at his house, I never saw Elmer rise from that chair. He didn’t need to because everything in life was within arm’s reach.
To one side was not one, but three ashtrays, and oh what ashtrays they were. Big as dinner plates they were made of glass, which was a golden rich dark, brown; they fit into a solid brass holder which elevated them off the floor to make them easy to reach. They must have weighed pounds, making them so stable an angry dog scratching couldn’t have knocked them over.
He had three of them, one for cigarettes, cigars and pipes. Elmer had one more thing by his chair, a solid brass spittoon, just like the ones used in Gunsmsoke at the Long Branch saloon. Not only did Elmer have ashtrays, tobacco, pipes, cigars and chew, but he also had reading material. All the past and present issues of Field and Stream, Outdoor Life and Fur Fish and Game were strewed around his throne; and there were even some of them True Crime magazines with the half naked girl on the cover. Best of all though, on bookshelves above his chair were books by Melville, Conrad, London and Twain. Hoards of stories of men gathered around the smoke of the campfire or the deadly smoke from the muzzle of the gun sat just inches above his head. Elmer didn’t like the Friday night fights either, so as he smoked, he’d read aloud, because at the ripe old age of nine I wasn’t a very smart kid or good reader.
Elmer would read to me as Dad and the other four of five men would cheer on the Colored Boy, the Irish Mick, the Spick or Whitey because back then those weren’t racial slurs. While the men drank Coca Cola from those tall slim green bottles and smoked cigarettes, Elmer rolled his own as he made up some outlandish tale of two ants who travel to save the Queen from the evil Baron. As Dad and his buddies were dividing the betting pool from the fight, which consisted or nickels dimes and quarters, Elmer tried to teach me how to roll cigarettes.
But I was terrible at rolling my own smokes. I’d drop tobacco all over the floor, get the paper too wet and crunch the whole thing together so at the end all I accomplished was making a wadded paper mess which might have held just the kernel of tobacco. Elmer would just smile and say, “Try it again John.” Elmer and I never watched the fights. I loved Elmer, he was my hero, he was smoke.
Funny, I thought as I drove home to my wife of thirty years, “I hadn’t thought of Elmer for years. Hell I must be going through withdrawal already and I hadn’t even stopped.” Since I hadn’t yet quit smoking, I pulled into the Convenient Store to buy another pack of cigarettes. Being Christmas Eve, the store was empty except for the clerk and a small man painting the walls who reminded me of another from the time of smoke.
Derk was a friend of Dad’s and in the fall they regularly hunted pheasants with their English setter dogs. He was a small man about five and half feet tall who always wore white pants and shirt when working. He was the only man of his occupation I ever remembering wearing a tie. Derk was a house painter and fixer-upper and he smoked Pall Malls.
Every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Derk would spend a day or two at our home painting and fixing up, getting the house ready for the holidays. My Mother use to call it “freshening the place up”, and when he came, I would pretend to be sick, so I could watch him work. Looking back on it, I’m sure my parents knew I was lying about being sick, but I think they knew it wouldn’t hurt for me to spend some time with Derk.
When hunting or at the Friday night fights Derk smoked countless cigarettes; and when provoked, he’d spout more fine words than I ever knew existed, but he was different at our house. He’d hold his words and patiently answer all the dumb repetitive questions a nine-year-old kid could muster while teaching me about all things to do to “freshen up a house”. Things I never forgot and used at my own home. I’d help move (even though just a few hours previous I was almost dead with fever) and clean his equipment as he instructed me in the finer points of taking care of camel hair brushes. Derk taught me a lot, but while in our house, he never smoked without Mom’s permission.
Every couple of hours he’d say, “John, go ask your Mother if I can have a smoke.”
Mom always said, “Sure! Tell Derk, to come into the kitchen for a smoke.”
Derk put down his work and made his way to our kitchen while Mom poured him a fresh cup of coffee or in the afternoon a cold Coca Cola. Then all three of us would sit at the kitchen table while Derk smoked his Pall Malls. It was then Mom got creative.
She’d change this or that, as this color was a bit too bright, the other too dull, and things that worked yesterday, today were mysteriously broken and needed to be replaced. All the while Derk smoked his Pall Malls and nodded his head in agreement. It wasn’t that he was inflating the work, so he’d make more money, because he never charged much. Dad and he were buddies, friends from when they were nine years old; I think he probably only charged for materials and not time spent on the job. He just did what Mom asked with no fanfare or complaint as he said, “Anything you want Missus”.
Still, through the blue cigarette smoke, which hung low in the kitchen, I saw smoke rising from Derk, while he controlled his temper at Mom’s changes. When Derk and I were again alone he’d turn to me and say with genuine admiration. “John, you got one fine Mother there. Always treat her with respect and kindness. You’re damn lucky to have a Mother like her.”
I would nod my head and say, “Sure Derk, I will.”
I didn’t know what I was swearing allegiance to, after all every nine-year-old’s Mother is a saint to be worshipped and cherished. That short house painter, fixer-upper, who wore white clothes and a tie taught me to respect a person, no matter his status or position. He opened my mind to that value, one which we always are reminded of until the day we die, and Derk smoked Pal Malls.
The weather was warm for Christmas Eve and the lake wasn’t yet frozen. Before I turned off the road along the lake I stopped at the bluff parking lot, shut the car off, got out and lit another smoke. I promised my wife I wouldn’t smoke in the car, but I did. Smokers lie and they slink, not like when I was nine; and as I lit a cigarette, I remembered the first I ever lit. It was Mom’s.
It was different for women who smoked back then; they weren’t known by their choice of smokes and the unspoken rules were different for women back then. As my Mother use to say, “It’s only loose women who smoke alone on the street.”
It was perfectly acceptable for a man to light a smoke on the church steps just as mass let out; but it was absolutely taboo for a woman to have one until she got under the cover of home. And if she did? Well, she was loose. Women didn’t smoke straight cigarettes, the one without a filter, which was a man’s cigarette. Good women smoked filtered cigarettes and Mom smoked Kents. When I was nine, I never quite understood that label. I knew it wasn’t good, in fact, I knew it was bad. Still, I always wondered what it would be like to be with a loose woman just to watch her smoke. Little did I know in a few short years I’d desire to do more than just smoke with a loose woman.
Mom followed the other rules laid down for smoke. She never smoked on the street, in another person’s house or the car, and only in a restaurant, if Dad was at the same table. But in the privacy of her home Mom smoked vast quantities, especially when she drank.
Mornings found Mom with her pot of coffee and cigarette, reading the morning mail or newspaper. Afternoons would see her with another pot of coffee, smoking and watching her favorite soap opera or reading the afternoon mail, because back then mail came twice a day. After four, she’d have a scotch and soda with a Kent cigarette and evenings she’d smoke while reading a book.
What amazed me about Mom and her smoking was what she left behind in the ashtray. Every crushed and stomped out butt had a neat round, red circle around the part where she’d put in her lips. Mom always wore make-up, powder, rouge, eye shadow and lipstick; her medium length black hair usually had a good dose of hair spray. Sometimes when I smell a certain perfume she wore, I’d swear she’s in the same room even though she’s been dead thirty years last fall. More times than I ever realized Mom must have had to freshen up her makeup, because she said it was the duty of a good women to look like a good woman. Every so often she would retreat to her bedroom, sit at her night table and reapply countless layers so she’d be a good woman. My mother was a good woman; I knew she was. Dad knew it too and it was when I was nine that I realized just how good she was and why we both loved that woman till the day she died.
Once in awhile, usually on winter Saturday evenings Dad would announce that the whole family was going to the Pontiac Hotel for Sunday dinner, which we’d then await with breathless anticipation. At the appointed hour, usually around six on Sunday, dressed in our best we’d start our cold car to dine at the grand old hotel.
The Pontiac Hotel harkened back to the days fifty years before when my town was the home of numerous millionaires, who made their fortune in coal, lumber, manufacturing and shipping. One of my Grandmothers was the upstairs maid to a millionaire and my other Grandfather was almost rich before the Great Depression took it all away. Through it all, the Pontiac Hotel withstood the test of time to remain the premier restaurant and place to be for Sunday dinner. Years later my bride and I would have our wedding reception there, but when I returned some twenty years later the hotel was a parking lot.
Entering through the main street doors you’d walk up a small flight of polished marble steps to the lobby where the ceiling was two stories high. In the center of the lobby was a fountain with a marble statue surrounded by a shallow pool, which even during the cold of winter held gold fish. You stepped slow and deliberate when you walked on the marble floor because your shoes made that sound like a tap dancer did on the Ed Sullivan Show. We always spoke in hushed tones while in the lobby, so no one would overhear; your voice carried loud and clear under the vaulted two-story ceiling.
That place had everything. A woman took your coats and hung them up for you. In their place she gave you a brass coin with a number so you could claim them when you returned to your ordinary life in the outside world. While waiting for our dining table we’d sit in huge overstuffed velvet chairs near that fountain and pool and listen to a man play the grand piano, as we were served by a real grown man dressed in a fancy suit. He’d bring my parents adult drinks while my sister and I would get a coke with two cherries stuck on a toothpick with a little umbrella on top.
Sitting, waiting for our dining table Dad would drink his whiskey sour, Mom her scotch and soda and they’d smoke while greeting and talking to others they knew. My sister and I would sit quietly while sipping our coke watching, as my parents caught up on the latest gossip around town.
At the appointed hour a man dressed in coat and tails would quietly approach and say, “Doctor? Your table is ready.” Mom and Dad would thank him, extinguish their cigarettes, take the last sip of their drinks and then we’d be lead by the maitre’d to our table in the fine dining room. Oh what a room it was!
The first things you noticed in that large, partially lit room were the small lamps with off white shades on dark wooden pillars, which divided it to smaller private squares; a man playing the piano with a violinist accompanying provided a quiet tune to spur the appetite. The china and silver were the finest, the tablecloths were linen and the chairs were over stuffed, so you could comfortably sit for hours and not developed a sore behind. The menu was printed on large, fancy paper with tassels and when the waiter, who was dressed in a suit, approached he’d address me as, “the Young Gentleman or Master.” I’d order another Coca Cola with those cherry decorations and then my dinner, all by myself even though I was only nine and my Sunday suit didn’t fit quite right.
Mom ordered liver and onions, my sister fish and I’d have something Italian, because my father was a meat and potatoes man. We never had those other dishes at home except for fish on Friday’s, which wasn’t very good, because it was consider more a Catholic obligation than something good to eat. Today, almost fifty years later I love fish and Italian isn’t bad either, but I seldom have meat and potatoes.
After dinner my sister and I would sit like two overfed dogs just waiting to collapse in some comfortable spot while my parents drank their coffee and smoked their cigarettes. Mom smoked in the restaurant because her husband was at her table, so she wouldn’t be considered a loose woman. It was then, when I was nine, during the winter, in the Pontiac hotel dining room, after Sunday dinner that it happened. Mom’s cigarette lighter was out of fluid. She clicked and clicked, shook it, even banged it on the table but it wouldn’t light and my Father was too far away so, he couldn’t take his trusty zippo lighter out to reach over and light her smoke. Since I was next to him and next to her at the square table in the fancy dimly lit dining room he handed me his lighter and said, “John, light your Mother’s cigarette.”
Now, I had used his lighter before but never for this! I used it to burn leaves in the fall, or to start the wood stove in his workshop, but I’d never lit some ones smoke, after all I was only nine. It was with a deep gulp and shaking hands I took hold of that huge silver lighter, which was always warm from being in his pant’s pocket. Flipping back the top with that loud click I spun the flint circle thing once and produced the large blue and orange flame, which if used wisely could burn down a house. I was so scared! What if I burned her face or worse yet what if I set her hair on fire?
See, Mom wore so much make up and hair spray that if she ever got near a zippo lighter with it’s huge flame. I thought she’d instantly erupt in flames and I’d be forever more known as the son who burned his mother down. At the very least I’d be know as the idiot who set her hair ablaze and watched as his poor mother ran screaming out of the Pontiac Dining room with her hair on fire.
So with shaking hands I reached out with that deadly zippo lighter in full flame as everyone in my family held their breath except Mom, because she needed a smoke after dinner. But, to play it safe, I didn’t hold the lighter too close, so she had to lean slightly down to get her Kent cigarette going. It was then, in that little moment, through my nervousness and in the light of the zippo lighter she ceased to be my mother but a woman. And what a woman she was!
Her eyes shone like diamonds, between her slender fingers, nails painted red, a Kent cigarette. Hair perfectly coiffed, her thin short nose etched in the orange light of after dinner drinks and coffee. A pearl necklace accented her white neck, a semi-low cut dress proving the warmth and softness of her breast. Little wonder my Father loved her, she was a movie star, a beauty queen, a princess, she was my Mother. It was right then in the warm light of the dinning room I ceased to be her son. I was Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, James Bond and a man about town. I was savvy, sophisticated and in His Majesty’s secret service. I wasn’t some nine-year-old kid in an ill-fitting suit who’d just lit his Mom’s smoke.
As her lungs exhaled the cigarette smoke, without being set on fire by her loving son she softly said, “Thank you, John.
And I said, “You’re welcome.”
Then I handed the now closed and safe lighter to my Father and said, “Here Dad.”
Sometimes important moments in one’s life go unnoticed without any meaningful words, especially when you’re nine and with your family. I had no idea how lighting that first cigarette would affect my life.
Since I lit that smoke almost fifty years ago I’ve lit enough cigarettes to stretch from here to the moon. I lit a smoke after my first sexual experience, the day I was married and when loved ones were laid to rest. All my life I’ve lit cigarettes and now on this Christmas Eve standing on the bluff over looking the lake, because of Doctor’s orders I’d light little more.
How does one give up something that has been such an integral part of his life? How do you walk away? How do you bury those memories surrounded in smoke?
“Remember the smoke”, rang through my head. “Let the smoke drift to heaven with a small prayer besieging the Creator to give me the wisdom never to forget and the power to quit.”