March 13th…”TELL ABOUT THE FIRST TIME YOU SMOKED A CIGARETTE.”
There was a clank, then a yank as Jim Gross popped the clutch of that old Ford pickup truck as it careened around the corner by Al & Ernies Foodliner. His little teenage brother, Robby Gross, sat in the middle and I sat far right as the evening breezes blew through the cab while we rolled south of Battle Ground, Washington on Grace Avenue. Jim pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and offered one to his little brother and myself.
The evolution of tobacco usage, to that moment, came naturally for me, for our dear father smoked from my earliest childhood. I thought his smoking was cool, stylish, manly, etc. and just couldn’t tolerate the wait till the day when I could “follow in daddy’s footsteps” in regards to the “wicked weed of tobakkee”. There was hardly a moment out of any day when I wouldn’t see our father without a cigarette in his mouth, between his fingers or be in the process of rolling his own cigarettes with pouch tobacco and thin cigarette paper.
From what I’ve read and observed, society in my parent’s generation actually saw a non-smoker as the person who was NOT normal. Everyone who was suave and sophisticated smoked, even movie stars advertised cigarettes. Besides celebrities, even politicians were seen constantly smoking, etc., so when it came to my opportunity to smoke, I figured…….“O.K., let’s do this!”
As the pickup bumped along, Jim extended his arm with the pack of cigarettes in my direction. “Well, (I thought to myself) I can’t let them think I’m UNcool!” so I pulled out my very first “stick of tobacco”. This was gonna be a whole lot different than that cigarette-sized tree branch I pretended with back on the farm. This was gonna be the real deal. I placed that “cancer stick” between my virgin lips and, when the lighter was handed to me, I lit that tip on fire. Smoke began to curl up from the glowing end of that protuberance and invaded my eyes, causing them to squint in self-protection. I drew a puff of smoke into my mouth and blew that same smoke right back out again into the crosswind that flew through the truck cab. Young Mr. Ignorant here thought I was now a “smoking titan”……WRONG! Jim sarcastically looked over from the steering wheel and said, “HEYYY, YOU’RE NOT SMOKING!!” Embarrassed, and a bit perturbed, I retorted, “I’m NOT????” Jim scolded, “Heck NO, kid, you’ve gotta suck that smoke down into your lungs!!”
My smoking mentor then proceeded to divulge his huffing n puffing wisdom by saying, “Yeah, I could tell you weren’t REALLY smokin’ because the smoke came out of your mouth the same color as it went in!” He further elaborated, “When ya suck the smoke down into your lungs, they filter out the tar and nicotine, and it comes back out whiter.” Aghast and incredulous, I quizzically asked, “YOU ACTUALLY SUCK THIS STUFF DOWN INTO YOUR LUNGS???” After Jim’s laughter died down, he responded, “Yup!!”. Appalled at the reality of what smoking truly entailed, I said, “In that case, NO THANKS!” and crushed the life out of that “cancer stick” into the ashtray of the pickup. That was to be my first AND LAST cigarette!
The episode in the pickup that day transported me back to my very young days on our farm there in southern Minnesota. As I came downstairs for breakfast one morning, I saw our father sitting at the dinner table coughing profusely. His cough was so violent, that it brought up large volumes of phlegm from his lungs. Poor Dad would cough so hard, that at times he almost gagged. As a child, the only reference I had with coughing was when I suffered from a cold or the flu, so I asked my daddy, “Do you have a cold, Dad?” As he recomposed himself and caught his wind again, he answered, “No, Son, this is what smoking does to me! Please, don’t EVER smoke!”
Returning my thoughts to the present, and what I had just encountered with tobacco in that pickup truck, I took Dad’s advice and have never smoked. I cherish these healthy lungs each day of my life and relish the joys of drawing in a full capacity of fresh clean air as I go about enjoying the life God has given me! Our parents, living out their lives before our eyes, teach us by their sayings, but also convey teaching by both positive AND negative examples from their own lives. Thank you, Dad, for indirectly blessing me with lungs of clean air for this Norwegian Farmer’s Son.