In defense of…whaaaaat?

August 10th, 2017

Brace yourself for a real shocker here, folks.

Though I’ve never been anything more than an infrequent pretender myself, I’ve always been partial to cigarette smokers. Perhaps I developed my taste for second-hand smoke during childhood flights from my Texas abode to visit East Coast relatives on (now defunct) Eastern Airlines. There, while eating your rubber cold-cuts sandwich and sporting your pilot’s clip-on wings (distributed by sunny stewardesses who did not yet realize it was a hate crime for them not to be called “flight attendants”), you’d be entrapped in a tubular suffocation chamber for hours on end, with no escape, smokers happily puffing away all around you as you tried to read your in-flight magazine through a Marlboro smog.

Nowadays, this would be litigated in The Hague. But to me, back then, this was not only the smell of adventure, but of adult compromise. I’d entered a more sophisticated sanctum than the one I typically inhabited. In my elementary-school world, if I had a classmate with an atrocious personal habit—say, little Ricky who wouldn’t stop eating his snot, and whose breath smelled like it—I’d either tell the teacher or chuck a dirt clod at his head during recess. But on the plane, non-smokers and smokers alike all breathed the same air, and stayed civilized, with nobody losing their cool. Long before I went on to become a civil-rights pioneer, this was my earliest lesson in tolerance.

I didn’t merely tolerate smokers, however—I actually quite liked them. Maybe because my first chain-smoking acquaintance was my Great Uncle Phil. He smoked Kools and drank Pabst long before it became the beer of choice for people who wear ironic facial hair. We’d sit on his backyard patio, and while away the day. He’d pour me a tall glass of chocolate milk if it was before noon; a few slugs of Blue Ribbon if it was after. He’d occasionally concoct a mission, declaring that we needed to head “to the boondocks” to look for rattlesnakes and deer sheds.

But mostly, we just enjoyed each other’s easy company, him puffing away on Kools all the while, laconically drawing one after another out of the soft pack in his terry-cloth shirt pocket, like he wasn’t in a hurry to break his lungs but eventually would get around to it. (Which he finally did.) He’d drop pearls of adult wisdom on me, saying things like, “Yep, yep, yep …”, as though he was answering a question that had never been asked. And I took it all in. Along with his second-hand smoke.

I’m not pretending that my seven-year-old self had a clean fix on Uncle Phil, what he wanted out of life, or what doubts or fears he secretly harbored, as all men do. I just knew that we had plenty of time to figure out what it all meant, because he wasn’t going anywhere. He still had a half a pack left to smoke. I’ve always divvied up the world into two kinds of people: stayers and goers. Uncle Phil was a stayer, as most smokers are. They are people whose pleasure shaves years off their lives, as the surgeon general forever reminds us. But maybe they know better how to savor the often truncated lives they live. Smokers tend to be people who prize fellowship, discourse, conviviality, and who know how to stop time, or at least to take the edge off its fleetingness. Because they have to linger long enough to finish up their smoke.

I’m well aware that smoking is bad for you. As Mensa member Brooke Shields once put it, “Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life.” Yeah, fine. I don’t smoke, nor will I let my children. But if we’re picking nits, what doesn’t kill us these days? Trans fats, artificial sweeteners, stress, ISIS, etc. The list is long. As other health-science types promise: “What doesn’t kill us, will eventually kill us.” Lately, there’s been a rash of stories that taking too many vitamins can lead to fatal illnesses. In other words, the very supplements you swallow to elongate your life might be snuffing it out like a cigarette.

I like the cut of this fellow’s jib. And hey, in the words of a great old Stray Cats song: how long you wanna live, anyway?

When I was a kid, my family doctor was a wonderful, kindly old soul named Richard E Rankin. I had seasonal asthma something awful, and he would treat me for it with a cortisone shot every spring while chaining Lucky Strikes the whole while, lighting one off the butt of the other. That would be the unfiltered, he-man ones, not the lights, mind you.

Dr Rankin was such a sweet old guy, and even though I was terrified of him because of those shots, I loved him too, even back then. He even came out to our house once at two in the morning to administer one of those dreaded injections, which will probably seem stunning and bizarre to you younger readers out there, if any. I remember well his coming through the receiving line at my dad’s funeral, so bereft and grief-stricken as to be literally speechless: he tried a couple of times to choke out a few comforting words, failed to manage it, and just took me in a bear hug and moved on. He was a gruff but soft-hearted old small town family doctor, a once-common type they ain’t making anymore, to the huge detriment of all of us.

Dr Rankin lived into his 90s, bless his heart—yes, after all those Luckies. My dad, of course, died relatively young of emphysema, after kicking the habit years before via hypnosis. Hey, you never know, right?

Here’s perhaps the funniest bit of all, though: back in the early 90s, I moved to New York City…and started smoking. I was in my thirties, so I was what you might call a late bloomer. But here’s the part nobody believes, and I make no claims here about causality, but…well, after having been plagued with asthma my whole life, since I started smoking, I never have had it again.

I know, I know. It’s bizarre. Maybe smoking has so degraded my lung capacity that I just don’t notice the asthma anymore; maybe breathing all those airborne NYC toxins toughened me up, thereby inuring me to further trouble. Like I said, I make no claims one way or the other. But it’s the truth, I swear it.

I saw one of those Truthout.com government anti-smoking TV commercials once some years back wherein it was claimed that one out of every three smokers would eventually develop heart or lung disease. It struck me right away that that would mean that TWO out of every three didn’t. Hey, I thought, I like those odds. Talk about undermining your own message.

Maybe I’ll quit someday, if I get tired of it. Given what happened with my dad, I don’t worry much about it either way, because I know that after I go through the hassle and heartache of quitting and denying myself one of the few simple pleasures left in life, the very next day I’ll get hit by a bus instead. Or get caught up in one of those Allah Akbar! incidents that so baffle the FBI, maybe, and end up shot, stabbed, clubbed, or otherwise mown down.

These days, I have a cigarette shooter for hand-rolling my own personal lung-busters, with pure tobacco, pre-made filtered tubes, and no strange chemicals dumped in ’em by government mandate. They taste better, they smell better, and the price works out to about eighty cents a pack. I don’t wake up hacking in the morning anymore with these self-rolled dealies, and seem to smoke a good deal fewer of them too, who knows why. Takes about five minutes to roll myself a pack of what they used to call “pure tobacco pleasure,” and I have a fancy-schmancy engraved silver cigarette case that belonged to my late wife to carry ’em around in.

As I told my mother in law a while back, to her enormous amusement: if I couldn’t have a smoke with my morning cup of coffee, I wouldn’t even consider it worth bothering to get up in the morning.

After all that wayward rambling, I guess there’s really only one way to close this post:




Don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful, y’all.

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  1. lpdbw
    August 10th, 2017 at 08:39 | #1
    Merle Travis!

    Also love So Round So Firm So Fully Packed. Which once described cigarettes.

  2. August 10th, 2017 at 10:02 | #2
    I'm mostly into cigars these days, but, still keep a pack of unfiltered luckies around just in case it hits the fan. See, they're shorter, so I can still get a good cheek weld. Ahem.
  3. Monty James
    August 10th, 2017 at 12:31 | #3
    Thanks for posting the song. It leads off the soundtrack of the film, "Thank You For Smoking." Anyone who hasn't seen it, highly recommended.
  4. SDN
    August 11th, 2017 at 20:18 | #4
    I first heard that song from my late grandfather. Since his occupation was welding, and he worked during WWII welding Liberty Ships, he got enough exposure to asbestos that his smoking didn't much matter.

    True story: he would come home with so much asbestos dust in his clothes that my late grandmother also had breathing issues just from the exposure she got while washing them.

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