Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Ronald Tipton and Patrick Flynn, 2017.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Monday, August 25, 2014

Cigarettes, Whiskey & Wild, Wild Something, a Series -- SMOKIN'

Don't be frightened. That warning sign doesn't refer to this series I have embarked upon. These essays aren't really aimed at children, but they may actually prove to be cautionary tales for them.

There is something curious about the sign to the left. It is that word "Adults". That word appears on a number of things, Adult Bookstores, Adult Art Theaters, Adult Beverages and many other things that one could question if they are indeed that adult. Quite often they are rather juvenile, except juveniles are forbidden to share them.

Really, in truth, "Adults Only" is a frequently used euphemism for sin. Are things we make laws to protect our children from all that good for anyone? But once we slap that label upon something it becomes an enticement to those same children. If it is that forbidden, I want a taste. I can hardly wait until I am an adult so I can indulge and in many cases the child can't wait and ignores the sign and crosses over into the traps of such behavior. By the teens, those "Adult Only" activities become both a goal and the belief they really do consitute adulthood.

These are my stories of tripping those traps.


Smoking was de riguer in my childhood. People meeting people in social situations were more apt to be offered a smoke than a drink, not that a drink offer didn't follow regularly as well. It seemed almost everyone smoked, certainly all men. I grew up surrounded by smoke, especially if my parents had a get-together of friends. Our living room would disappear in the haze out of which floated voices and the clicking of ice in glasses. No one was concerned if children were in the room beyond an occasional warning that we were too young to smoke.

Yes, we heard it in school and in home and in church and here and about that we children shouldn't smoke. It would stunt our growth we were told. These myths of dire consequences were common threats used to drive us from our youthful desires. (If you mastrabate hair will grow in your palms; or worst, you'll go blind.")  When the child realizes these curses don't work, what then? Once you see a 6 foot 6 15-year-old chain smoking you pretty well discard that concern of stunted growth. (For some reason, when I was a boy, you were allowed to purchase cigarettes upon obtaining the age of 16. Currently it varies from state to state between the age or 18 and 21.)

When I was taken visiting there was scant a home not festooned with ashtrays. It just wasn't a practice easily escaped then. People smoked at work. People smoked in restaurants and bars. There were no separate "Smoking Sections". About the only places I remember smoking being banned was in theaters. You went to a movie and they sometimes even showed a card up on the screen during the previews telling you not to light up during the show. It wasn't a health concern; it was a fire hazard. No one wanted to risk a fire in a crowded theater.

While forbidden to the audience, smoking was pretty prevalent on the screen. Cowboys had a pouch hanging from their breast pocket and would occasionally pause between the shoot outs to roll a smoke. Hard-boiled private dicks and gangsters almost always had a fag between their lips. Even many of the glamorous female leads came out smokin', albeit with the use of a long cigarette holder as if distance made it more pure. In war movies some officer was always telling the troops to "smoke 'em, if you got 'em."

When TV came into popularity it just brought more smoke into the home. Jack Webb [ died age 62 of heart attack] couldn't dum de de dum his way through cases without a constant cig. Rod Serling [died age 50 of a heart attack] couldn't spin his way into the Twilight Zone without one either.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, were constantly pulling out a cigarette during the run of "I Love Lucy".  You could have called it, "I Love Phillip Morris", because Phillip Morris {and later, Chesterfield} Cigarettes were one
of their main sponsors. In fact, cigarette makers were the main sponsors of many of those 1950s TV shows.

As I noted, my home was a haven for smoke much of the time. We lived some of my boyhood years with my material grandparents. My grandfather had a few "adult" things in his life, among which was chewing tobacco and cigars.

He kept a pouch of Red Man Chewing Tobacco in the glove compartment of his car, an item he would offer to his friends when he came across them. I can clearly remember the Indian peering out from that compartment (we weren't using the term Native American in those days).

His real preference was for Phillies Cigars - Blunts. Many times he would call me over, hand
me some money and send me across the school ground to the gas station on the corner of Whiteland Avenue and the Lancaster Pike (Also known as the Lincoln Highway or Route 30).  I would purchase a breast-pocket sized pack and an Icicles Pop for myself (usually lime) and carry the Blunts back to him. He'd peel off the cigar band and stick it on my finger. I did this trip many times between the age of 8 and 12 and no one ever blinked at selling this young lad those big cigars.

The years my parents and I had homes of our own I escaped the smoke during much of the week. My mother didn't indulge and my dad was a long distance truck driver gone pretty much Monday through Friday.

However, my dad was a pipe smoker, so on the weekends or other brief times he got home the house would reek with his pipe. This habit did make it easier to buy Father's Day or Birthday presents for him. I would buy big, round 14-ounce tins of Half and Half, his preferred brand or on occasion, a new pipe.

In metal shop I forged a number of pipe holders for him that looked like shoes.

Many years later I was confronted by a mystery. I could clearly remember as a young child being given the two pennies wrapped behind the cellophane of cigarette packs. Cigarettes at the time cost 23 cents a pack and I suppose the machines only took quarters, so they put the two cents of change on the side of the product.

That was fine, pennies actually had value to a lad then. You could get a couple pieces of candy at
Zittle's for two cents. But where had the cigarettes come from? My grandfather smoked cigars and my dad smoked a pipe. His pipe was like an extension of his face. He was never without it. Neither my mother nor my grandmother smoked anything. Yet, I knew I had received those two pennies out of cigarette packs as a boy and I could see plainly in my mind those packs setting upon the dining room buffet, Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes.

Ah, Chesterfield, the smokes of the stars, or so it seemed. Their ads feathered movie stars and sports heroes, all with the ubiquitous white stick protruding from the side of their mouths. Even my baseball idol, Stan Musiel, appeared alongside Ted Williams praising the mildness of Chesterfields.

Lucky Strikes went for the sexy angle in their ads, sultry,
sophisticating, alluring enticements.

Nonetheless, where those cigarettes came from eluded my memory until my parents died in 2012. I brought home all the photo albums I could find in their
home and in one I found an old photograph of my father and I in the backyard. He is holding my hand, but there in his other hand I see it, a cigarette. Back before he took up the pipe he was a cigarette smoker and that was when I was very young indeed.

Now we have established that the 'forties and 'fifties were under a constant cloud of tobacco smog, we can ask the question was I puffing away behind the barn on my hobby horse?

I wasn't. My wife took up the practice before she was fourteen, but I had no desire toward the things as a kid. In my teens some of my friends were sneaking smokes out of their mother's purses or father's bureau. One time I was walking with two and they offered me a cigarette. I took it and immediately ate it and said, "delicious." I lied. It was not delicious at all. It was down right disgusting, but I was kind of a crazy guy then.

Despite what you might expect, it didn't make me sick or anything.

That was about as close as I got to cigarettes in my minor years. I was in my twenties, an actual adult, when I took up this adult pursuit. It was a matter of self-defense.

In the mid-1960s my wife and I had come together with a number of creative types, writers, musicians, poets, artists and actors. We began gathering together quiet often outside our day jobs. Our usual meeting place, besides hanging about nights in Rittenhouse Square, was at Jim Tweedy's basement in his home in South Philly. (Jim and I pictured left in 1967.) The room quickly filled with smoke and I discovered if I joined the others I wasn't bothered by the cloud so much.

I was never one to stop short on things. Once I spent an evening puffing along with the others I
went whole hog; in for a inch - in for a mile. In no time I was smoking cigarettes, cigars and various pipes. I was soon unsatisfied with being a part of the crowd as far as brands were concern. I had to be different, so I began smoking Sherman Cigarettes, a brand that I could not get locally at the time. I had to order them from New York. They were distinct in several ways. They were slimmer than your average cancer stick and longer. They were among the first, if not the first, to offer 100mm cigarettes, I think beating out Benson & Hedges introduction of the extra-long cigarettes in 1967. Sherman also offered different colored paper. I generally smoked the brown cigarettes.

With as much fervor as I threw myself into that smoky world, it didn't last long, perhaps two or three years. One day I was at work and it suddenly occurred to me that I had smoked no cigarette yet that day. I thought I should take a break and light up. (In those days we were still able to smoke at our work area. People had ashtrays on their desks.)  I sat down and took out a smoke and it dawned on me how silly this was. What was in this if I had to remind and force myself to do it? I really didn't get anything from the act and it was costing me money. It was costing me a lot because the Shermans were more expensive than the more well-known popular brands all my friends smoked.

So I stopped. Just like that I stopped cold turkey. I had no after-effects, no regrets, no jagged nerves or cravings. This kind of thing has proven common with me. For instance, more recently I had to give up coffee because of a medication I take. I was a longtime, heavy coffee drinker, but I stopped it cold turkey as well and suffered no ill-effect, no headaches, no quivers and no overwhelming craving to bash in a coffee machine for a few drops.  I guess I'm not the addictive type, at least not for things ingested in one form or another. This was one of the Adult Behaviors that didn't get its hook into me, and I never felt less adult because I gave up smoking. Cigarettes just didn't satisfy, despite what the ads claimed.

Photos near the top of this essay: On left from the 1920s is a family friend in the straw hat named Bill Hall sitting next to my mother as a young girl. On the right are friends of my parents who all got together Saturday nights in my teen years. The man smoking is Elmer Wilson, now deceased.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

Really fascinating read! I'd never heard that about the pennies taped to the product!