By Brian M. Howle
There are those seminal moments in one’s life, the ones we have all had – the bad karma ones; the ones you would really, really, really like to go back, delete and just forget ever happened.
For me, the single most stupid decision I ever made came about somewhere in the neighborhood of my 13th birthday.
My little pubescent brain was deluged with the obligatory flood of hormones and natural chemicals that course through our veins in those wonderful teenage years. I cling to this fact as being extremely important, for it gives me some recourse for comfort as I plead mea culpa to my past sins in truly bad life decisions.
This rite of passage that befell so many of my kind in the baby boom generation was smoking that first cigarette. We were insidiously lulled by the incessant advertising in billboards, newspapers, magazines, radio and – or course – that new high-pressure firehose of capitalism and minutia that turned brain cells into oatmeal: television.
Hey, back then, everyone on TV – from John Wayne to Fred Flintstone to Mister Ed – everyone hawked tobacco products. Everyone cool in the movies smoked, and no self-respecting rebels without a cause would be caught dead without a smoke hangin’ from the nicotine-stained corner of their mouths
And so, I followed the piper and let peer pressure steer me wrong. Mostly, it was a vain attempt to keep up the cool factor with the girls my age.
Yeah, now I remember… I would never have lit up one of those stupid cigarettes if it hadn’t been for girls.
Well, maybe I would have started the habit regardless of their input, but that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.
The thing is, as a novice, I wasn’t actually smoking , even when I thought I was.
Hey, the thought of inhaling the smoke never entered my somewhat intelligent mind. I thought smoking was just puff and blow it back out.
But a girl called me out on it, when she noticed I was the only one in our “coolsville’ clique who wasn’t coughing up a storm like someone who was, well, inhaling smoke.
You would think that encountering the same premise as one caught in a forest fire would be a deterrent, huh?
Nope, not for the ready-to-be-grownup-and-not-waiting-a-damn-minute-longer kids of my generation.
And so I puffed and inhaled and gradually, slowly but surely became just another pathetic addict.
The fact that my dad owned the Piggly Wiggly also helped in my initial addiction, as I would casually boost a carton every other week or so. (No, I wasn’t a pack-a-day smoker yet, but there were plenty of moochers around to run your stash dry.)
So when dad announced that he was selling the Piggly Wiggly for health reasons, I had my own agenda when we drove the truck up to the store late one night, just before his last days there. While he and mom were stockpiling canned goods and the like, I was hoisting cases of smokes out the door, running to the back of the store and stashing them behind the whining, dripping refrigeration compressors. I later dashed back to the scene of the boost on my bicycle and retrieved my smokes in a duffel bag. I think I scarfed enough cigs for the next three years, because – with days at school and living with my parents the rest of the time and being a kid and all – well, I didn’t really have all that many occasions to smoke ‘em at will. Not yet.
So by the time my senior year in high school rolled around, I was fully hooked. I was knockin’ back a full pack a day, and I just went nuts and smoked in the smoking area at school even though I had no permission pass from my parents. (I’ll never know how they managed to miss my nicotine jones during that time, especially with a pack of Salem 100’s in my shirt pocket almost all of the time.
But when the new football coach called every guy in school into his office and made his pitch for getting us to join next year’s team, he saw the pack in my shirt pocket and asked, “So, am I going to get you to give up those smokes and play football for me next season?”
I laughed and never gave it a second thought, because I hadn’t played football since the 7th grade. I was into band and being around those girls, as I mentioned before, and most sports conclaves required a lot of time and effort that I just didn’t find all that necessary.
But somehow, one of my friends talked me into going out for the team. To my surprise, I tossed my pack and never touched cigarettes from before training in August until the end of the season. I mean, I actually stopped smoking, cold turkey, no problem.
Of course, the night of our last game, we all fired up cigars on the bus on the way back to town, with the blessing and participation of our coaches. So when I wheeled into the parking lot of our local burger joint, I immediately walked inside and purchased a fresh pack of Salems, and foolishly started smoking again. Brilliant!
Cut to 34 years later. After my father’s multiple heart attacks (the first during that fateful football season), heart bypass and cartoid artery replacement surgeries and strokes didn’t stop me, I reached the end of my coolness phase. Only because my sweetie demanded that I stop, did I finally find the strength to stop.
This Thanksgiving marks my first year of being a non-smoker in almost 40 years.
If you smoke, and you’re over 13, don’t cling to childhood mistakes. If I can stop, believe me, you can, too.
My dad quit the day he suffered his first heart attack, just a few weeks short of his 52nd birthday. It took a heart attack to make him stop.
And he made it to 84.
I quit a year ago this week, just before my 52nd birthday.
With my sweetie’s love and help, I might make 84, too.
(Note: And now – five years later – I still do not smoke, and have never had the urge to do so since I quit.)
The previous article was originally published in the November 17, 2005 issue of Alternatives NewsMagazine.