You're only given a little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it. Robin Williams

Location: Kentucky, United States

Saturday, October 19, 2002

I was sitting in the cafeteria at work looking out the window and watching the smokers trying to hide from the cold wind. Everyone was huddled together and it struck me how strange this might look to someone from outside our culture. Standing in the rain inhaling toxic smoke and fumes from a factory packaged, chemically treated cylinder of dried leaves. Where did we get the idea that this was normal behavior? What line did we cross and how far back did we cross it?

My father’s nickname for many years was “Cigar”, pronounced “See-gar”. He always had one clamped in the side of his mouth and I don’t mean one of those fancy hand-rolled jobs that come in a glass tube. He smoked the cheap ones. We would buy them by the box at Walgreens Drug store. Sometimes he would send me in to get them. They came in a cardboard box printed to look like it was made out of wood. I still have one of the boxes in my closet at home. Dad worked a Civil Service job at Fort Knox, over an hour away, five days a week until he retired. The tar on the inside of the windshield of his Chevy was so thick you could flake it off with your fingernails. I remember lying on the floor in our living room when the air was still and looking up at a layer of smoke hanging above me like low flying cirrus clouds. I thought it was pretty. I was raised in it, and it was part of our childhood fantasies. We had candy cigarettes to puff on; Pall Malls and Camels were our favorites. There were bubble gum cigars that came with a paper wrapper just like a real one, but it wasn’t as much fun as letting the sweet chalky cigarette dangle out the sides of our mouths as we played grown-up games.

My grandfather raised two acres of tobacco out back of our house each year. There is a black and white photo of me around age three leaning next to Papaw. We are standing in front of his Tobacco “base”; the plants are huge behind me. It was a good year for the crop. He must have felt the need to preserve the memory for later generations. He raised tobacco until I was old enough to help. Most people around here tell me I was lucky to have missed it. It is very hard, messy work, especially when it comes to stripping time when the leaves have to be pulled off and graded for size and quality. I always wanted to ride the tobacco planter though. Papaw always hired it done. I would watch as the tractor pulled the planter down the rows, two people riding behind, alternating placing the tender plants in the fingers of the machine to be placed in the ground. Later Papaw had to go out and “top” the plants by cutting out the flowering spike. This made the leaves grow stronger. “The leaves are where the money is”. Then at harvest the plants were cut and hung upside down in the dark barn to air cure. When the tobacco came into “case” the stripping began, ending in the tobacco being brought to sale at auction.

This is tobacco country. Brown and Williamson have offices in the Galleria, in downtown Louisville. The ashtrays out front always seem to be overflowing. Whether this is decoration or not I don’t know, but I have never seen anyone actually smoking there. Though I must admit I always felt uncomfortable walking by and usually hurried along. The place exudes power, big money power. I felt that way even when I was one of them, even when I was a smoker.

My first tobacco experience was like many young boys. On an overnight high school band trip we decided to pick up some Swisher Sweets cigars, the cherry flavored ones with the little plastic holder. That night after the band contest we were all big men, smoking and playing poker, trying not to show how queasy we were from the fumes. Later while working my first job as a bus boy at Rough River State Park, I tried a pipe. I bought it in the park gift shop and picked up the tobacco from a bait shop on the way home. I liked the way the wood looked on the bowl, how it felt in my hand. I did not like how hard it was to keep lit or how I could never get the knack of holding it in my mouth without using my hands. The smell of pipe smoke always seemed pleasant to me. The reality was a little harder to swallow. This lasted until one night after work, while driving my used Ford Maverick at high speed along a country road I dropped the lit pipe in my lap. The car and I both survived, but after putting out the fire in my groin area the pipe left via the driver’s side window.

My next job was in fast food. I met and dated this little girl. She smoked and all her friends smoked. Soon I was smoking too. At least I was working on it. Starting smoking is not an easy thing to do. Breathing in a lung full of smoke while trying to look cool takes practice. While working at the grill flipping burgers I would take a break every thirty minutes or so, go to the bathroom and smoke as much of a cigarette as I could get down. I would wait until the dizziness subsided then go back to work. This process repeated itself for several days until I was proudly smoking a whole cigarette at a time. I was not getting a whole lot of work done in this period though, but as a teenager, I did have my priorities.

I ended up a smoking Respiratory Therapist. It is odd how many Respiratory Technicians smoke. Before they did away with smoking in our hospital the ceiling tiles in our department were yellow from nicotine stains. We would all come down from the floor from giving “Lungers” breathing treatments and light up. I have worked in the field over twenty years. If you think dying of cancer is bad, you haven’t seen anything. Take in a deep breath and hold it, now let out about half of it and hold it again. Without letting that volume of air out try talking for a few minutes. That is what living with Emphysema is like. I don’t want to get too graphic here and patient confidentiality keeps me from being very specific, but I have seen people coughing up sputum, working so hard to clear it they throw up. Then while still gasping and weak light up another cigarette and not have enough air to smoke it with.

I smoked for thirteen years. Quitting was easy; it only took four years and a divorce. Actually, smoking had nothing to do with the divorce. The divorce made the smoking worse. Before that, I had tried tapering down and quitting. This rarely works; until you stop, you’re still smoking but you’re telling yourself you have really quit. I tried cold turkey, keeping a diary of how many days it had been since my last smoke. That actually lasted for over a year, but I could tell you to the minute when I had smoked my last cigarette. When your this preoccupied with something it still has control over you whether you admit it or not. Then the divorce came. I started smoking upwards of three packs a day for about a year. I did not need a lighter any more; I just kept lighting one off the other. Then I met Bev, she had Rachel and Jason and I knew I had found my home. I did not want the kids exposed to smoking and so I laid them down. Now it was not about me anymore. I loved my kids before they were even mine. The cigarette addiction was buried by love. I went from a three pack a day habit to nonsmoker in two weeks. Now, fifteen years later I can not even stand to be in the room with tobacco smoke. Sometimes I am a little too vocal about smoking, and I did not intend to get preachy here, but as a reformed smoker, I have been there. I know it is possible to quit, and as a Respiratory Therapist working in Tobacco Country I have seen many people’s lives destroyed by smoking. There are so many ways to quit now. There is no reason not to try.


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