By Hardy Jackson
Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette
Puff, puff, puff and if you smoke yourself to death
Tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate
That you hate to make him wait
But you just gotta have another cigarette.
“Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette” (Tex Williams)
The headline really caught my eye. “Experts increasingly mull end of smoking.”
For me that was yet another example of how much American culture has changed in my lifetime.
Now I don’t smoke, dip or chew. But I have.
I tried dipping and ended up with most of it on my chin. I tried chewing and got sick.
I smoked my first cigarette when I was 10, at a 4-H camp, and my last when I was 28.
When I was growing up tobacco was everywhere. Although neither of my parents smoked, their friends did. So did my aunts and uncles. So did cool guys in the movies and on TV.
When I was a lad, my Grandmother gave me a cigarette lighter, not to encourage me to smoke, but because, as she put it, “a gentleman must have a ready light for a lady.”
I also used it to light my own. In junior high I smoked secretly with my friends, or at least I did until my Mama found out. Now I have mentioned that my Mama was about as close to a saint as I ever expect to meet on this earth, but even saints have a human side. At her funeral one of the church ladies remarked that they “had never heard her say a harsh word.” They should have been there that night she caught me smoking. She got pretty harsh, yes she did.
I didn’t smoke again until I was in college, where smoking was so accepted that sororities taught pledges how to smoke like a lady – “never smoke on the street and never let the cigarette leave your hand.” You could even smoke in class, if you brought your own ashtray.
I recall a professor who would light up at the start of his lecture and hold our attention by letting the cigarette burn down as he spoke. Then as it seemed he would scorch his nicotine-stained fingers he would theatrically pick up a new one, light it from the old, snuff out the butt and continue.
In the mid-60s, when I became a teacher, I also used cigarettes as a teaching tool, though not as a prop like my professor. To make the point that the British Stamp Act which so outraged American colonists was actually a pretty common way to levy taxes, I would ask students to take out their cigarettes. Since most of the class smoked there were packs a-plenty. Then I would refer them to the revenue stamp on the package and make my point.
As the years passed fewer and fewer packs appeared when I called for them. Reports linking tobacco to all sorts of illnesses, plus the end of TV tobacco advertisements, apparently caused students to cut back or stop all together.
My own decision to quit had less to do with health than with cost. When I returned to graduate school and was supporting a wife and child on a teaching assistant’s salary, my pack-a-day habit was burning food money, so I gave it up.
Now I will admit that I affected a certain air of moral superiority, not to mention strength of will and admirable self-restraint, when in the company of those who could not (or would not) kick the nasty habit, but I will also admit that there were times that a cigarette would have topped off the evening.
Over the years, however, the aroma of cigarette smoke (or cigar or pipe) became offensive – not because of the danger posed by second hand smoke, I would learn about that later, but because it simply smelled bad. It still does, which is why declaring a building “tobacco-free” does me little good if smokers stand outside the door to smoke, and non-smokers have to enter and exit through the stinking fumes.
The smell is the least of my worries. Today I am finding that smoking folks I had known over the years are experiencing all sorts of smoking related health problems. I hate it for my friends and their families. I also hate it for Alabama for they are contributing to the $1.6 billion tobacco-related medical costs the state absorbs each year.
Nevertheless, the eternal optimist that I am can see through the smoke a light at the end of the tunnel.
A couple of years ago I was lecturing on the Stamp Act and I asked the smokers in my class to pull out their packs so I could make my point.
There wasn’t a pack in the place.
Maybe we are making progress after all.
Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.