‘Smoke, Smoke, Smoke . . .’

I’d been a smoker for most of the past twenty-five years when I lit up my last cigarette on October 9, 1999, fifteen years ago today. I’d tried to quit at least three times, but not even the wishes of the Other Half and the promise of a more serene domestic life back in the late 1970s were powerful enough to keep me smokeless. Once that pairing was over in 1987, I gave little thought to quitting for the next twelve years.

Smoking was a habit I’d fallen into by happenstance coupled with a moment of terrible judgment. After a few fumbling encounters with cigarettes in my mid-teens – the most memorable was a smoke shared at Bible camp with another camper, the two of us feeling like outsiders as we listened to the music coming from the cabin where the other campers were dancing – I was firmly a non-smoker. Smoke was all around me, of course: My dad smoked, both cigarettes and a pipe. Friends smoked. Passengers on buses smoked. Diners in restaurants smoked. I didn’t, and I was pretty resolute about it.

Until a spring day in Fredericia, Denmark, in 1974. I’d become pretty good friends with a fellow named Rob C (so called to differentiate him from Rob from across Kilian Boulevard). And one day in May, we ended up sitting in a quiet spot on the city’s earthen walls, probably talking about what we expected to find when we went back home, a trip that was only days away. Rob pulled out a pack of cigarettes – hideously expensive in Denmark even then – and shook one out. Then he offered the pack to me. I took a cigarette – the brand was “LOOK” and like the American “KOOL” brand its name echoed, it was a menthol – and I lit up and inhaled for the first time.

And I was hooked.

I smoked for the rest of my college years, even after an odd lung ailment in June 1974 put me in the hospital for a week and took away a good chunk of that summer. I quit when I married the Other Half, but I started smoking again during an afternoon of fishing with my pal Larry not quite a year later. I quit twice more during the nine years the Other Half and I were together, but that only meant I started smoking again two more times. Eventually I quit trying to quit and smoked my way through the late 1980s and almost all of the 1990s.

And then, in September 1999, I was overexposed to toxic chemicals when new carpet was put into the building where I worked, and that – coupled with what I now suspect was a mold problem in my new apartment – made my system extremely sensitive to many common chemicals, including tobacco smoke. After that happened, I knew I would have to quit. Smoke in the air made my scalp itch and my ears burn, as did many other common chemicals. I avoided the other chemicals as well as I could – I wasn’t working, I quit using fragranced products, I changed my diet and more – but I still smoked about two packs a day.

Until that evening fifteen years ago today. I was at my kitchen table, and I lit up a cigarette, and my throat immediately started to swell shut. I stubbed out the cigarette and went in search of my antihistamines. They didn’t work. I used an epi-pen, a couple of which I kept on hand. That didn’t work. I called a friend and asked her to take me to the emergency room at the nearest hospital. They kept me there about six hours, giving me more antihistamines and epinephrine until my throat settled down to a more normal state.

And at two in the morning, my friend and I went back to my place, and I loaded my smoking stuff – ashtrays, lighters and a few packs of Old Gold – into a bag and asked her to dispose of it. I haven’t had a cigarette since, except in a few dreams. Sometimes I miss smoking, but I have a pretty good incentive not to smoke: I like breathing.

And here’s the best recording I know about the tug of tobacco, “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” by Tex Williams & His Western Caravan from 1947. A cover of the tune by Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen made it to No. 94 in 1973, but Tex Williams’ version outdid that by a long ways: It sat at No. 1 on the country chart for sixteen weeks in 1947.

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