In my early years, I wanted to be what we called a “man’s man.” A man’s man was someone the other guys looked up to and admired. I didn’t have sense enough to look around and see what fellows were most admired in our community and use them as a model. My definition of a man’s man was provided by Hollywood. I needed to be tall, steely-eyed, with a lantern jaw, a hairy chest and an ever-present five o’clock shadow of a beard. My chest needed to be thick and my arms strong. I needed to have a deep voice that could speak with authority.
And, I needed to smoke. A real man’s kind of man always smoked.
Too bad my genes didn’t quite understand the program. I was short, I was scrawny, my eyes required glasses and I couldn’t get a hair to grow on either my face or my chest. I did practice enough that my voice got a little lower but, that was about the extent of my physical progress.
Actually, on the inside I felt bigger, older and manlier than my external appearance and the time had come when I was 12 to learn how to smoke. My buddy, Danny Anderson, and I started practicing with stalks of cattail reeds from around the slough. We’d cut them in cigarette sized lengths, light them and go through all the motions like they were the real thing. All the motions except inhale, that is.
We saved that until the day we swiped a real cigarette from his dad. We treated that baby like it was gold. We carefully carried it out into my grandmother’s field by the old plum tree. We lit it and Danny proceeded to give me instructions on how to do it. “Suck in a mouthful of smoke and then take a breath.” It sounded easy and he could do it like a pro. After he took a couple of manly drags, he carefully handed the cigarette for me to try. Trying to look like Gary Cooper, I squinted my eyes and casually sucked in a mouthful of smoke. From there, things just went to heck.
The moment I tried to breathe that smoke, I was in trouble. I suddenly couldn’t breathe in or out. My eyes started bugging out and squirting water. Worst of all, in my attempts to get some desperately needed air into my lungs, I dropped the cigarette into the damp field grass. That made Danny sore and he proceeded to beat me up.
Looking back, Danny may have actually saved my life. I think one of the punches he gave me helped to knock that smoke out of my windpipe where it had lodged so I was finally able to take a breath. All in all, it was a traumatic experience.
Unfortunately, it was not traumatic enough to overcome my desire to become a manly man. I kept at it until I mastered the art of smoking. I smoked from the age of 12 until I was 29. My youngest son, Pat, who was only 4 years old, kept telling me I should quit because it was a matter of “life and breath” (a slogan he’d heard on an American Lung Association commercial). It finally dawned on me that he was the smarter of the two of us.
At noon on Jan. 3, 1976, I threw my cigarettes into the toilet and have never touched one since. I sure hope the pressure to smoke is less for kids today. It seems like fewer of them are doing it which, in my book, is a good thing.