As I look at the barn in my ninth decade, I see the no smoking sign, rusted and tilting on the unpainted gray clapboard. My grandfather, born in 1875, milked his cattle there a century ago. Neither of my grandparents smoked. I don’t know when my grandfather nailed up the sign, but I know why. Sometimes a tramp would dodge inside the barn after dark to sleep on a bed of hay, and once my grandfather found cigarette ash when he climbed to the tie-up in the morning. It doesn’t take much to burn down a barn. Whenever I focus on the sign, white letters against red, I pull a cigarette from the pack beside me, flick my Bic and take a drag.
When my parents and I visited the farm way back, my father was required to do his smoking outside. My mother, who learned to smoke at college, pretended to her parents that she never touched the stuff. (My grandmother lived to be 97, and her sense of smell diminished. My elderly mother sneaked upstairs and puffed on a cigarette.) My father was a gentle and supportive man, but he was tense, shaky—and could not do without his Chesterfields. He walked up and down the driveway, dodging horse manure, to work on his four-pack-a-day habit. He started smoking when he was 14 and wasn’t diagnosed with lung cancer until 1955, when he was 51.
Every time I write, say or think “lung cancer,” I pick up a Pall Mall to calm myself.
In 1955 I lived with my wife and baby son about two hours away from my parents. In May I drove down for my father’s exploratory operation and pushed his gurney into the elevator. My mother and I drove home to wait for the telephone call. If the phone did not ring for half a day, it could mean that the cancerous lung had been removed. The telephone rang too soon. When we arrived at the surgeon’s office, Dr. Appel told us that he could not extract the tumor without killing my father. He said the short-term prospects were fine, but the long term.… (First my father would have radiation, which gave him two good months. He played golf and didn’t die until December.) As my mother realized what Dr. Appel was telling us, her fingers twitched at her purse. For her convenience, the thoracic surgeon pushed his ashtray to the edge of the desk.
Everyone smoked in 1955. When adults had a party, they set out cigarettes in leather boxes on every table, every mantelpiece, every flat surface, beside silver Ronson lighters among myriad ashtrays. There were round crystal ashtrays and square ones with deep receptacles over ceramic bottoms; there were ashtrays that sprouted from the floor on black steel stems; there were ashtrays with cork humps in the middle, for knocking cinders out of a pipe. In Durham, North Carolina there is the Duke Homestead and Tobacco Museum. I imagine multiple busy artifacts overcrowding its showcases. There are museums elsewhere, but it would be tedious to visit them all. In Shanghai there’s the China Tobacco Museum with a cigarette exhibition, and there’s another in Indonesia.
In her attic, my friend Carole Colburn found a large volume. The American Tobacco Company published “Sold American!”—The First 50 Years to celebrate its birthday, 1904 to 1954. In 144 pages, nine by 12 inches and bound in bright red, the industry illustrates its development from the 16th century, when explorers and colonists first enjoyed the leaf proffered by generous Indians. Many companies were founded to cure tobacco, and there were three means of induction. You could sniff it, chew it or burn it. It wasn’t until the Great War that cigarettes conquered both sides of the trenches. From the American Revolution through World War II, tobacco enhanced and facilitated slaughter.
Nowhere can I find the American Tobacco Company’s centennial sequel, “Harmful to Your Health!”—The First 100 Years. I tried Amazon.
For 50 years, all American living rooms turned dense with smoke, as did bars, restaurants, hardware stores, hotel lobbies, cabins, business offices, factory floors, sedans, hospital rooms, pizzerias, sweatshops, town meetings, laboratories, palaces, department stores, supermarkets, barbershops, McDonald’s, beauty parlors, art galleries, bookstores, pharmacies, men’s rooms, corner groceries, women’s rooms, barns except for my grandfather’s, movie houses, dairies, airports, offices of thoracic surgeons, depots, tearooms, Automats, cafeterias, town halls, Macy’s, gymnasiums, igloos, waiting rooms, museums, newsrooms, classrooms, steel mills, libraries, lecture halls, emergency rooms, auditoriums, parks, Mongolian yurts and beaches—not to mention funeral parlors.
Tidying up living rooms after parties, host and hostess filled garbage cans with a thousand cigarette butts. Ashes and ground-out cigarettes outweighed burned toast, eggshells, paper towels, tin cans, hypodermic needles and kitty litter. In 1954, 23 cents bought a pack of cigarettes, which has come to cost maybe $6 to $8, depending on state taxes. Hotels didn’t need to designate smoking rooms, because people smoked in all the rooms. The back page of every magazine—Time, The Atlantic Monthly, U.S. News, Life—carried a full-color ad for cigarettes. Even today, retiring boomers remember the Marlboro Man, who suggested that cigarettes enlarged one’s penis. Virginia Slims deepened one’s cleavage. A prominent advertising theme was medical. A solemn man looked us straight in the eye and pointed his finger at us, the way Uncle Sam recruited us during World War I. The man wore a white coat with a head mirror and a stethoscope draped around his shoulders. “Old Gold,” he told us firmly, “is good for you!”
Then the surgeon general put terrifying labels on each pack, and by the millennium everyone decent knew that smoking was unforgivable, like mass murder or Rush Limbaugh. My dear friend Alice Mattison twice bopped me on the face to dislodge a Kent. At first there were smoking areas in bars and restaurants and smoking rooms in hotels, but soon all smoking was forbidden in all public places. Guilty, grubby men and women gathered on sidewalks in front of buildings. Despite blizzards and record heat, people in johnnies stood outside hospitals, a cigarette in one hand and an IV pole in the other. Everyone huddled in shame, bending heads to conceal identity, and took deep drags of emphysema, congestive heart, high blood pressure, heart disease, COPD (whatever that is) and cancers of the mouth, esophagus and lung.
For a moment I interrupt myself. Ah, that’s better.
My friend Carole smokes cigarettes, the only friend who does. When she visits we sit opposite each other smoking and talking about death. We speak of how, when we’re driving or watching a game on TV or reading, we pick up a cigarette, light it and inhale—in order to have something to do. Is it a masturbation substitution? There’s one advantage to smoking, about which we agree. When we turn blue, we will not need to ask, “Why me?”