Sometimes I forget how different things are nowadays. Numerous fixtures from my growing up years no longer exist: party line phones, drive-in movie theaters, and rabbit ears on televisions that featured three networks, to name just a few. One good change in our culture has been the drastic reduction in the percentage of adults who smoke. By 1965, the number of smokers in the U.S. peaked: half of adult men and a third of adult women. These high numbers were driven largely by Madison Avenue and Hollywood; both presented smoking as chic and glamorous.
My dad had been a smoker since I could remember. I don’t know if he began in the Navy or if it was a habit he acquired in high school. He smoked pipes, cigars, and cigarettes — even rolled his own. I studied the rituals that attended his tobacco habit and found them fascinating. He would blow smoke rings to entertain us kids. Way cool.
I was an ardent fan of all things glamorous (loved, loved, loved the Dinah Shore Show) and I also wanted to be cool in the worst way. One day, I had this brainiac notion that I could really boost my glam/coolness quotient by taking up smoking. I didn’t waste any time. I found my dad on the front porch that evening and sat down next to him on the glider. It had gotten dark enough that the street lights had come on, which added to the mystique. He was — and my timing was perfect here — puffing away on a cigarette, probably a Pall Mall at that time, if memory serves. (He was also known to be a Lucky Strike and Camel smoker, too, in different years.)
“Yeah, honey, whatcha want?”
“Can I smoke?”
“Can I smoke a cigarette?”
“You want to smoke?“
“Yeah. Can I?” And, to my utter amazement, he said yes.
No doubt about it: I was ecstatic. Dad thought I was ready to handle it. I mean, to my knowledge, he didn’t even let my older brother smoke. I was about to become — at seven years old — the envy of the neighborhood, and possibly my entire class. What a heady moment in my brief existence! I sat up straight, assuming a posture worthy of the confidence my dad had placed in me.
“Breathe in real deep now,” he said as he poised the glowing symbol of my new glamorous persona next to my lips. I dutifully — no, willingly — complied. I drew the smoky “coolness” as deeply into my lungs as I could. I didn’t want to miss one iota of this thrilling new adventure. However, in the next instant I bolted from my seat on the glider and draped my body across the banister of the porch, gagging, coughing, sputtering and moaning all at once. I craved nothing more than some fresh air to hit my supremely violated lungs.
My dad gently thumped the middle of my back and inquired if I was going to be all right. As my heaves abated and I finally caught my breath, I was overcome by a feeling of bewilderment. What was up with this burning, asphyxiating sensation? I mean, the starlets and models with cigarettes in hand never appeared green at the gills or just about ready to puke. Gone was the promise of cocky coolness that I had staked on a relationship with tobacco.
My dad mustered a sufficient level of self-restraint to cloak any mild amusement he must have felt. Or perhaps it pained him to watch me go through that brief ordeal. Yet it had been me, myself, who had initiated the misery and suffering by requesting to smoke. He merely consented and let the natural consequences of my choice silently impress the lesson. (Of course, he sort of sealed the deal by instructing me to inhale.) My first cigarette was destined to be my last.
It also bewildered me that my dad just stood by and let me do something that would turn out so badly. I mean, he could have spared me, but he didn’t. It wasn’t until I was an adolescent that I understood his rationale. While other kids were taking up the smoking habit, I wanted nothing to do with it. And then it suddenly dawned on me what a huge favor my dad had done for me that summer night long ago on the front porch. (Didn’t B. F. Skinner label this “negative reinforcement”?) Dad’s wisdom ensured that I would have absolutely no desire to light up a cigarette. Ever. And, statistically speaking, he just might have added an extra 14 years to my life.
P.S. Happily, my dad quit smoking two years following my bombed experiment.