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UP IN SMOKE

by David Westheimer

 

Nowadays, cigarette is a dirty word.

And mostly rightfully so. If smoking a cigarette affected only yourself, it would be your business and nobody elses. But cigarette smoke, breathed out, affects everyone in range. Kind of like what the military calls "collateral damage." So smoking is prohibited in public places and in most private work places. Youve no doubt seen tobacco addicts and their ilk standing on the sidewalk outside of a building stoking their habit. And likely as not getting disapproving stares from us self-righteous passers-by.

But it was not ever thus.

Time was, cigarettes were celebrated in song and story. Smoking was glamorous, sophisticated, romantic. They wrote love songs about it:

  • Smoke Rings— Where do they go, the smoke rings I blow?
  • While a Cigarette Was Burning—My heart was burning, too.
  • Two Cigarettes In the Dark—Only a flame and a spark.
  • These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)—A cigarette that bears a lipsticks traces.

Even country music got in the act. Cigarettes, Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women.

And in the movies. What could be more romantic than lighting up? One memorable movie scene became famous, an example of sophisticated courting. I forget the name of the movie and the actors. Was it Paul Henreid who stuck two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them and handed one to Bette Davis in Now, Voyager? The tears flowed like wine. Newspaper reporters smoked to show how tough they were. Soldiers under fire lit up (except at night when it might reveal their position) to show how brave they were. Men facing a firing squad were offered a cigarette before dying (justice being unable to wait for the smoking itself to do the job).

Cigarettes were a really big deal in prisoner of war camps in Italy and German. They came in Red Cross parcels along with food and POWs could be sent them in personal tobacco parcels. POWs next of kin got special coupons from tobacco companies entitling them to substantial discounts. In the camps, cigarettes were like money. POWs often traded some of their food for them. I bought a copy of Dickens Dombey and Son for cigarettes (I didnt smoke cigarettes). Bought it from a British fighter pilot who was shot down in full uniform, with three library books he had intended to return when he got back from his mission. I rented it out for others to read for two cigarettes.

The first song I remember to buck the trend about smoking was a country song, Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette—Tell St. Peter at the Gold Gate I just hate to make him wait but I gotta have another cigarette. In the movies now, if an actor or actress smokes, its usually supposed to make a character point and a lot of people in the audience object to it.

I never smoked cigarettes, even when it was manly and romantic. I smoked a few cigarettes when I was about 12 but quit when I got sick and threw up. Dody never smoked cigarettes. My mother did, but never in public. Ladies didnt smoke in public in those days, though an old aunt of mine did, and she used to use rouge and bright red lipstick and curse in public. Aunt Hannah. Shes the one who taught my mother to smoke.

I did smoke cigars until I had heart surgery and my doctor cut me off. In my cigar-smoking days it was considered politically correct to smoke cigars in restaurants, especially if you asked people at adjacent tables if they minded. One time, at lunch with our son the vet, Eric, and his wife, Karen, I lit up after all those around said they wouldnt mind. Our daughter-in-law said, "You never ask me," and I realized I never had, and shed never liked it. So I quit smoking cigars around her before I quit everywhere else.

Eric and his wife never smoked but his brother, Fred the agent, and Freds wife, Susan, did but gave it up years ago. So nobody in our family smokes cigarettes except one granddaughter in her late 20s who wont listen to anyone about the perils of smoking. Or anything else, for that matter. I dont know if she thinks it is glamorous, sophisticated or romantic. At least she goes outside to do it.

I guess thats something.

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