Twenty-first Century Smoking Gun?

My mother died of stage 4 lung cancer in early December 2017 after fumbling through life reduced by the weight of a stroke in June of the same year.

As a teen in the 1950s, she was taunted by her own mother for not smoking—and eventually caved, becoming a heavy smoker for decades, including while my sister and I were babies, children, and teens. We lived in the ever-present smoke of my parents, filling the house and the car.

My father resisted peer pressure when he was a teen and a four-sport letterman in high school. He used to tell us about sitting around socially with his friends smoking and drinking beer while he abstained from both, drinking milk in defiance instead.

He told these stories and others while sitting in our living room smoking and drinking Crown Royal Canadian whiskey. My father also regularly told us not to smoke or drink.

But by the time my parents married, my mom 19 and my dad turning 21 on their wedding day, they were a cool 1960s working-class couple, smoking their way toward the American Dream.

As a child, I remember being at my paternal grandparents’ house and all the adults were smoking. They even handed us cigarettes to try and laughed as we gagged.

We were children.

Another enduring memory of my childhood is my sister and me in the backseat of our family baby blue station wagon, no seat belts and the car filled with the smoke from both parents smoking.

This was early and mid-twentieth century America where media was saturated with alluring smokers on billboards [1] and TV, in magazine ads smiling, and romantically in films.

Product placement was in full swing, and at least part of the tar-and-nicotine-stained American Dream appeared to be several packs of cigarettes a day.

Paul Newman, set of The Hustler (1961)

When I was in high school, my father stopped mid-cigarette on the drive home from work one day, never smoking again. His death, a couple weeks after my mother’s stroke, from heart failure, like hers, certainly can be traced to years of smoking, a habit that during their early lives seemed not only reasonable, but the cool thing to do.

But my mother persisted for many years after I moved out—even though during our childhood my sister and I often collected all her packs of Kool cigarettes, hiding them or writing imploring pleas for her to stop all over the packages.

I never smoked, or even felt compelled to smoke. I was a hopeful athlete so cigarettes seemed anathema to my faltering efforts to be the sort of athlete my father had been.

I abhorred smoking, cigarettes and the pot common among my peers during the 1970s, and throughout my teens and into adulthood, I became vigilant about non-smoking environments even though the world was by default a place for smokers for a good 40 years of my life.

Non-smoking sections in restaurants often required walking through the smoking section, the larger main area, to get to non-smoking. One chain restaurant had a lattice partition between non-smoking and smoking; the smoke drifted through the gaping holes rendering the division symbolic only.

Even in South Carolina and North Carolina (home of tobacco), this seems archaic today, even fantastical. Smoking now is prohibited in restaurants, and smokers have clearly been relegated to minority status.

The default of the second decade of the twenty-first century is non-smoking—a new normal that has come about from both free market responses and government mandate. In fact,many states still do not legislate smoke-free areas as one would think considering how common non-smoking environments have become.

I am in my sixth decade, and in my life time, cigarette smoking and Big Tobacco went from cool and powerful to shunned and unmasked. It wasn’t easy or quick, however.

Part of this cultural shift can be linked to the tobacco industry being exposed in 1994 by Congressional hearings and a major law suit a few years later.

Hindsight is 20/20, but my perspective on how the battle for non-smoking environments was won is captured well by Mike Campbell’s explanation for how he became bankrupt in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “‘Two ways….Gradually and then suddenly.'”

While I am not prone to optimism, I have been contemplating the shift from a smoking to a non-smoking culture in the US as some solace for those of us resisting fatalism about America’s gun culture.

I genuinely believe the smoking culture in this country, aided by Big Tobacco and negligent political leadership, killed my parents prematurely.

Today, I also believe the gun culture in this country, aided by the NRA and negligent political leadership, needlessly sacrifices countless lives for a hollow symbolic gesture that aligns guns with freedom.

But as the 1990s proved to be a tipping point for the rights and lives of non-smokers, I wonder if Parkland, Florida will prove to be equally important in hindsight for the fight to end mass and school shootings, to end pervasive gun violence, to end gun-assisted suicide.

Some day, I hope some day soon, I hope in what remains of my life time, that we will, like Mike Campbell, declare that our country’s corrosive gun lust ended gradually and then all at once.


[1] An early poem of mine:

billboard

(You! Driver) “Come to MARLBORO COUNTRY”:
a cowboy’s face looming over passing
cars with passengers racing, just lighting
like the cowboy’s massive fist; flat, paltry,
and weather-beaten, the billboard stands tall
and proud—a god-head begging for money,
promising a land of milk and honey.
He pushes both regular and menthol.

MARLBORO COUNTRY: Do come. Cough and gag
in the blackened swirling smoke, walk on low,
lifeless plains where tobacco once would grow
and light your decorated cancer fag.
Go ahead! Read the big words and inhale
the clear, clean manhood—the photographed smell.

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