Smoke: A Memoir in Ten Puffs
by Dennis Vannatta
Don’t believe it when they tell you that, as you get older, your short-term memory goes but your long-term memory grows sharper, the distant past set before you bright as a reality series on a plasma TV. Trust me, nothing gets sharper as you age. That’s why, nearing my three-score years and ten, I’m always pleased when something I’d thought lost in the past does come back to me, for then I’m given my life back, at least a small part of it, at least for a little while before it begins to fade again. It happened again recently, and I’m grateful for the gift, even if it was mostly smoke.
My wife and I were staying in what was billed as a “rustic cabin” in a state park an hour’s drive from our home in Little Rock. That night I built a fire in the fireplace, and sat back in a wooden rocker with a glass of wine, prepared to enjoy the atmosphere. Strangely enough, though, for a moment it wasn’t the burning oak faggots I smelled but a different odor: pipe smoke. And then I was gone, a little boy again standing beside my father on a cold gray winter’s day in a depot agent’s office in Appleton City, Missouri. A pot-bellied iron stove was in one corner of the room, burning coal, no doubt, although I don’t remember that, or even the pipe itself, only the musty, pungent odor of pipe smoke emanating from the agent’s wool slacks and sweater. I think I was holding my father’s hand. I’m not positive about that, but I think I was because when I was little I’d walk with him, my tiny hand in his huge, gentle one.
It’s a good memory. My wife and I had treated ourselves to a couple of nights in the rustic cabin on Valentine’s Day weekend, and I’d like to think that that moment retrieved from my childhood was a gift from Aphrodite’s pal, Mnemosyne, Goddess of Memory. Strange that it would involve smoking, though, because I’ve never been a smoker. Wait, though. Now that I think about it . . .
When I was a boy, many men smoked pipes. In my family, however, although there were a few cigarette smokers, only my grandfather, John Vannatta, smoked a pipe.
I was a late child, my father in his forties when I was born, and even as a young boy I thought of my grandfather as an old man. He was shorter than his sons and slightly stooped, but he had broad shoulders and even as an old man incredibly strong hands. I vividly recall my cousin Johnny—seven years my senior, star athlete—hand-wrestling with the old guy (each grasping the other’s right hand and squeezing), his eyes growing wide in amazement and then face crumpling in pain as his hand was crushed in the hard-callused, farmer’s hand of our grandfather.
Grandpa was rumored to have been quite the lad in his younger days, hell on the ladies (I’ll tell no tales) and a sometime drinker—hard for me to imagine in that strict Baptist family.
Smoking was also frowned upon by Baptists. Grandpa smoked pipes, against which wickedness the puny efforts of his local preacher were of no avail. The tent revivalists who came through periodically were another story. Those guys were real pros. They could entertain and put the fear of God in you at the same time. They’d put the fear of God in Grandpa, too, who’d return from a revival meeting, grab his pipe, run out of the house, and hurl the pipe as far as he could into the pasture. As soon as the revival folded its tents, though, he’d have his sons out there in the pasture with him looking for it. “Find that son of a bitch!”
That was from a time before my time. In my earliest memories, he was already retired from farming and living in a little house in Windsor, Missouri. He’d given up trying to give up the pipe. I remember the smell of pipe smoke on him, those flat rectangular Prince Albert tins, remember vividly his drawing on the pipe and then pushing his index finger into the bowl, tamping the tobacco down, I suppose. I couldn’t understand how he could do it without burning his fingertip, but his hands were still hard-callused even though he no longer farmed.
He had several pipes and kept them in his bedroom in a wooden rack which, decades later, I had one much like. I was fascinated by the various pipes lined up in the rack, and every visit I’d go into the cold dark bedroom to look at them.
Grandma would be in there, too. She’d had a stroke and sat in a wheelchair. She couldn’t talk although she’d try and would make a grunting, whining sound I couldn’t understand. When we came for a visit, she’d be sitting in her wheelchair in the living room. We grandchildren would dutifully file by the wheelchair and give her a kiss, and she’d make that sound. Then Grandpa would wheel her into the back bedroom and close the door on her. We’d have dinner, and afterwards the adults would visit or play cards while we children played outside or whatever. At some point before we left, I’d go into the bedroom and look at the rack of pipes. I’d try not to look at Grandma.
Like I said, he had hard hands.
Grandpa was the only pipe smoker in the Vannatta side of the family that I recall. Uncle Dud (Durward) smoke cigarettes despite the Dud Vannatta branch of the family being especially religious. From this half-century distance, I’m not sure whether I actually witnessed or only heard about cousin Johnny getting down on his knees and begging his father to stop smoking. Whether Uncle Dud’s smoking affected the condition of his soul is between him and his God, but I don’t think it affected his health much. He had stomach trouble as did my father, probably from the same cause: stress. (Both were school-district superintendents.) Smoking didn’t have anything to do with his death: he and Aunt Anna were killed in a car wreck when I was in basic training in the Army, spending a part of each day policing up cigarette butts.
My father wasn’t a defiant smoker like Uncle Dud but a sneak smoker. If you want to talk about strict Baptists, you’re just playing games until you get to my mother. No drinking, no smoking, no cussin’. I’m not certain how she managed to conceive three children. Add to the religious prohibition the fact that my father had his first of three heart attacks when I was six, and you can see why smoking for him was forbidden.
My mother watched him for signs of smoking like Hera watched Zeus for signs of philandering, and she enlisted me as one of her spies. It was a game for me, trying to find his latest hiding place for a pack of Camels, but it was serious business for those two, locked in perpetual marital combat, smoking just one among many battlegrounds. I didn’t realize how serious it was for him until one day I found a pack of cigarettes hidden somewhere in the house and gleefully flashed it to him as I was about to run with it to my mother. “If you take those to your mother, I won’t play catch with you anymore,” he said. I think I must have been about eight at the time.
Let’s move on. And quickly.
My experience of smoking was not entirely vicarious, even at a young age.
I suppose that all children . . . . No, wait. I was about to say something silly. What I think of “all children” doing probably vanished about the same time that people in small towns stopped letting their children roam all over in search of relatively innocuous adventures and started locking their doors night and day. (My family would not lock the doors even when we went on vacations.)
One of those things I was going to suggest all children indulged in was smoking reeds, dry hollow stems of some weed or flower (I don’t recall exactly) about the diameter of a pencil, broken off in cigarette lengths. Light up, puff puff puff. Well, two puffs at most. They wouldn’t stay lit like a cigarette, and you wouldn’t want them to anyway because they tasted awful, and you certainly didn’t want to take a big puff and draw fire into your tender young imbecilic mouth. Still, this allowed you to pretend you were smoking the real thing, which is what we thought adults were supposed to do. We were assailed by commercials and ads for cigarettes on radio, television, billboards, signs on screen doors of cafés announcing, “It’s Kool inside.” The women in these ads were beautiful and the men handsome, confident, and tough, qualities we did not possess. If we had to choose just one, though, it would definitely be tough. We watched Alan Ladd, John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Humphrey Bogart, and William Holden in the movies; they were all tough, and they all smoked.
It’s not easy for a young boy to be tough, but you could attempt to look the part by dangling a cigarette out of the corner of your mouth. The effect, alas, was diminished somewhat by dangling a smoldering hollow reed out of the corner of your mouth, so my friend Jerry and I graduated to cigarettes. Once in awhile we’d steal a cigarette out of our fathers’ packs, but it was dangerous to do that too often. It’s tough to look tough when your dad is blistering your bottom. Mostly we picked up butts off the street. Sanitary? Ha. To even raise the issue shows that you’re not tough, Nancy boy.
Instead of progressing from smoking butts picked up off the street to buying packs, I gave up smoking before I reached junior high.
My high school friends and I would have described ourselves as scholars and athletes; others would probably have described us as nerds. Whatever, only one of my half-dozen closest friends smoked then or thereafter.
I speak of cigarettes. I never developed a habit for cigarettes for the most basic of reasons: I didn’t enjoy smoking them. Cigarette smoke seemed like sucking in hot air to me, vapid, virtually tasteless. Pipes and cigars were another story, and while I avoided the temptation in high school, there was a time in my undergrad college years that I smoked a fair amount.
Cigars were my favorite. No smoke beats a good cigar. I use “good cigar” primarily in a theoretical sense, having almost nothing to do with them myself. Back in my undergrad days, even Dutch Masters and El Producto were too rich for my blood. White Owls, Roi-Tans—those were more my speed. Swisher Sweets and Mississippi River Crooks (wavy-shaped cigars with a sweetened end, pack of five two bits). I liked those Crooks. I smoked a thing called Erics, I believe it was, cigarette-sized cigars with a filter tip. Ghastly. I looked good with one hanging out of the corner of my mouth, though—or thought I did.
That, in fact, was the problem with the full-sized cigars, the best smokes: they didn’t look cool. A nineteen-year-old college student with a cigar in his puss looks less like Warren Beatty than a Chicago ward-boss trainee. What chick would go for that? It was the chicks I was really interested in, of course.
If not cigars, what about pipes? A college man with a pipe is a chick magnet. Not. At least not me. While they didn’t help me with the ladies, though, I liked everything about smoking pipes: the pipes themselves and all the wonderful sizes, shapes, and colors they came in; my really neat wooden rack with the built-in humidor; sampling different tobaccos; tamping the tobacco into the pipe; the process of lighting the pipe (drawing the flame down into the bowl, then shooting it back up with that distinctive little pop); smelling the smoke (nothing beats Cherry Blend, my friend, especially when you’re poor); even cleaning the damn things.
I’ve never understood why pipes smell so wonderful and cigars so atrocious and yet pipes can’t come close to cigars for taste. Not that they don’t beat the hell out of cigarettes. It helps to buy a better quality tobacco, for which I did not have the wherewithal. Still, I would have kept on smoking pipes but for one drawback: they gave me a sore throat. I’ve always battled allergies and spend most of the spring and fall with a raspy voice as it is. After smoking pipes for awhile, my throat would be raw, and I, never more than a step away from full-blown hypochondria at any time, would imagine an army of cancer cells marshalling the troops. That pipe rack with the humidor and six cheap but still pretty cool pipes went into the top of my closet, and never came down again.
This is not to say that my experience of smoking ended in my undergrad years. One could not serve in the United States army, in my day at least (1969-1971), and escape all experience of smoking. Indeed, the Army encouraged us to smoke. A little packet of two cigarettes came in every carton of C-rations. Cigarettes could be purchased dirt-cheap in the PX. Virtually every formation—unless the sergeant in charge had a case of the ass at us for something—would include a break where we were invited to “smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em.” Most had ‘em and smoked ‘em, and those of us who didn’t could look forward to the pleasure of policing up the butts. In basic training and MP school, one of our daily rituals was to line up and slowly traverse some area looking for butts. “Hey, you missed one back here!” some horse’s ass sergeant would inevitably call out without indicating exactly where the “here” was, and back we’d go across the grounds looking for that renegade butt. I enjoyed that a lot.
We didn’t do much policing after our training was over with, but the smoking continued, blue clouds of the stuff in the barracks, EM clubs—wherever there were GI’s. Some of it was even tobacco smoke.
When I was stationed in Germany, there was a guy who would drive his VW van with the hidden compartment under the floorboard down to Spain and once even to North Africa and come back with slabs of hashish big as a dictionary. My company was divided between the hash-smokers and the juicers. I was a juicer but not from any moral or legal scruples. I tried hash a couple of times, but all it did for me was put me to sleep and leave me with the same sore throat as pipe tobacco.
Almost all my friends there were hash-heads, though. They were a mellow bunch. I never saw a hash-head get in a fight or get violent in any way. I can’t say the same for my fellow juicers. (There was a lot of drug-taking: LSD, mescaline, and toward the end of my tour a new group of guys who were into heroin. The most disturbing thing I saw involving any sort of mind-altering agent was a sergeant whose wife and small son lived off-post with him. He was a juicer to beat all juicers, kept two hollow plastic pistols filled with vodka in holsters on his belt. To entertain us, he’d hand one of the pistols to his son, I’d guess around eight; the boy knew what to do with it. He’d take out the stopper, put the barrel in his mouth, and drink. Most of the guys laughed, thought ol’ sarge was a great guy. Me, not so much.)
I got out of the Army in 1971 and enrolled in graduate school. The hash smokers were now pot smokers. I knew a lot of them and would take a hit now and then, but weed didn’t do any more for me than hashish, so I don’t have much to say about it (except you could buy a lid for ten dollars if you knew the right guy; eat your hearts out, twenty-first-century tokers).
One more thing from grad school, 1971. I met a tall blond girl from Queens, New York, who smoked cigarettes. I didn’t like the smell of it on her clothes or the taste when we kissed, but I put up with it because, well, tall, blond, kiss. Eventually, she gave up smoking for me, along with her parents’ dream of her returning to New York to marry the kind of doctor who actually made money, not some doctoral candidate in English. Today our children are astounded at the idea of their health-conscious mother ever smoking, but I think back on those tobacco-tasting kisses as magic time, violins floating in the honey-sweet air, angels eatin’ pie.
In the nearly four decades since I got my PhD, my experience of smoking has waned almost to the nonexistent. Of course, it’s a different world today. Not so long ago one dined in restaurants surrounded by smokers. We watched movies in theaters thick with smoke and flew in airliners where non-smokers were banished to the last four rows, next to the toilets; but even there the stuff would reach us, clog our noses, foul our hair, impregnate our clothes. The halls of every public building were lined with sand-topped canisters for cigarette ash and butts—although simply dropping a butt on the floor and giving it a quick stomp was common practice. (I think we do have an ashtray, tacky faux-gilded aluminum thing, in a drawer somewhere even now. We’ve lived in our present house since 1985; to the best of my recollection, no one has ever smoked a cigarette in it.)
In the almost two-score years since grad school, I have smoked a few times, pipes and cigars, never cigarettes. When our children were little, to save money on our trips from Arkansas to New York to visit my wife’s family, we’d drive straight through, twenty-four hours, and I’d try anything to keep myself awake behind the wheel at night, including smoking a pipe. Fiddling with the damn thing with one hand on the wheel, trying to fill it, light it, keep it lit helped me stay alert—or so the theory went. It was the only time I ever smoked around the kids with my wife’s consent, a little second-hand pipe smoke being preferable to my missing a curve in the Tennessee mountains.
I was never one of those pipe-smoking college professors, even if I did still have my pipes from my undergrad days, plus the de rigueur corduroy jacket with elbow patches. Many of my colleagues smoked pipes, and I did think pipes lent one an air of intellectual gravity. (No, one never becomes oblivious to image.) Problem was I still had that sensitive throat. My God, risk having to miss a day or two of school because of a throat too sore for lecturing? Leave my students bereft of my astounding command of the best that’s been thought and said? Mais non!
I do fondly recall two episodes of cigar-smoking from my professor days. The first was thirty years ago probably. My wife and I along with several other couples had dinner at my friend and colleague Ralph’s house, and afterward the men repaired to the front porch. It was a soft spring evening. Ralph opened a box of cigars, and we smoked and passed around a bottle of bourbon. A pleasant night to look back on, especially poignant for me because all those friends, save one, are now scattered across the country, all alive and well, I hope, although in truth for me they live only in memory, wreathed in pipe smoke.
The only one of those friends still here is Dave. A number of years ago, another warm evening, our wives off somewhere, we old buddies sat on lawn chairs on the back deck of my house, smoking cigars and sipping cognac from tiny snifters that had come with a Courvoisier gift set. We enjoyed ourselves so much I smoked a second cigar and was suddenly so dizzy that when I got up and went into the house I walked straight into a wall. Wretched as I felt at the time, by now, twenty years later, it, too, is a good memory. If I’m not mistaken, it was the last time I ever smoked anything.
Not all smoking memories are pleasant ones. Smoking does kill.
My father was superintendent of a small rural school district, and when I was a boy his janitor was a fellow by the name of Harvey, a smoker. My father was quite fond of him. It was winter, a cold starless night in my memory, and we were sitting in the car somewhere, perhaps ready to drive home after a basketball game, when my father turned to my mother and said that Harvey had lung cancer. I wasn’t old enough to know precisely what that meant; nevertheless, the darkness, the cold, the dampness, not the sound but the weight of my father’s voice pressing down on me, told me that Harvey was done for. He didn’t last long. My father would visit him at the hospital and come back looking like something had grabbed him by the throat. Like he couldn’t breathe.
My wife grew up close, geographically and emotionally, to her Uncle Bob, Aunt Pat, and their children, almost another set of parents and siblings to her. Uncle Bob had been a career man in the Navy before going into the insurance business, and in photographs in his uniform he looked like a more robust Ray Milland. But he’d been a heavy smoker, and by the time I knew him he was yellow and haggard, coughed continually and sounded like he was drawing through a water pipe when he tried to breathe. Emphysema. He was a proficient amateur photographer, and at my brother-in-law’s wedding, he was to take photos of the ceremony and reception. On the morning of the wedding, he took me off to the side and said, “Dennis, I’m not sure I can hold the camera steady enough. Will you take over for me?” Of course I did although my expertise with cameras ended with putting a new flash cube on the Instamatic. All those dials and meters on his fancy camera flummoxed me, and the results were disastrous. Uncle Bob died not long afterward, and a few years later his wife, Aunt Pat, until then a vigorous, healthy non-smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. I don’t know what part years of breathing second-hand smoke played, but it couldn’t have helped. I remember her final Christmas, more than a dozen of us sitting in my in-laws’ big living room, dazzling Christmas tree in the corner, presents being passed out, glasses of wine and beer in hand, hors d’ouerves consumed, laughter, good times. In the midst of it Aunt Pat, once the life of any party, sat in her chair looking down, communing silently with something inside her. Something not good.
My older sister, Delores, died of congestive heart failure on top of years of suffering from emphysema. She smoked up until the very end. Before deteriorating health forced her to quit, she worked in a deli, where she wasn’t allowed to smoke. One day she slipped behind the counter, fell and broke her ankle. The deli owner called an ambulance. Delores, in terrible pain, beseeched him, “Oh please, won’t you let me smoke just one cigarette? You know they’ll never let me smoke in the ambulance.”
My daughter was a smoker. I’m not sure when she started, but she smoked a lot and for enough years that my wife and I worried about her health. Our nagging no doubt only exacerbated the problem. She finally kicked the habit a few years ago. I think it was when she broke up with a boyfriend, who was a smoker. Bad breakups can turn out well in some respects, evidently.
My son never smoked cigarettes or, as far as I know, cigars or pipes. At least with any regularity. Like all young men, no doubt he tried this or that a time or two. The only time I know for sure he smoked something was in high school, an all-boys Catholic school run by a notoriously strict monsignor who, if he caught a boy smoking, would sit him in a chair before the entire student body assembled in the gymnasium and make him smoke cigars until he vomited. On their very last day of school, though, the monsignor would let the seniors light up a cigar. Matthew bought a big one, and if he smoked the whole thing, he was probably sick as a dog.
He gave me the last cigar, the last smoke of any kind, I’ve had. It was the occasion of his first son’s birth, my first grandchild. (I was the one who reminded him that he had to pass out cigars to commemorate the occasion. I didn’t want him to ignore the tradition and deprive me of my first stogie since Dave and I smoked ourselves dizzy many years before.)
Matthew is a true Dutchman, throws nickels around like manhole covers, and I’d been expecting something cheap but got a real shock: the cigars were Bubble Gum! I admit I felt a little cheated, but at least this way I have a souvenir, the gum cigar still in its IT’S A BOY! wrapper in my chest of drawers. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to resist the temptation of a real cigar. Too, the literature professor in me appreciates the symmetry provided by that cigar, for my first experience of smoking wasn’t those butts Jerry and I picked up off the streets of Sedalia, or even the dry-reed “cigarettes” we lads smoked, but the cartons of candy cigarettes I’d get occasionally instead of a Baby Ruth or Butterfinger. So in a sense you could say my smoking life has come full circle—candy to, well, something close to candy.
Isn’t it pretty to think so, anyway? The sobering truth is that life doesn’t come full or any other kind of circle. The years roll by, not back. Nothing returns. All we have of the past is what we remember of it. The marvelous thing is that, when you reach a certain age, all memories are good, even the bad ones. Think not? Just wait. It’s forgetting that’s death; remembering is resurrection.
Proust told us that long ago, of course, his rebirth through a tea-soaked Madeleine. For me, a whiff of pipe tobacco will do. Make mine Cherry Blend.
Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with stories and essays published in many magazines and anthologies, including River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was recently published by Et Alia Press.