In the 1960s and 70s, everybody smoked, everybody but my mother, who didn’t smoke, drink, or do anything that Ann Landers wouldn’t have approved of. She still doesn’t, although I seem to recall that she once drank a pina colada on a cruise, long after the children were grown, of course. No, she didn’t smoke, which made her all the more remarkable since almost everyone else did. Finding a young person who didn’t smoke then would be like finding a young person now who doesn’t have a tattoo, a rare and wondrous creature.
My family photograph albums are filled with old photographs of relatives engaged in all sorts of activities, all performed with the ubiquitous cigarette dangling from lips, or attached like another finger to their right hands. My uncle, hovering over the grill, flipping hamburgers, smoking a cigarette. My grandmother, sitting on the front porch, breaking beans, smoking a cigarette. My father, standing in the front yard with a garden hose, spraying something or someone, smoking a cigarette.
I flirted with smoking off and on from the time I was 13 to the night I quit for good, in a bar called — and I am not making this up — Tobacco Road on Christmas Eve of 1984. I was sitting at a table with my best friend, Stewart, nursing a Michelob and a broken heart, watching the smoke drift into shreds beneath the stage lights where Nantucket had just finished their third encore and called it a night.
It was somewhere between one and two in the morning, and most of what was left of the crowd had already dispersed and vanished into the night. We were pondering a move on a table of four girls and two guys — Stewart had been asked to dance by one of the girls four or five times over the course of the evening, and now they were playing the “I see you, and I know you see me” game of staring that inevitably led to dancing, kissing, and leaving, one car following the other who knew where?
But my heart wasn’t really in it, and neither was his, I could tell. I killed my beer and stubbed out my cigarette just a bit dramatically. I was upset that a girl I liked had decided to go back to an old boyfriend. I was also upset that I was upset about it.
“That’s it for me,” I said, twisting the butt of the cigarette into the tray longer than necessary for an exclamation point. “That right there was my last cigarette.”
I can’t be absolutely sure, as I was tilting a little toward drunk just then, but I think I felt that quitting smoking was symbolic, since the girl was a smoker. I was giving cigarettes up. I was giving her up. Rather, I was giving the idea of her up. Poof. Up in smoke. It made sense to me at the time.
I haven’t smoked since. Most of those relatives from the photographs have also quit or passed away, many of them from smoking-related causes — heart attacks, cancer, diabetes. Stewart quit, too, just a year or two ago. He promptly gained 30 pounds, got disgusted with himself, and then turned to bike-riding to shed the weight. Now he competes in triathlons.
Yes, these are different days, different ways. There aren’t many places where a person can smoke inside, or even on the premises of many places. Many campuses are tobacco free. Smokers have become outcasts, even pariahs. It is difficult to comprehend how much smoking was just part of the culture then, not just something people did but part of who they were. Where I came from, you either farmed tobacco or knew people who did. My high school had a smoking area, and not just for the teachers. A lot of the guys who didn’t smoke chewed tobacco, usually Red Man. It was easy to buy cigarettes or chewing tobacco regardless of your age. After all, you were just supporting the local economy.
These days, most of the tobacco farms are gone from that area, many replaced by acres and acres of Christmas trees. I don’t know what percentage of people in the county are smokers, but it is a tiny fraction of what it once was, and that is a good thing. It is also a good thing that most people now wear seat belts, which they didn’t used to do, and avoid laying out in the sun all day on the weekends getting a tan, which they did use to do.
You do not see many pick-ups out on the highway with a bed full of children jostling around, which was pretty common back then. You don’t see many people on bicycles without a helmet. I cannot recall ever seeing a person on a bicycle wearing a helmet in those days.
By almost any sort of reckoning, we are smarter, safer, and healthier now than we once were. Would it sound crazy, then, if I admit that I kind of miss the general recklessness of those times? Have we somehow become too cautious, too buckled up, too protected, too insulated from the big, bad world?
Maybe it’s just the people in those pictures that I really miss, breaking beans until after dark, blowing smoke rings at the moon.