My Father's Sly Trick About Smoking That Saved My Life

Andrew Malcolm

You hear a lot of stories these days about how things are changing in our society, usually for the worse. And often for the much worse.

Crime. Politics. Civility. Government. Hollywood. Inflation. Education. A deep national sense of unease documented by polls, personal observation, and conversations with friends.

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Here’s a different story for a change, however, another one of those memories RedState editors have encouraged me to write about change over a long period of time. In this case, my life, which, thankfully, is getting longer each day.

When I was a little boy, pretty much every adult in my life smoked cigarettes. My Dad smoked Camels, Mom preferred Chesterfields. Others, Pall Malls.

I remember even doctors appeared in cigarette ads with one of those stethoscopes wrapped on their neck to convey authority.

We even had candy cigarettes to hold between our fingers while we blew out pretend smoke. They were actually flavored like mint, not my favorite candy. That was cherry LifeSavers and Clark bars, if anyone asks.

Every table in most homes and all the restaurants and bars had ashtrays. So did cars. Even buses and airplanes. Most characters in movies and even on radio dramas seemed to smoke regularly. You’d hear the sound of a match or puffs. 

The smell of smoke was so ubiquitous in my house and most places that it was just there, everywhere. You didn’t think a thing about it.

During my teenage years of the 1950s in small-town Ohio, smoking seemed like a very cool thing, quite grown-up, if you did it correctly and cooly - meaning casually, as if you’d always been a smoker.

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One Saturday – I think I was in the seventh or eighth grade – my father took me aside and asked if I wanted to smoke. He knew many of my friends did when their parents weren’t around. 

Turns out, he knew because as a teenager, he had smoked with a cousin out behind the garage, when their parents weren’t around and young ladies did not smoke.

I said no, that was OK. Dad replied, well, if you ever want to try it, just let me know. I’ll buy some for you.

Honestly, I hadn’t actually thought about smoking. I knew friends who were sneaking smokes. I guess I wasn’t cool because it hadn’t occurred to me to try.

Thinking about my father’s question over the ensuing two weeks, however, I decided I did want to try. I told him. We immediately drove into town to the drugstore. I stood before the counter.

“Pick the one you want,” he said. I had no idea. I pointed at one I’d seen on TV.

Dad paid for it and we left. The pack cost a quarter.

I knew being cool required practice. So, I practiced in private for two, maybe three days.

It was awful…, just awful. It made me cough. Gave me headaches. A foul taste in my mouth. Maybe it looked cool. But the reality was the exact opposite.

I thought what the heck is the point of this?

So, I stopped. I didn't even smoke half the pack. I threw the rest away. And that was it for my smoking.

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Dad never asked, never said anything else about it. Only later did I realize that his unexpected parental ploy was genius. Letting me learn by myself made the lesson more enduring than a parental lecture. It sucked all the forbidden pleasure out of sneaking smokes. He said sneaking one thing leads to sneaking other things.

So, I never did.

That little libertarian trickery saved my life. Dad stopped smoking soon after the first Surgeon General report in 1964 said it caused cancer. 

When Dad died 20 years later, smoking was a contributing cause. As was alcohol. Mom kept right on with her Chesterfields until her final hospital stay.

She smoked even when the surgeon revealed that she had a virulent form of lung cancer and had only a few months of smoking—and life--left in her.

He was wrong about the few-months-to-live verdict. She had a long course of radiation treatments. Maybe two. I try not to remember too much. 

Technicians literally painted a target on her chest to aim the radiation machine. Her skin there got painfully sunburned.

Dad drove her to the treatments each day for those weeks, then claimed his regular table in the hospital cafeteria that workers had reserved for him.

He’d place a little vase with a single flower by her place. When she emerged from the dark treatment room, he’d seat her. Bring a fresh cup of her coffee. 

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He didn’t inquire how the session went. Instead, with a little flourish, he’d announce that day’s surprise adventure, a new lunch place he’d chosen that required a little drive in the country.

Over the years, repeated medical advice discouraged smoking nationally, along with repeated anti-smoking campaigns, severe price and tax increases, and a broadening array of public restrictions in restaurants, bars, offices, shops, and even set distances from entrances.

I remember friends and family talking about how hard it was to quit. But they did.

Gallup surveys since World War II show a gradual decline in smoking since the self-reported peak of 45 percent in the 1950s. It fell under 30 percent in 1989, under 20 percent in 2015.

The newest survey, just released, puts the figure at 11 percent of adult Americans. Particularly encouraging long-term is the even lower 10 percent for younger Americans.

Over these many years, our society’s attitude toward smoking has changed radically for the better, for a change. For many, it’s now something to be embarrassed over. Some smokers feel the need to apologize when they leave the table. They’re banished outside, even in bitter weather. They look rather sad doing it. In fact, I’m not aware of any friends who do smoke.

When I see some stranger smoking now or smell them passing by, I inevitably think of Dad. He’s long gone, and I hope pain-free and in a better place, with Mom. No more coughing or wheezing, frequent winter chest colds, and apologizing for the hacking.

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I don’t dwell on that part. I picture instead that unexpected autumn afternoon in our old garage and my healthy father’s innocent, wily, conniving face so generously offering to buy me cigarettes.

And what did not happen because of that.

This is the fifth in an occasional series of Memories that RedState editors suggested I share. Here’s the first. The second. The third. And the fourth. Feel free to share your relevant memories on today's post in the Comments below. I hope you enjoyed this and will pass it on to others. Follow me @AHMalcolm

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