Raised By Smokers

No doubt you’ve heard the saying, “You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family.” And while I personally have no regrets about my family, I imagine there may be those who do. 

Take for example Marina Chapman of Bradford, England. Honest to God, raised by monkeys. Capuchin Monkeys in the jungles of Colombia. And now she’s married? With a family? 

Talk about the potential for out-of-the-ordinary embarrassment by your Mom. 

“Mom!”

“Ooh, ooh.”

“Mom, please, you have to stop picking bugs off Billy’s head when he comes over for dinner.”

“Ooh, ooh, ah, aH, AH, AH, ooh, ooh, ah, aH, AH, AH, AH, AH!!!!!”

“Whatever Mom, you just don’t get it!”

Or how about Kamala and Amala, the wolf girls of Bengal. Discovered in the jungles of Godamuri, India when they were three and eight years old – living with a she-wolf and her pack. Not sure about Amala but we all know how things turned out for Kamala.

“Yes dear, even a wolf can grow up to be Vice President of the United States.”

I make no such claim to fame or infamy. I wasn’t raised by monkeys or wolves. My parents both had two legs, two arms walked in a semi-erect fashion, and smoked two packs a day. I was raised by smokers. 

Dick and Shirl were not occasional, cigarette-after-sex smokers, mind you. We’re talking full-fledged-two-plus-packs-a-day-light-the-next-one-with-the-smoked-to-the-filter-stub-of-the-previous-one, smokers. Hard-core puffers.

Both born in the earlier parts of the last century, my parents grew up with the family habit; it seemed everyone smoked back then. I remember one of my sisters telling me about being in the hospital after delivering her first child. Her Doctor visiting her during rounds, sitting on the edge of her bed, smoking a cigarette.

There were no “non-smoking” hotel rooms or restaurants back then. Neither were there specific smoking sections on planes, buses, or trains. The general attitude was, “Up yours if you don’t like my deadly second-hand smoke.”

Growing up my Mom and Dad’s house had hot water heat. If you’ve ever lived with hot water heat then you know; it’s similar to breathing desert air filtered through a gym bag full of dirty socks. There’s no furnace fan circulating the air through a filter. Whatever’s in the air, stays in the air, until it melts into the surroundings. 

The smooth plaster walls in our kitchen were coated with a thick layer of baked-on second-hand smoke. When Mom canned vegetables the global warming steam would melt the baked-on smoke, letting it run in pretty meandering brown rivulets from ceiling to floor.

And while living in a smoke-filled house could, on occasion, be breath-taking, at least you could escape to another room or go outside if the smoke got too thick. Taking a family trip in the confinement of a ‘67 Chevy Belair – an entirely different ballgame.

Family camping trips, oh how my family loved to camp together. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, two weeks of vacation was pretty standard. And my parents spent the year planning the family camping trip we’d take during those two weeks.

Like most endeavors, pursuing family camping for all it’s worth requires a certain level of equipment. There are tents and sleeping bags to be purchased. And when there are sisters involved – who can’t abide sleeping on the ground – there are cots to be had as well. And lanterns, cookstoves and car top carriers, army shovels, camp kitchens, and the list goes on. To do it right required a fair investment.

We were lucky though, there was no reason to scrimp and save to buy camping equipment when Mom and Dad were Raleigh smokers. Finally, a benefit to all that second-hand smoke, “Buy the pack with the coupon on the back!”

In case you don’t remember, back then many stores handed out stamps from companies like S&H, Gold Bond, or Plaid. Places like the grocery store, gas stations, and department stores rewarded you with stamps for every dollar you spent. You collected the stamps in a little book that you eventually redeemed for cool stuff you didn’t need. Think first-generation frequent flyer points.

Naturally, people needed food, new underwear, and gas in their car, which made S&H Green Stamps and the like – a win-win. But the cigarette companies hit the nail on the head – people were addicted to cigarettes. And what better way – besides nicotine – to keep them addicted than rewarding them with prizes for smoking even more!!!  Can you imagine the moment the Don-Draper-dude at R.J. Reynolds came up with that idea? No doubt his secretary got lucky that night.

But best of all, and to prove once and for all that smoking was actually good for you, the Raleigh coupon merchandise catalog was chock full of camping equipment!

Dad’s mantra around our postprandial dinner table became, “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, Shirl. And if you don’t, here’s one of mine.”

“Kids, do you realize Mom and Dad only have to smoke 30 more cartons, and we can get that new lantern?! Oooh baby, white gas, double mantles, and you can get a hard plastic carrying case for it too – only ten more cartons.”

“Wonderful,” we coughed.

There was always a pack of Raleighs, a blue glass ashtray, and a book of matches from the New Villa restaurant on the bathroom counter. “Dick,” Mom would say, “don’t take a dump without a smoke; we need three more sleeping bags.”

Weeding the vegetable garden? “Have a smoke.”

Picking up walnuts in the backyard? “Light ‘em up.”

Need a break because you feel queasy and dizzy? “Try a cigarette to clear your head.”

“Come on, Shirl, we both have to smoke our share, we’re a family with a goal, and that camp stove ain’t gonna buy itself.”

Finally, after years of goal-oriented smoking, we had a garage full of Raleigh coupon camping equipment. Each of us with our own sleeping bag and matching canvas cot only a bodybuilding engineer could assemble. We had a Coleman camp stove and a folding oven. We had the Coleman lantern – and the plastic carrying case. We even had a tent fly to shield our picnic dining table from the inevitable rain and keep our smokes dry. We were finally ready – for the BIG trip. Circumnavigating Lake Superior.

Back then, we had a beige 1960 four-door, Chevy Belair. Naturally, Dad painted the homemade car top carrier and the homemade camp kitchen a matching beige. We loaded the Belair to the brim and set sail in a blah beige blur.

It’s a long trip around Lake Superior – on today’s roads about 1,300 miles. We changed campsites nine times in that two-week trip. Of the fourteen days – it rained eleven. We had a giant – eight-man – canvas Sears cabin tent, the only thing that didn’t come from Raleigh coupons. Soaking wet, it weighed 732 pounds, and like overworked carnies, we rolled it up wet every time we moved on.

Fortunately for our future health, when we weren’t inside the car traveling to the next campground, we were outside in the fresh northern Minnesota air. Travel time though was like riding in a rolling smoke-filled corner tavern. Mom and Dad in the front seat puffing like they were saving for a trip around the world. The four of us kids strapped into our seats being force-fed second-hand smoke until we thought we’d puke. Our eyes watered, our throats burned, we coughed, we hacked, we pleaded, “Please, my eyes are burning, can you roll down a window?”

“Oh, you kids, it can’t be that bad.”

Second-hand smoke wasn’t a thing back then.

I started at 15 with Taryetons; because I’d rather fight than switch. In my early 20s, I smoked cigars for a while and then switched to a pipe. Could there be anything more obnoxious than a 20-year-old with a diamond pinky ring smoking a pipe? It’s amazing no one ever beat the shit out of me. Even more amazing that my future in-laws didn’t ban me from their house.

Eventually, I gave up camping which meant I had no reason to smoke. Lucky me.

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