Dad used to smoke filterless Camel cigarettes. I asked him why he smoked and he said he started smoking when he was 11 years old and he just couldn’t quit. When he was 11, it was 1922. There were no surgeon general warnings about tobacco and its side effects. It’s just what kids, mostly boys, I suppose, did when they could get their hands on something so exotic especially on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Black licorice and filterless cigarettes were at least part of my father’s choice of entertainment when he was a kid. I suspect he rolled his own cigarettes much of the time because the ready-made ones wouldn’t have been very accessible. Even as a child, I remember Dad rolling his own cigs from time to time. Perhaps it was cheaper to do that.
By the time he was a father of three and four and could afford a “company car” for his insurance agency, he would pile the family into the ’48 Ford Coupe or the ’59 Country Squire for short trips around town and, less frequently, long trips on two-lane highways from St. Joseph, Mo., to visit Grandma and Grandpa in either Anamosa, Ia., or Chamberlain, S.D.
When the weather was cold, the windows would be rolled up tightly, of course, to help keep us all warm. The car would quickly fill with smoke from the cigarettes he smoked in chain, one quickly following another. We all had to inhale that secondhand smoke. I got carsick a lot. I blame the cigarettes only in part. Stuck in the backseat and with my eyes directed downward into a book, it didn’t take long for the queasiness to set in. Dad was never happy when I threw up in the car.
When the weather was hot, the windows would be wide open. Air conditioning did not come standard in cars in those days (nor did carpeting). Dad was free to let his arm hang out the window with his cigarette. If he took a drag from it and then decided to flick the butt, the wind could catch the still flaming tobacco just right and direct the smoldering piece of stub right through the back window and into the face or lap of whoever happened to be sitting behind him. If we didn’t want that to happen, it was our responsibility to keep our window rolled up and stifle.
I loved my dad. He was a good provider. He loved to laugh. He was intelligent and creative. He was also emotionally absent which often overshadowed all of those really great things. Plus, the non-stop smoking didn’t help. At first I just accepted it. Not only was the car full of smoke all of the time but whatever room in which he took up residence in the house filled with smoke as well. At least at home I could escape to other rooms or even go outside for some fresh air. Not that I did. At such a young age, I just accepted that that’s what the world smelled like.
By the time I got into high school, however, I had somehow come to the conclusion that I didn’t want to date a boy who smoked. I didn’t want to come home smelling like that. As an older friend told me much later, “Kissing someone who smokes is like kissing an ashtray.”
Nonetheless, I married a smoker. There’s no accounting for love. He, too, has started smoking as a kid but somehow I found it less offensive. He was polite about when he lit up and conscientious about keeping the smoke out of my face. After we had been married just short of seven years, he quit. Cold turkey. It was pure coincidence that we were changing out the carpet and the drapes in our little house at the same time, but it helped him kick the craving because the house was bereft of that smell. I have been eternally grateful that he stopped. That was 28 years ago. There were surgeon general warnings about smoking by that time and it was becoming increasingly difficult to find a place to smoke in the workplace.
These days I am surprised by the number of young people I see smoking. It doesn’t make any sense to me. But I’m of a different generation and I will acknowledge that I think differently about life than many young people do.I was prompted to remember all of this and more yesterday as I was walking into a facility where I volunteer. As I wound down the long ramp to the basement entrance, I couldn’t help but notice all of the cigarette butts shoved off to each side. The main part of the walkway was pretty clean, but those cigarette butts just didn’t seem very welcoming to me. I made a mental note to locate a broom and dustpan sometime while I was there and go out and clean up all of that.
After spending the morning with the clients of the facility, I was standing near the lunch line assisting as best I could or answering questions or just exchanging pleasantries with those passing by. Then I glanced off to my left where a man sat at a table by himself. I had spent about 15 minutes with him one-on-one earlier in the day so I knew a little about him and some of the challenges he faces. But I’ll admit that what I learned was little indeed. As I asked him questions about himself, I kept repeating, “Let me know if this is too personal,” and he kept responding, “Hey, my life is an open book.” Yet I couldn’t get him to talk unless I asked him questions. He wasn’t volunteering much.So there he sat at the table by himself rather than standing in the lunch line. At first, I leaned over and asked him if he would like me to get him some lunch (I had learned earlier that he has some trouble walking). No, he didn’t want me to do that for him. He would get it himself. Then I zeroed in on what was holding his attention.
This very nice, gentle man had a pile of spent cigarette butts in front of him. He was carefully opening each one and scraping the little remaining tobacco out and onto a cigarette paper. One by one. It was steady and tedious work. Not a grain of tobacco was going to waste. Every once in a while he looked up to glance at me and others around him, I assume to see if anyone was going to stop him. I wasn’t going to say a word as thoughts whirled through my head, not the least of which was the new meaning it brought to me from my college days of “rolling your own.”
Then he carefully rolled that cigarette paper around what had become quite a pile of tobacco, making a pretty fat filterless cigarette. I didn’t even see where he put it or how he so quickly cleaned up the mess of filters, but he was suddenly in line to get his lunch.When it came time for me to leave for the day, I headed out the door and up the ramp behind a very slow moving man. It gave me time to glance down and remember that I had intended to get a broom and dustpan to make that entrance more inviting. But as we approached the curve in the ramp, the man turned around and I recognized him as the cigarette manufacturer from the table inside. Again, we exchanged pleasantries as I passed him and he was reaching into his pocket. Maybe he was about to enjoy his cigarette.
I saw the butts on the ground as I proceeded toward my car and I forced the thought of sweeping them up out of my mind. I’m sure it will bother someone else who will get the broom and dustpan and clean it up. As for me, I’m more willing to look the other way.
Even used up cigarette butts can be important to a person who has virtually nothing.
1 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
2 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits—
3 who forgives all your iniquity
who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy;
5 who satisfies you with good as long as you live
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities. – Psalm 103:1-5, 8-10