Photo courtesy Pixabay
I have always despised smoking and loved smokers. That’s where the action is, at a party. Outside with the smokers, even when you’re not smoking a cigarette, like me. In fact, my first stab at writing a memoir was titled “Not Smoking.”
My parents (one mom, an original father, an eventual dad) smoked with the abandon of people who took up the habit long before the surgeon general’s warning went on the packets. My childhood was spent choking my way through a hazy scrim of tobacco smoke, complaining and whining with every breath.
When I was eleven, I spent a year removing my parents’ cigarettes from the pack, drawing a red line round the midpoint of each cigarette with a red felt tip, and carefully returning them to the package. I did this to entire cartons of cigarettes for most of a year in order to keep my parents from smoking down into the dangerous second half of the cigarette (something I saw on a PSA, I’m sure). My dad smoked them down anyway, but Mom trained herself to only ever smoke half a cigarette in deference to my concerns.
It was inconceivable that I would ever smoke.
We’d left Arkansas shortly before my thirteenth birthday and moved to a log cabin on a ranger station in Montana. It was almost as rustic as it sounds, aside from the electricity and indoor plumbing. The name “Gallatin” will be overly used in this forthcoming sentence, because we lived in the Gallatin Valley carved by the Gallatin River through the Gallatin Range, named after Albert Gallatin, who was the longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury, and let’s just top this all off with the fact that I went to school in Gallatin Gateway. My sister went to school in Bozeman.
I don’t quite understand what had happened to us in Montana. In Arkansas, we were academically gifted girls who sang in the choir and had boyfriends. At age twelve, I’d been attending high school in Booneville, because it started in seventh grade. I was an odd one who only ever had one friend at a time, and counted myself lucky to have that one. My sister actually ran in cliques. She’d always included me in Arkansas.
Montana was a social challenge for both of us, since we lived an hour’s bus ride from our respective schools. She went to the bus stop later than I did, and was dropped off earlier. I was the first stop, out there in the icy darkness before 7am, and also the last dropped off. I assumed this was because the bus driver, like almost everyone else at Gateway, hated me. I had left Booneville High behind for a K through 8 grade school, and I did not fit in.
My sister wasn’t having much more luck. After a little recon, it became clear to her that even though we were “good kids” with excellent grades and definite nerd-like qualities, the only social group we stood a chance with in Bozeman was the hoods. You know, the heads, the stoners, the greasers, whatever you called them in your hometown back in the olden days. They were the hoods in Bozeman, Montana.
To be a hood, you had to smoke.
That took practice.
My sister had run away for a short time (I was in eighth grade, she must have been in tenth). She hitchhiked to Minneapolis and stayed with a friend from her junior high years. She returned a smoker. I wasn’t, so we stole a pack of Benson & Hedges 100s from the refrigerator shelf where my parents stored their signature smokes and went down to crouch on the riverbank.
She coached me in the fine art of inhaling. I would draw deeply, filling my mouth with the foul, forbidden smoke. “Like this?”
“No, you have to inhale it in,” she’d say.
The smoke would come out of my mouth and make my eyes water. I’d give it another try. “Am I doing it now?”
She would study me and shake her head. “You have to breathe it.”
I had no idea how to do that, which makes no sense because it was just breathing. I knew how to breathe. I kept trying.
Eventually, it was too cold down by the river. But my sister could drive. My parents had graduated from the VW Microbus to a pair of VW Beetles. One was a bright orange Super Beetle, and that was our parents’ car. The other was older, with a dull red paint job, and that was the one we could drive the twenty miles to Bozeman whenever we wanted to.
Our unthinkable independence.
You might wonder why a pair of wayward sisters aged fourteen and sixteen were allowed to drive into a college town, basically at will. I can’t answer that for you. I wonder myself. There were absolutely no parameters put on our behavior by my parents, other than not bothering them.
Our father might try to be stern with us at our mother’s behest—in fact, that was why my sister ran away, because he’d yelled at her for something. Her running away ended his attempts to restore some order to our adolescence. So, it was my mother who made the rules. And her rule was, there were no rules. We could wear what we wanted, eat what we wanted, read what we wanted, go where we wanted. Or not! Mom didn’t care, as long as we didn’t involve her.
If we drove to Bozeman and came home at three in the morning, she did not care. If we received terrible grades, she did not care. If we skipped school but were clever enough to forge our own attendance excuses, she did not care. Even if I misbehaved at school badly enough to involve a call home, she didn’t care, unless it somehow embarrassed her, in which case I heard about it. But if we argued, and the noise from that impinged on our mother’s mental airspace, then all holy hell would rain down. We learned to argue in whispers.
My sister drove us to Bozeman often. My family was broke as usual, but we would always have a little babysitting money. We knew how to make that last.
We dragged Main, because even with the gas crisis, we were in a VW Bug and it basically ran on air. We went to Sambo’s for coffee (“Ask Me About The Tiger Club!”) because coffee cost a dime. We sat there for hours, taking up a four-top for a twenty cent tab. We went to midnight movies, even though I often fell asleep because I was a growing child. We sat at the Western Café so she could ogle her crush, who worked there as a busboy (his name was Bob, he had a sheepskin coat and a gurgling laugh, and when he pierced her ears with a needle and dental floss, she fainted).
And we went to the Student Union Building (the SUB we called it) at Montana State University. The SUB was in a basement. It held pool tables, bowling lanes, and an enormous commons that had a fantastic jukebox. It was the jukebox we loved. We only played two songs, “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder, and “Reeling in the Years” by Steely Dan. There must have been a serious sound system involved, because you could hear the two glorious guitars dueling their way from speaker to speaker in the latter.
(put in your earbuds and crank the volume for maximum enjoyment and hearing damage)
The perfect setting.
Here, finally, I finally smoked my first cigarette. The pilfered Benson & Hedges 100. It went down easy. I was instantly cool. Inhaling was just breathing, after all. I laughed, I gestured, I casually tapped off my ash. When I’d smoked a respectable amount, I stubbed it out like a pro. I felt unbelievably sophisticated.
And then, I became incredibly sick.
This was floor-tilting-vertigo, stomach-roiling, green-at-the-gills-nauseated sick. I was definitely going to throw up. Soon. I lurched up from the table and off to the bathroom, where I opened the door on a nightmarish scene of diarrhea overflow that sent me reeling back out. I staggered to the bathrooms by the bowling lanes, barely making it to a toilet to avoid creating my own nightmarish bathroom scene.
I returned to the table, pale and trembling. My sister was concerned. She got me a Coke, I think. After an hour of sipping and shaking I was fine, but it was a difficult hour. After that, my sister and I understood that I would have to earn my hood status another way. Smoking was off the table. Thankfully, my ability to drink an entire Colt 45 40-ouncer in one night did the trick.
It wasn’t smoking, but it would have to do.