The Joys and Dangers of Childhood Smoking

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Smoking did not contribute to my leukemia. Although smoking was more widely accepted when I was a kid, I didn’t live in second-hand smoke, nor did I myself smoke an inordinate amount growing up. Alright, I did smoke cigars at Boy Scout camp whe...

Smoking did not contribute to my leukemia. Although smoking was more widely accepted when I was a kid, I didn’t live in second-hand smoke, nor did I myself smoke an inordinate amount growing up. Alright, I did smoke cigars at Boy Scout camp when I was around twelve and continued with cigarettes (Newports were my choice) sporadically until I was in my early thirties. But I was never serious about it; I smoked in the army out of boredom and, for a short time after becoming a father, I smoked a pipe because I thought it made me look mature and father-like. In my late thirties I took up distance running, and that pretty much ended my tobacco use. (One exception: I smoked a celebratory cigar with my son-in-law after his first child--my first granddaughter--was born. I make no apologies for that).

During my pipe-puffing phase, our second daughter arrived. It seemed like she started walking after three weeks, and being able to amble around the house turned her into a little pain in the neck. She was drawn to the forbidden as if she had a sixth sense for it, and we had little success in squelching her tendency to find trouble.

Once, when she was about eighteen months old, I was sitting in the living room with my visiting father watching a baseball game on TV. I was smoking my pipe and relaxing on my favorite rocking chair when she entered the room. She immediately spied the smoke-belching pipe and was drawn to it like a moth to flame. Climbing up the side of the chair, holding on with one hand and reaching for the pipe with other, she was not going to be dissuaded by words. This was a “teachable moment” that I would have been remiss in ignoring. I placed the pipe in her mouth and waited for the contorted face and uncontrollable hacking to start, which would, once and for all time, cure her of this nasty habit.

Instead, she took a deep drag on the pipe, held the smoke for a moment, and then released two perfect plumes through her nostrils. No red face or coughing fit—except from my dad, who laughed so hard that he looked like he had inhaled for the first time. And yes, I do remember getting a mild lecture from my anti-smoking wife, although I think even she saw the humor in the unexpected results from my “lesson.”

 

My brother first smoked when he was three. It happened one summer when my mother left the house to shop for groceries and gave me the responsibility of keeping an eye on him. Both my eyes were needed for the basket as I shot hoops at the garage, and he wandered into the house without me knowing. While in there, he rolled up some toilet paper to look like a cigarette and put a match to it. Pooof! Two burned cheeks and one eleven-year-old who would have some explaining to do.

Mom was easy. I just told her the truth--I was an idiot and failed to do what she asked. She agreed, but now the hard part…how to tell Pop without unleashing a tornado on the family.

Hornet stings was my bright idea. They often built nests in the open piping of our swing set, and they were foul-tempered little jerks if you disturbed them. So, the blame was shifted from me to them. Pop bought it, and I was saved from a tongue-lashing and six days of the silent treatment.

The kid healed quickly without any lasting scars, but I used his foray into toilet tissue smoking against him every time he didn’t do what I expected of him. “How about I tell Pop what really happened to your face?” That worked until he was old enough not to care anymore, at which point I changed my approach and teased him with “Please don’t smoke the Charmin!” I had to end that fun after I realized he had gotten taller and broader than I. He was a mild-mannered kid, but even I knew better than to push his limits.

My own experience with smoking started when I was four or five. As I’ve written before, I lived at my grandfather’s store, and in the summer some of the old retired men from the area gathered on the store’s front porch, drinking sodas and reliving their glory days or gossiping. I can’t say that I understood them—they all spoke Pennsylvania German when they were together—but I enjoyed being around them for the laughter and general camaraderie and because they often slipped me candy, spoiling my supper and adding cavities to my baby teeth. They were affectionately known as The Loafers.

One of The Loafers was a seventy-something retiree named Ed. He lived with his daughter about a half mile from the store, and occasionally he would take me along for an afternoon visit. My mom would pack a small suitcase with extra clothing (in case I got really dirty, I suppose), and off we’d go. On one such visit we arrived with Ed carrying my suitcase.

“Why are you carrying that?” his daughter asked with a slight smile. “I think he’s big enough to carry it himself.”

“That may be,” the old man replied. ”But he drags it in the dirt and stirs up my asthma.” You can see why I liked Ed.

I liked Ed’s daughter, too; she was a good cook and she was always nice to me. But I spent most of my time there playing on an old tricycle that served as a dump truck. I brought loads of coal from the mine (an outdoor fireplace) to the breaker at the back porch. I would haul coal, just like my dad did, until I was too tired or bored to continue.

At that point I would join Ed on the side porch. Ed would pull out two fishing rods, and we would pretend that the porch was a dock and we were fishing from it. He rolled his own cigarettes and, when he knew his daughter was busy elsewhere, he would pull out a cigarette paper and hand it to me so I could roll one, too—without tobacco, of course. There we would sit, side by side in our Adirondack chairs—an old man and his five-year-old buddy—whiling away a summer afternoon fishing and “smoking” contentedly.

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