Eating Cigarettes – Child Abuse or a Gift of Life?


Yes People, the 60's were really like this

Yes People, the 60’s were really like this

In a number of previous stories like Willows do not Always Weep (link) and The Cats (link), I did a little dad-bashing.  My dad does deserve some credit, however.  I am not a cigarette smoker and I owe it all to dear old dad.  True, I did imbibe a  bit on that feistier leaf for a spell (link) but I never acquired a taste for, nor have a desire to try tobacco.

I am (too) quickly approaching the 60th year of life on this fragile planet.  Like you I suspect, I have seen in my time a number of relatives suffer from and/or die from cancer.  All of them were smokers.  Both my dad and my step father were smokers for multiple decades and both of them died of cancer in their late fifties to early sixties.  My Aunt, Dad’s sister, same thing; she was a three packer. 

Here in the US, smoking was far more common in those days versus today.  Have you seen the TV show, Mad Men?  Yes, it was like that.  People everywhere smoked and lots of kids, trying to act all grown up like their parents, were heavy smokers.  Even my mom who was not a regular smoker, could be seen puffing a cig on rare occasion, (usually when friends were over for cards and our dining room looked like a smoke filled barroom).

In Surviving the Hubbards, I introduced you to Doug.  If you’re new to the site, the story is worth visiting so I offer up the link here.  Only two things in life were precious to Doug; gasoline and cigarettes.  Gasoline was precious because it fueled the lawn mower.  The lawn mower was important because it allowed Doug to mow grass for neighborhood residents, therefore earning money for, you guessed it – cigarettes.  If I had to guess, I am thinking Doug was a 1.5 to 2 packer per day by the age of 10 (yes, I said ten!).

One day, I guess Doug was feeling a little generous because he offered up puffs of his cigarettes to me and my friend Timmy.  We were in Doug’s garage, a one and a half car rickety wooden structure painted red, faded from many years of sun and weather.  I guess Tim and I were both agreeing to the offer because we were curious and wanted to see what all the fuss was about by Doug and the adults.

So precious

So precious

Doug popped out three cigarettes; one for each of us.  Doug carried a lighter so he flipped it open and showed us how to light our cigarettes.  He then showed us how to hold the cigarette.  Evidently there was a proper and an improper way to hold it because he taught us to hold the cigarette between our index and middle fingers.  Another acceptable method was to use the index finger and the thumb, like gangsters do, (Doug was well versed in the art of smoking).  Next then came the puffing.  He demonstrated by inhaling a big “drag” and then blowing it out.  I tried that but when I did it, he informed me that I was doing it wrong – “you’re supposed to breathe it into your lungs, not just suck in the smoke inside your mouth”.

And so I breathed in the smoke…..and then I coughed like a fiend.  Why the heck did people like to do this?  My friend Timmy was coughing, just like me. Doug was laughing, telling us that we’d get the hang of it.  The next trick Doug taught us then was the art of blowing a smoke ring.  He demonstrated by sucking in some smoke, making a circle of his lips and then quickly compressing his cheeks in an outward fashion, careful to not use the lungs to blow out the smoke, but to just let the pressure of the cheeks force the smoke out.  If done correctly, the smoke would be forced against the walls of the cheeks and then come out of your mouth in the shape of a circle.  Ok, so I liked that part and in nothing flat, we three were all filling up the rickety garage with the best damn kid smoke rings in all of Hamiltucky.

Later that night, my dad confronted me.  I don’t recall today how he found out that I had been smoking that day, but I think one of my little brothers told on me.  These specific details are elusive today.  Perhaps he simply smelled the smoke on my clothing, but I have a vague recollection that my brother Steve was present at the scene of the crime and witnessed the event.  In any regard, Dad was onto it.

You might recall from this story that my Dad preached to us that the worst kid crimes of all time were lying and stealing.  All other commandments paled in comparison and God help you if you did both.  My dad was confronting me – “did you smoke a cigarette today?”  There was no guesswork in his tone, I knew that this was a rhetorical question and that I was in trouble.  We kids have a false hope that by coming clean, by admitting our crime, somehow that act of honesty will outshine whatever crime we have perpetrated.  There’s a brief moment, maybe only 10 seconds, where we think to ourselves:

 if I tell him the truth, he will reward our honesty and bravery.

We kids were such suckers to this line of thinking.  We fell for it every time and it never worked.  Parents were once kids themselves and unfortunately for us kids, they remember these thoughts from their own childhood and instead of showing us a little compassion, they even use it against us – “Don’t lie to me.  The punishment will be easier on you if you tell the truth the first time”.  We fell for that one every single time, every single time!

So when Dad asked me if I had smoked that day, I bravely, (stupidly), admitted my guilt.  And now, the punishment.  What will it be this time?  The belt?  The switch?  A paddle?  Some new form of corporal punishment not yet ever introduced to me?  Dad debated with himself.  At first, he suggested that I was going to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in front of him.  When he said this, I was thinking to myself, – hmm, not too bad, I can fake it and not breathe in the smoke.
But then, much like the look of grimace that appeared on The Grinch’s face when an evil idea popped into his Grinchy head, my Dad had the solution.  I was to eat cigarettes!  A whole pack of cigarettes would be expensive and maybe a whole pack might make me too sick.  But three cigarettes, that should be the right amount of nasty tobacco taste to send home the dad-message.

And so, Dad got out a little plate and sat it down in front of me at the table.  I sat in the chair and watched him peel the paper off of three cigarettes, making a small pile of tobacco on the plate.  Bon Appetite! 

Just like when I would get switched and wanted to know how many switching sides I would get, I always needed to understand the boundaries and rules.  I asked if I had to swallow the cigarettes or if I just had to chew them up.  “Eat them, you have to swallow”.  I picked up a small wad, put it in my mouth, chewed and swallowed (YUK!).  It was customary to cry all throughout the punishments.  I thought my dad expected it or perhaps I thought it would make him feel mercy for me.  It rarely worked, but after he was convinced I had swallowed enough punishment, I was allowed to spit out the last bite on my plate.

“The next time I hear of you smoking, you will have to eat an entire pack of cigarettes.  Do you hear me?” 

Yes

“Did you like that, do you want to eat some more?”

(Sniveling)….No.

Ok, you can go back outside. 

I don’t remember if my friend Timmy was punished.  Likely he was, but I doubt he had to eat tobacco.  Maybe he got spanked.  In kid hindsight, the punishment we got was always worse than the alternatives, so I’m sure that at the time I considered this the worst form of punishment for this particular crime.

Things are very different today.  Parents can’t get away with many forms of punishment for fear of being charged with ‘child abuse’.  I can tell you one thing.  I never smoked another cigarette and I never had a desire to either!  I might die tomorrow, but it won’t be from cancer as a result of cigarette smoking.

Was it child abuse or was it a gift of life?

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