Chapter 10: On Smoking-or Bette vs Bogie

I will confess, growing up, every time my parents said “don’t”, I “did”.

Smoking was one of the key examples.

I know this is totally politically incorrect, but I have had a love /hate relationship with smoking ever since I can remember…

As a teenager, my parent absolutely forbade it.   Therefore, I had to do it.

I grew up in Tabacco Country.  My hometown was known as “the world’s best tobacco market”.  Every one smoked.  Except my parents.  They were the exceptions to the rule.

Daddy did smoke a pipe as he forbade cigarettes.  Consistency was not important…

My Aunt Goldie, who was always my favorite adult, smoked with gusto.

Movie stars smoked. Audrey Hepburn had to to stay so thin….Clark Gable….The unforgettable Bette Davis.  Katharine Hepburn.  And, of couse, Bogie.  Mr Humphrey Bogart.  With a name like “Humphrey” you had to smoke to be cool.

Then, I went to college at Washington and Lee University.  All our fraternity parties, at least during “Rush”, featured trays of cigarettes out for everyone to help themselves.

I smoked.  All my friends smoked.  It was our life.  We lived for cigarettes.

But it was complicated.  You had to smoke right.  Thank God, my father at least tried to teach me the way of the world when I was 16 or so….

I’ll never forget one of the first time I stumbled home one evening, while I was in High School, after a few drinks, and my Father caught me.

He had been sitting in the den smoking his pipe and drinking bourbon himself for a few hours.  Situation Normal.

He wasn’t the least bit concerned with the drinking, but he was worried about the smoking.   And he, as always, wanted to make sure I was doing things right.

He said to me:  “I can tell you’ve been smoking.  I can smell it.  If you are going to do it, don’t sneak around.  If I can smell it, she can.  Your Mother will just think you’ve been smoking pot, instead of cigarettes and freak out and think you are going to join the Manson Family. Go ahead and smoke.  That’s why we have ashtrays in this house.”

So I lit up.  And then he freaked out.  He said: “My god, you smoke like Bette Davis.  Give me those goddamn cigarettes and let me teach you how to smoke like a man.  If you are going to smoke, smoke like Bogie”.

That was the night my Father tried to teach me to smoke like a “man”.

It didn’t take…

A few years later, I was at my desk for my work-study job at W&L in the News Office, where we all smoked like chimneys while we drank pots of coffee and tried to be sophisticated.

One of my favorite professors came in…a couple of years later, when we were social friends, he said:  “I knew you were Gay the first time I saw you in the News Office.  You were sitting at your desk and you smoked just like Bette Davis.  I practically heard the theme music from “Now, Voyager”.

Daddy’s lessons apparently didn’t take.

God, we were obsessed with cigs in college.  I can remember walking all the way over to the Law School cigarette machine, in 15 degree weather in February at 3:00 am with my friend Ralph because we were out of cigs and had to have some.  This was after we had searched all our coats first to try to find at least one pack, or even one cigarette, we might have missed…We were obsessed.

I remember driving to Richmond once to try herbal cigarettes when we first heard of them.  We thought they might be better for us.  A way to smoke with safety.  They didn’t take…

When Steve and I met, I still smoked and he didn’t try to change me.  I think that’s one of the things that made us work…He let me be me, no matter how different I was from him.

We got together.  Then I quit on my own.  For 10 years or so….with exceptions for parties- I didn’t smoke at all.

I will say, I don’t think I’ll ever separate cigs from cocktails.  It’s genetic or it’s chemical.  I’ll probably always cheat if alcohol is involved…

But, I did really well for many years.

Then last year, I was diagnosed with Melanoma.  On my face.  And I freaked out.

After trying everything else to take small spots out, my dermatologist finally said I had to have radical surgery.  I left her office and stopped at the first Quick Mart I came to and bought a pack of cigs.

I was kind of thinking, “what the hell?  I have cancer, so what’s to lose?”

They ended up taking out a piece of the right side of my face the size of a golf ball.  I had a “Y” shaped incision about 4 or 5 inches long with big black stitches down the right side of my face.  My right eye was black and swollen shut for over a week.  I looked like hell.

I looked like a cross between Frankenstein and Joan Rivers after a bad lift.

I also had a very good plastic surgeon.  If I had known he was so good, earlier,  I would have gotten him to do a couple of other things while he was at it.  I could now have the eyes of a 25 year old.  But then, I just wanted to be sure I could face the public.

I was raised to be presentational and that there was no worse sin than being unattractive.  I have never been so scared in my life.  Not of cancer, but of how I would look….

Thankfully, I healed beautifully…

But I still smoked once I healed.  I couldn’t stop yet…And I smoked like Bette Davis, I’m sure.

My next excuse was my Mother’s decline.  As soon as my face healed, her downward journey started.  And I had to spend time with my sister…who truly smokes like a chimney…

I know I need to quit again, but…

Smoking is an indecent obessesion.  It’s so seductive.  It’s so comforting.  It’s so Southern.  It’s so Virginian.  It’s so old Hollywood.

It’s also so socially wrong now, it pisses me off.  I’m back to where I started.  It’s politically incorrect and everyone is against it, so I feel this need to rebel.

Even though I take Yoga and go to the gym several times a week.  At least I don’t smoke on yoga or gym days…

It’s so hard to give up the forbidden fruit altogether…

And it’s so hard to quit something that’s been such a good friend for so long…

I always said, as long as you smoke, there is always something to look forward to– that next cigarette.

But I know I have to say goodbye…

I’ve probably pissed off more people saying all these nice things about smoking and shocked more of them than when I came out as Gay.

It’s much less socially acceptable in our crowd…

Anyway. I’ve used up all my excuses…

It’s just a question of “when”….

My Father’s lesson’s obviously didn’t take….

Bette and Bogie are dead

And I realize I finally need to quit for me.  Not for anyone else.  Not because it’s socially unacceptable.  Not because it upsets some of our friends. But for me….

I’m too much of a rebel to quit for any other reason.

I’ll just have go find the right time and place.  To let go of my old friend…

I’m pretty good at that….

I’ve done it many times….

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8 Responses to Chapter 10: On Smoking-or Bette vs Bogie

  1. Linda says:

    Me too……it’s gotten worse since Larry died and I’m not working, so no reason to ever put them down. They’re my crutch and are getting me through these days of so many changes, I cringe when anything happens. Hang in there babe!

  2. Van says:

    Another wonderful entry! I love reading your blog.

  3. Carolyn Thomason says:

    Well said Scott. As a true Southern Gentleman, you were always the first to offer a cig to a lady or your friends and you would always light the cigarette for the lady. It was a social thing for us… what did we do on the weekends? We sat around and talked, solved the problems of the world, drank some bourbon, smoked our cigs and played our records. We were good kids and I will cherish all of those times with you.

  4. gail says:

    My mother told me that my father had just died from lung cancer. I immediately threw my cigarettes away. The next day I told my mother how I had so ceremoniously ditched the habit and she laughed. Her words: “Your father loved to smoke and my only regret is that he didn’t get to at least enjoy a good cigar while he was in the hospital. If I liked to smoke, I would set my alarm clock and get up early just to smoke.” It may be wrong, but my family WAS tobacco. That is what we did and who we were.

    And, yes, Scott, we used to smoke entirely too many cigarettes. Ah, those were the days!

  5. Linda Dunn says:

    Good luck! (I, too, am a cigarette lover, though I’ve quit for a year this time, knock wood). A word of advice: don’t start watching “Mad Men.”

  6. Betsy Brown says:

    OMG, Scott, once again, you hit the mark! If I could write as well as you do, I could tell practically the same story, except that 18 months was the longest I ever quit smoking.
    I didn’t start smoking so much as part of teenage rebellion, as to be “cool”. Not only did smoking appear sophisticated, a la my favorite movie stars, but also I wanted to be able to blow perfect smoke rings like my Daddy did.
    I never did accomplish that (my smoke rings were always wobbly, imperfect or non-existent, and I soon quit trying, with some exceptions over the years), but I was certainly hooked. Of course, way back in the 50s, not only was smoking acceptable, but some of the ads even implied it was healthy and good for you! So I smoked for a good 30 years before I even attempted to quit.
    My easiest attempt was quitting cold turkey when I stayed on Skye the first time, for 2 1/2 months, but then I came home, and the first time I was at the theatre and others were smoking non-stop , I started “sneaking” one cigarette each day, then more, then. . .pack a day again.
    Even when I wasn’t smoking, I always said that if they told me I was dying, the first thing I’ d do would be to buy a pack of cigarettes. Now, I’ve more or less concluded that I’ll smoke until I die. I like it, I depend on it, and I’m aggravated that it’s so politically incorrect now. When/IF I do try to stop again, it will be for ME and no one else. Well, maybe a bit for my youngest grandson, who has lectured me for years about smoking, and now, at 15, has started smoking himself. I tell him, as I always told my children (2 smoke, one doesn’t), “had I known then what I know now, I would never have started, so you’re a fool if you begin to smoke now”. Little good that does.
    Just a long-winded way of saying I appreciate your story.

  7. brian says:

    Scott, I concur with a vengence! having fell from a tree festooned with liquor bottles and beer cans I consider it a dubious blessing that all I reealy miss from my mis-spent youth is a pack of “Salem Lights” 100’s (Glamour Length) and the occaisonal “well spent night” as Miss Raitt would say.

  8. I miss smoking, too. I wasn’t much more than a social smoker from high school through college — if I wasn’t around smokers, I had no desire to smoke — nicotine, apparently didn’t hook me. But I love lighting up in college with a drink. It was always a good prop, as well.

    Raul was a smoker until about 11 years ago.

    Still, we both miss that great moment — usually in the evening — when you take a smoke break. You get a cup of coffee or a drink, you go out to the porch or find a cafe or hotel bar…and just enjoy it, ah, that little breath of smoke that connects you to every smoker in the world.

    Great entry. I’m sorry to hear about what you went through with melanoma, glad it was caught and glad you had a great plastic surgeon, though.

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