Coffin Nails

Seeing Casablanca, I imagine, led him to the Camels.

I was born on a Sunday evening in May 1953, so I probably first tasted cigarette smoke, first inhaled it, the following Wednesday. If my dad smoked as he drove my mom and me home for the first time (as I think likely — he would have been nervous and jubilant), the car windows would have been rolled down. Maybe my father drove with his arm out the window, the butt suspended from his fingers, the car’s motion whisking his freighted exhalations out into the street. When we got to the basement apartment on the northwest side of Chicago, he would have smoked more; blue-gray clouds would have engulfed me in my crib like benediction incense.

My father smoked two to three packs a day then, unfiltered Camels. I find images of the custard yellow containers among my earliest memories. I see the camel, but also the pyramids, the palm trees, the minarets. Smoking was a ticket to a virile, exotic place.

They bore no warnings of death or disease, those early Camel packs of my father’s, and I believe that when he smoked his first cigarette in 1942, he saw nothing self-destructive in his action. Casablanca came out that year, and Humphrey Bogart’s toughness would have impressed my father at 12. Seeing Casablanca, I imagine, led him to the Camels.

He must have sneaked them all through his years at Von Steuben High School, and when he learned that the Illinois Institute of Technology had accepted him to study electrical engineering, I imagine that he must have gone for a walk and a celebratory smoke. In my mind’s eye, I see him later that year, inhaling in despair and outrage after he’d opened the telegram from the Secretary of the Navy telling him he was being drafted into the Korean War. A mental template of my father and his cigarettes takes me into other private realms. I imagine him tasting excitement along with the nicotine the night he met my mother at the uso in San Diego. He looked like a movie star that night, with coal black hair, dark brows, hazel eyes, a strong jaw, and a body far more muscular than Bogart’s. He was an innocent, and my mother’s purity and beauty dazzled him, as his dazzled her. When he got out of the Navy, they married. I’m sure he smoked his way across the country as they drove to their new life in Chicago.

A clerical error got him into the exclusive electrician’s union, and he smoked — pack upon pack — as he learned the trade. By the time I reached first grade, he’d come to hate the addictive hold of his cigarettes. He called them cancer sticks by then. But he did so with an insouciance that suggested he thought his lungs were immune.

Did he suspect he might be hurting my mother or my brothers and sister and me with the smoke in which he nightly bathed us? I know how much he loved us — more than God or food or booze or television (all of which he loved a lot). Next to my mother, I thought he loved me most. When I got bronchitis four, five, six times a year, when I coughed until it sounded like I was trying to expel my lungs from my body, I think he didn’t see a connection between my illness and his smoke.

It corrupted more than just my lungs. When I think back to being 12, I’m sitting at the kitchen table, talking to my father as he smokes and drinks his after-dinner coffee. He’d switched to Lucky Strikes by then. I see the red bull’s-eye on the front of the pack, the letters “L.S./M.F.T” on the bottom. Lucky Strike means fine tobacco. I see the elegant exhaust of the burning paper and shredded leaves curling up around his callused, nicotine-stained forefinger. I hear his voice — engaged, passionate. I argue with him about capital punishment. He’s pro. At 12, I’m con. He preaches to me about the evils of deficit spending and unionism. His intensity burns like the tip of his cigarette.

Unlike him, I knew better the first time I smoked, at 16. I told myself I only wanted to find out what smoking felt like. Then I told myself I only wanted to experience, briefly, the craving for a cigarette. Once I did, of course, it took me years to stop. Even then, I bummed cigarettes, broke down and bought packs. I’d been living in San Diego for more than a decade when my father learned he had lung cancer. He seemed shocked by this. Toward the end, when he was coughing more violently than the worst bronchitis makes anyone cough, he still seemed dumbfounded, as well as morose.

He died 14 years ago. That’s when I stopped smoking for good. Over time, I so lost touch with the smoker’s world that when I recently went out to buy a pack of cigarettes, I was confused to discover grocery stores no longer keep them next to each cashier. The single aisle harboring them at my local Albertsons offered no Lucky Strikes. It had Camels, but the price of a pack was an incredible $3.83.

When I opened it, the dark sweet fragrance overwhelmed me. It smelled as good as anything I’ve ever smelled — as fraught with pleasure as chocolate, more inviting than fresh-baked bread. My lungs, my solar plexis, hungered for more. I had thought to light one up and inhale my father. But I knew I would taste death and want it, and I was afraid.

This article is part of the Father's Day issue. To read additional articles from this issue, click here.

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