I’m 79 and in Prison. Cigarettes Have Shaped My Life.

    Tobacco settles the nerves, relaxes the body, quiets the mind. A mild, pleasant high. I’m not making any scientific or medical claims here—I’ll leave that to others—simply stating the truth as experienced by myself and my tobacco-loving family.

    Smoking leads to almost 500,000 early deaths in the United States every year. Can’t deny it has a wide appeal.

    My grandmother, born in 1899, died in 1977 from breast cancer with a pack of her beloved Lucky Strikes at her bedside. They reminded her of her Rosie the Riveter days, working in the aircraft industry in WWII. For her, and for many women entering the workforce, cigarettes symbolized equality. No longer was their smoking relegated to kitchens and backyards. And just look at all we have accomplished since then, she would conclude with a theatrical lighting of a Lucky.  

    When my father was an Army combat engineer in Korea, a cupped Kent cigarette kept his fingers warm enough to safely disarm the mined bridges. Another as a reward to look forward to, after not dying once again. He wasn’t looking forward to resuming a life of sharecropping after his draftee stint was up. He wasn’t even looking forward to the payday at the end of the month. He was living one hour at a time, looking forward to his next Kent. To my father, lighting a cigarette was always a reaffirming of life. 

    I started smoking when I was 9. I took to it by osmosis. The people around me smoked, so I smoked. That’s how it tends to work.

    My mother, adjusting hems to fit a growing family, would use a lit Benson & Hedges to cut her sewing thread. She smoked them continuously before, during and after pregnancy. In the 1960s, every room—homes, offices, restaurants—was filled with that dim blue haze. All my Tennessee childhood memories are filtered through it.

    Watching my grandfather’s tobacco-stained fingertips as he repaired watches. His squinted eye huge from my point of view across the desk, through the lighted magnifing glass, a trail of white smoke rising past.

    As a child, I once disturbed a wasp nest. Screaming in pain from the welts on my head and neck, dampened tobacco was applied and instantly relieved my misery. When ticks or the occasional leech needed to be prised from my head, the hot top of a cigarette, held at just the right distance, would do the trick without burning me.

    In the deep South, a lit cigarette is gnat-repellant when working outdoors. One just doesn’t appreciate the brief respite of not having bugs in your eye until the cigarette burns up, and you again have bugs in your eye.

    I started smoking when I was 9. No one told me to start; I took to it by osmosis. The people around me smoked, so I smoked. That’s how it tends to work.

    For a while as a teen, I liked the smokeless tobacco products. Cans of dip that impressed a circle in the pocket of my jeans; the small sacks of longer leaf chewing tobacco with their aromas of maples or apples or cherries. Living in the countryside, these were as natural to me as the honey we poured over my sisters’ homemade bread.

    When I moved away and began going to clubs, dating the city girls, my preferences shifted with the tide. I chose kisses over chews, started smoking filterless cigs, liking the size and full flavor. I was a Camel man, but enjoyed the strong menthol kick of a filterless Kool King here and there.

    I would vape, if the option was available to me. Don’t see those much in prison.

    At 50 I was smoking five packs a week and jogging 35 miles a week. My knees and ankles ended my running, but my lungs are still strong. 

    I never cared to be drawn into the debates that strangers felt entitled to—when and where and for how long I was allowed to enjoy a cigarette. It’s a more violently enforced ideology in prison than in the free world. Plenty of non-smokers in here.

    At age 58, I was working maintenance in a prison elevator that had two other men in it, and I pulled out a Camel Light. The rules used to be different. I can see why they considered it rude that I didn’t ask before lighting it, but not why they didn’t consider it as rude to beat up an old man. Bolstered by anti-smoking propaganda, they decared it a public service to teach an old dog a new trick. 

    I quit after that. Cold-turkey. Water helped; not drinking it really, but I did a lot of washing my face and hands, to help the moment pass. I would vape, if the option was available to me. Don’t see those much in prison.

    I’m 79 now. And I don’t enjoy my life as much as I did when I was smoking. I miss them, the cigarettes.



    Photograph by iemlee via Pixabay

    • Phil Garner is a pseudonym for a Georgia Tech alumnus and retired mechanical engineer who decided to match a life of written reports with writing on topics he actually cares about. He’s serving a life sentence in Georgia.

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