Editor's Note: The American Cancer Society is marking the 36th Great American Smokeout on Nov. 17 by encouraging smokers to use the date to make a plan to quit, or to plan in advance and quit smoking that day.
Those nine graphic cigarette warning labels showing cancerous lesions and other impacts of smoking remind me of my smoking days when I would wake up coughing and hacking.
I quit cold turkey back in the mid-'60s. As I watch my brother-in-law struggle with his smoking addiction, I am reminded of my own experiences with the "demon weed.”
I remember that first cigarette. I was just 7. One of my best buddies and neighbor, 10-year-old Jerry McHugh, had taken a pack of Camels from his father’s carton. He will never miss it, said Jerry, whose dad, Bill, was a four-pack-a-day smoker. His mom, Hilda, smoked three packs of Lucky Strikes each day.
Jerry and I went to my attic and lit up. I tentatively took a drag of a Camel, sucked in the smoke, as Jerry instructed, but gagged violently. Still coughing and trying to catch my breath, I raced down the steps toward the second-floor bathroom to get some water.
My mother must have sensed something was wrong, because she came to investigate. Smelling the smoke coming from the attic and seeing my greenish complexion and watery eyes, she instantly knew what was going on.
A closet-smoker herself – she never lit up when company was present or in public – Mom administered a stern lecture on the evils of smoking and how it could stunt my growth. She backed up her admonitions with a vigorous thrashing.
I couldn’t understand why my heroes, baseball stars Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, were pictured in magazine ads smiling and telling me how wonderful Camel cigarettes were. I mean "Joltin' Joe” and "the Thumper” wouldn’t lie, would they?
"I have long been a Camel smoker, and Camel never interferes with my nerves,” DiMaggio says in one of the ads. Now the ad turns to the reader: How are YOUR nerves? Do you feel tired? Irritable? Ready to blow up any minute because of raw nerves? Try to get enough sleep. Eat sensibly. And get a fresh slant on things by smoking Camels.”
I didn’t pick up my next cigarette until I was 14, when I made the mistake of inhaling a Camel. I threw up on the sidewalk in front of Nick’s place, our favorite hangout in my hometown of Summit Hill, Carbon County. To make matters worse, it was in full view of a half-dozen of my best friends and a dozen or so classmates and townspeople who were standing on the steps at Nick’s or passing by.
Their laughs and verbal jeers made me all the more determined to learn how to handle the DiMag’s smoke – a real man’s cigarette.
I smoked only occasionally between ninth grade and my junior year, when I went out for football, then didn’t smoke again until after football season of my senior year when I took up the habit in earnest and became a pack-and-a-half-a-day smoker.
About five years later, in 1962, I became concerned about the health consequences of smoking. Reader’s Digest was one of the first publications to hammer away month after month about the dangers of smoking.
I tried every way known to humankind to quit. I tried the gradual approach – 20 cigarettes, 19 the next day, 18, 17 and so on. When I’d get to about four or five, I’d get a nicotine fit and was so irritable that I would throw up my hands in disgust, light up, inhale deeply and coo warmly - "aaahhhh.” I would not only have walked a mile for a Camel, I would have walked five, 10 or whatever it took to get one.
I once quit for more than a year only to start up again on the pretext of being stressed out because of the imminent birth of our second son, Mike.
Finally, a month later, 42 days after Mike was born, on Jan. 31, 1966, at 9:57 p.m., as I exited a smoke-filled political strategy meeting that I was covering as a reporter, I threw the half-pack of Camels into the garbage and have not touched a cigarette in the intervening 45 years.