Once upon a time, I tried cigarettes. Almost everyone tries them at some point in time, right? Even the good kids try’em, and I wasn’t one of the “good” kids. The thing is, we do so despite the fact that we know that our lungs will fill with tar and we will eventually speak through one of those awful tubes that make us sound like robots, and then get cancer and die a horrible death (this is exactly what happened to my Grandpa Gil AND my Grandpa Jesse). It’s almost like a right of passage – despite the reality of smoking, you must take up a little bundle of crushed leaves, light it on fire, and breath it in a few times before you can officially become an adult. It is pure foolishness, and yet it’s deeply embedded in the culture.
Despite the legacy of my family, I still had to try smoking. I can’t say for sure why I started, but I suspect it was because a girl I liked at the time was smoking, proving just how stupid young love is. “Oh, I think you’re kind of foxy, so I’ll engage in an activity that will eventually kill me so I can get your attention.” Seems legit, right? I mean, I should given up hope simply because I use words like “foxy” to describe the ladies, but that’s a whole other story…
My smoking story began at Novi Bowl, and ended in my dad’s office at home. The problem I had was my age – no one was going to sell cigarettes to a 15 year old, even if I was furrier than most 40 year-olds. No amount of fur could hide my youthful face. However, back in the 90’s, cigarette vending machines could still be found in all the common dens of sin. I’m talking old school vending machines – the ones where you put in the coins and pulled the knob and out came the cigarettes. The machine looked just like this:
Despite the fact that I was the grandson of multiple smokers, I had no idea of what type of cigarette to buy. My Grandpa smoked Winstons, but the machine didn’t have any. I didn’t know what the cool kids smoked, but I had seen that Joe Camel fella around, so I decided to pull the knob for a pack of Camels. Mission accomplished – I had my first pack of cigarettes. As it turned out, I had chosen Camel Unfiltered. For those of you that do not have a deep knowledge of cigarettes, smoking a Camel unfiltered can be likened unto sucking on the tailpipe of a Ford Mustang. I had no idea what I had purchased.
Now, I can honestly say that this was a momentous occasion in the life of D, as it was direct rebellion in the face of my parents. Oh, I had often been in trouble throughout the years, but I usually skirted around the edges of trouble; I rarely dove right in. But armed with my first pack, I was defying Keith and Darlene. I was showing them who was boss. And, most importantly, I was gonna impress some fine lookin’ honeys at NHS.
I smoked my Camels – and nearly perished (seriously, I still remember questioning whether or not I would survive the experience each time I lit up). Suddenly, I felt a compelling urge to go bowling again. Another trip to the bowling alley, another batch of ciggies (Marlboros this time – I wanted to be a cowboy). I came home and locked them away in a little wooden box I had in my bedroom, hid the key, and I went about my business.
Later that evening, my dad called me into his office. This was not the norm for a Tuesday night. I walked in, and there he was sitting at his desk… and my mom was sitting at the other chair in front of his desk. This was definitely not normal! Somehow, I didn’t sense what was coming – the naiveté of a boy who thinks he’s a man.
My dad started out, “Derek, I feel like we’ve always had a good relationship, and that we’ve always been close as a family. Lately, though, I feel like you’ve been drifting apart from us a little bit. We’re not close anymore. Is there a reason for that?”
“Uh, not really. Not sure what you mean.”
“Well, like I said, we feel like you’ve been drifting away, but we’ve been hoping that it was just a phase. But I’ll tell you, we were very surprised when your sister gave us these.” He reaches into a drawer and pulls out my Marlboros!
WHAT!!! MY SISTER GAVE HIM…WHAT!!!
At this point, my mom starts shuddering with sobs in the other seat. I felt as if I had murdered someone, and my parents were saying good-bye before I started my time in the penitentiary. I didn’t know where to look, I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t know what to do to my sister (9 years old at the time), who had broken into my room, found my key, and unlocked my precious box of secrets.
“So, can you tell us why you have been smoking?”
I’m pretty sure I mustered up a story about trying to be cool, which caused my dad to mock me. My mom went on with her tears of protest. Besides my anger at my sister, I don’t think I had ever felt so low.
“Well, one thing is for sure – you are not going to talk to your sister about this. It took a lot of courage for her to do this – more courage than you have shown recently – and you are not going to punish her for doing the right thing.”
Another new record in feeling low…
The meeting continued. Questions were asked (Do you want to die like your Grandpa Jesse?). Prayers were said. Cigarettes were destroyed. Punishments were doled out. I emerged from the office like I had spent several hours in a sauna… soaked in sweat, never quite the same.
I stared at the ceiling in my room for several hours, thinking ill thoughts about the world in general and my sister in great detail. But as I considered the wisdom of my father and the tears of my mother, I came to the conclusion that they were probably right. I barely remembered my Grandpa Jesse, but I do remember images of him with an oxygen mask on his face, and also in a casket. I also remembered one of the few times I saw my dad cry, when his mom had a spot on her lung from second hand smoke. I knew my other two grandparents were on that road too (which became all too real when Grandpa Gil died a few years ago). So my vile, sneaky, unbelievable sister probably spared my life that day, even if it humiliated me and kept me from winning the girl I had my eye on…
To Dawn, let me say: Thanks for always being a hero, you jerk!