Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Cigarettes, Pipes, and Smoke

It was legal in 1959 to burn leaves. My father would rake the leaves from the lawn to the curb in a series of small piles and then set them on fire. He'd tend them for an hour or so till they were ash. In 2001, 2002 when I was in Wenonah leaves were collected by huge machines. Back then their smoke filled the sky with a rich, pungent odor. Fall was a time of burning.
While my father burned our leaves he'd smoke a cigarette. Usually then it was a Kent. He'd change brands over the years but only a grown up could tell the difference. it was all cigarette smoke and it filled the air as much if not more than the burning leaves.
Everyone smoked. My father, my mother, my Aunt Gersh, my grandmother Wiler, my grandfathers, my uncles, my friends parents. Ashtrays were everywhere and smoke was everywhere. While it was true people knew in their hearts it could kill them they still took long drags of their favorite brands.
Pall Mall, Chesterfield, Winston, Kent, Camel. TV was filled with ads for cigarettes, movies and tv were rich with their tracings in the dark. Cigarettes were the transition from youth to adulthood.
My grandfathers both died from emphysema. Part of their disease began when they were young in the mines but really it was cigarettes that killed them. But it was tobacco that gave them succor and cool and calm.
In Second Grade Chris DeHart and Terry Fleming and Gary Condell and my brother and I went down to the dump at the end of Cherry Street to smoke cigarettes Chris had stolen from his mother. We didn't do well and my brother Mick ratted us out and that was my last cigarette save a puff or two holding someone else's cigarette year later.
My father periodically would try pipes. His paraphenalia would litter the end table by his spot on the couch and the smell of pipe tobacco would fill the house. The smell of old pipes and the oil of old tobacco were everywhere. Since I was asthmatic this was not an easy row to hoe. Since I was a strange little boy with his own angers and fears it was even harder. Still, my father was cool with his Kent in his mouth. My mother and her friends were beautiful at parties with their heads tilted back, exhaling rich tobacco in the night.
Aunt Gersh tried to stop for many years. When she finally succeeded in the late sixties she always told us of her dreams of smoking.
Dreams like movies.
Dreams like fantasies.
Dreams with piles of leaves smoldering on Lincoln Ave with boys running up and down the sidewalks laughing. Dreams with parents at parties laughing. The wild sound an adult woman makes when she's a little drunk. Crazy. Me and Mick upstairs in bed listening intently to a world we only were privy to the next morning when we'd walk among the half empty glasses of cocktails and overflowing ashtrays. The cherries still sweet and rich with whiskey.
The ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts and an adult world we didn't, couldn't understand.
Later we'd stand by our father as he raked the leaves into the fire. No talking. Just the smoke from the leaves and his Kent filling the air.
Think of a room filled with women in dresses and men in dress pants and LaCoste shirts. Think of crewcuts and tans and one piece bathing suits and whiskey.
This was one of the scariest, most beautiful parts of my youth. Breath deep. When you pass a girl smoking a cigarette on the street as she exhales, breath deep. It's memory you're inhaling.


Karen Hildebrand said...

I really like these final lines: Breathe deep. When you pass a girl smoking a cigarette on the street as she exhales, breathe deep. It's memory you're inhaling.

BLT said...

That was the way it was. The smoke from the leaves was the smell of fall. The ashes were never picked up that I ever saw - they just blew away.

Peter Trost stole some of his mother's cigarettes and shared them with me in first grade. I never wanted to smoke after that. That was when he lived next to Jamie Dipper's house on West Mantua - before they built their new house up by Hammel's in the woods at the end of North Jackson.

Perhaps you want to consider mentioning the mosquito control trucks spraying pesticide in the evening. Did you ever ride behind them on your bicycle?