If the Marlboro Man were to be believed, smoking a cigarette would put hair on my twelve-year-old chest and help me ride a horse like a real cowboy. Or I could put a pinch of Skoal between my cheek and gum like Larry Mahan, the Rodeo Champ, and ride bulls with the best of them. These things are important to a little boy growing up in Kansas.

However, I lived with Puritans who put Smoking and Chewing on the list of Top Ten Deadly sins that were unacceptable in our little country church. They were just another way for a person to slather an extra layer of bear grease on that slippery slide into hell. Although Gossiping and Judging Others were on that list and practiced to perfection, they were far more acceptable than Smoking or Chewing.

In addition to memorizing Bible verses to make sure we walked the straight-and-narrow, we also memorized the sing-songy incantation: I don’t smoke and I don’t chew and I don’t run around with girls that do.

For all of Dad’s knowledge about the Holy Scripture, he never quite figured out that humans have a tendency not to follow rules someone else makes up. Instead, humans prefer to make up their own rules and then not follow them. He told us not to smoke or chew so, of course, we wanted to. If it was a sin, it must be fun.

The whole rule-making thing started off in the Garden of Eden and, well, we all know how that ended. There are three very important lessons that human beings learned in the conversation between God and Adam in the Garden:

  1. Deny
  2. Make counter-accusations
  3. Play the role of a victim

If it worked for Adam, then why wouldn’t it work for the rest of us, especially Congress? I imagine the conversation in the Garden went like this:

God: Why are you hiding?

Adam: We’re not; we’re looking for our clothes.

God: Who said you needed clothes?

Adam: Eve did. I got out of the shower and did a little woo-woo-woo and she told me to put some clothes on.

God: Did you eat the fruit?

Adam: No, Eve did. I just nibbled.

God; You had one rule. Just one; you only had one rule.

Adam: Eve made me do it.

Eve: The devil made me do it.

Adam: Would you please punish Eve for making fun of me?


Thus began the human race’s relationship with rules.

Naturally, we did what we were told not to do. We needed to experiment with Smoking and Chewing. However, our biggest problem was access to contraband. My nephew, Kendall, and I wanted to try both smoking AND chewing, but there wasn’t a Kwik Mart near so we could con a homeless person into buying us some tobacco. Therefore, we had no choice but to resort to crime; we stole it from my older brothers.

It should be noted that it wasn’t really that bad a crime since we didn’t steal what we wanted: cigarettes. Instead, we stole the only thing they had: a pipe and Borkum Riff tobacco.

It should also be noted that a pipe is not the handiest thing to start a smoking career because those darn things are nearly impossible to keep lit, especially when you’re hiding under the bed of a old pickup truck. I don’t know why we thought hiding under that old truck was a good idea. I suppose in our little idiot minds we thought if Mom or Dad looked out into the pasture and saw smoke coming out from under that dilapidated truck, they would assume the packrats were making s’mores over a campfire. No one ever accused of us being brain surgeons.

We hid the pipe and tobacco behind the seat of the truck inside the packrat nest and one day, while Kendall was gone, I decided to smoke solo. I sucked on that pipe trying to get the pipe lit and, in frustration, finally piled a bunch of tobacco on the ground and lit it on fire. I never actually smoked, but I smelled like I’d slid down a chimney when I walked into the house.

Dad: What were you doing out by that old truck?

Me: Um, looking for my clothes.

Dad: Were you smoking?


Where was Kendall when I needed him? After he substituted figurine for bastard, surely he could come up with some obfuscation now.

Me: I was burning something.

Dad: What were you burning?

Me: Bear grease.

As I said, no one ever thought I had a future as a brain surgeon.

I learned to put up with Mom and the Generals being mad at me, but I was mortified at the thought of Dad, the Commander-in-Chief, being mad at me. As Jeff often said, Mom and the Generals were like BB guns pelting you as you canoed down the river, but Dad was a Howitzer that blew everything to smithereens when it went off, which, thankfully was rare.

Surprisingly, Joe, the visiting evangelist, rescued me from the firing squad. If you read the story about the evangelist and his marimba-playing wife, you know visiting evangelists ranked somewhere in my least-favorite things between a bath each night and liver and onions.

Joe: I got off the city bus in Chicago the other day and the first thing my wife said to me was that I smelled like I was a smoker. This boy must have been around something like that.

It turns out the spirit of Kendall was alive and well. What Joe said made no sense to anyone since I had never even seen a city bus in my country-boy life. But I nodded in agreement with Joe.

It was Dad’s turn to walk away muttering something about that made no sense whatsoever and he can slather all the bear grease he wants on his slide and who in their right mind thought it was a good idea to leave that little idiot alone in the pasture. 

Later that year, during the winter, we had the good fortune of having a fellow derelict, Rod Busby, show up to play a bit of ice hockey on Hobson’s Pond. The first freeze of the pond coincided with a Norther raging out of the artic circle so the ice froze with ridges like a washboard. It was awful to skate on, but it was all we had. The cows apparently flew south each winter with the geese so they weren’t there to make snide remarks about our hockey skills. In addition, the cows would have volunteered to be cheerleaders and the Good Lord knows they look awful in skirts. I’m sure one of them would have wanted to officiate and the only thing worse that a bovine fan at a hockey game is a bovine referee.

Rod had older brothers, too, but they didn’t smoke; they chewed tobacco. Glory, hallelujah! We had us some Red Man big leaf chew.

It was in second grade in Mrs. Beulah Bohn’s class that I first witnessed the chain-reaction of little boys upchucking. Frank Stubblefield  lost his cookies on the painted gray concrete floor and Mrs. Bohn quickly shouted, “Don’t anyone look.”

Naturally, we did what we were told not to do. She had never learned that lesson either about someone else making up rules because we all looked and, sure enough, three-quarters of the class lost their school lunch that today including yours, truly.

Our first hint that trouble was brewing on Hobson’s Pond was when Rod opened that Red Man pouch and told us all to take a deep breath through our nostrils so as to savor the flavor. It was at that precise moment the volcano in our tummies started moving on the Richter Scale. We stuffed a wad in our cheeks and started playing hockey.

It was somewhere between the first and second period we discovered that laying down naked on the ice while dry heaving was the only thing that alleviated the misery.

Global warming hadn’t kicked in yet so our beloved Hobson’s Pond stayed frozen and was stained with little blotches for the rest of the winter. There were also indentations in the ice shaped like a human body curled up in a fetal positions. Some little rat told the cows when they returned in the spring so we had to listen to them all summer make fun of us while they chased us through the pasture.

I swore off any tobacco products until my later teen years when I, once again, thought it was cool to smoke. I started smoking when I was eighteen to prove I was a man and three years later tried to quit to prove the same thing.

These are just a few of the reasons I never grew up to be a brain surgeon.


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