I’m opposed to smoking marijuana because it might lead to harder stuff, like regular cigarettes.
-- TV talk show host Dick Cavett
I’ve paraphrased the Cavett quote because I couldn’t find it anywhere on the Internet and because it’s stuck with me since I first heard it in the early 1970s. In my case, though, I don’t have a good explanation for why I started smoking.
It was the summer following my freshman year of college and I was working as a mail handler for the railroad, the start of a four-year railroad “career.” The boredom of tossing mail sacks into or out of boxcars was interspersed with the boredom of waiting for the next boxcar full of Sears catalogs, parcels or (if we were lucky) the latest issue of Playboy.
The lifers took great delight in educating us young pups with tales of how life on the railroad had slipped over the years, of the oddball characters they had met and offering sage advice on dealing with members of the opposite sex. And they smoked.
Soon, I started smoking, too.
I remember how uncomfortable I felt buying that first pack of cigarettes. I felt even worse after lighting up the first one. Retreating to a bathroom stall, I nearly abandoned the practice then and there. Smoking left a lingering bitter taste in my mouth and upset my stomach. But I vowed to not let that first pack take me down. I’ll become a smoker, no matter what, I said to myself.
A friend, who saw me later that night, asked, “What are you doing? You’re not a smoker.” I just gave him a wry grin and puffed away, saying to myself, “No? Hah! I will be.”
Working the graveyard shift while attending school by day doubtless fed my habit as I did, indeed, become a smoker. You could find me lighting up at 3 a.m., among grizzled roll-your-own co-workers, who eagerly shared ribald tales of long-ago loves and spun cautionary tales of people who were purveyors of false knowledge by virtue of their extended education.
My smoking habit grew to 2-3 packs a day by my fifth year of college, when I was working 40 hours a week for the railroad and 20 hours a week for the Omaha Public Schools while carrying a full-time load as a college student. I was virtually living out of my car, napping and smoking my way through a troublesome semester.
As ominous as it seems to me in retrospect, my lifestyle at that time wasn’t that unusual. Just about everybody smoked.
Next time: Smoking, self-esteem and dating.