The first heavy smoker in my family to die was Uncle Tommy, my aunt Bee’s husband. He was around 65 and had a massive stroke which felled him, one side of his body completely disabled. He was confined to a hospital bed for a year before his death.
I started smoking cigarettes at age 11 and smoked two packs per day by age 12. This was an attempt to prove to the guys I hung around with in Brooklyn that I could possibly advance to manhood someday. This was in 1948.
My dad was also smoking heavily then. When my little sister ratted me out to him he said “you’ll be a man before your mother.” Nonetheless, I continued to smoke steadily. We moved back to California in 1951. (I don’t remember when Dad quit smoking, but it was many years before he died at age 87. Mom never smoked and died at age 90).
Smoking a cigarette at age 17, Navy Boot Camp, 1954
I quit cold when I was 19, in the US Navy. I was concerned for my health, having been born with a mild, genetically-inherited anemia, beta thalassemia minor. I was also, and remain, a bit of a hypochondriac due to having been quite ill as a child and having had a hypersensitive nurse as a loving aunt. So, it was probably easier for me to quit than for other people, including a dear member of my family who still smokes and cannot shake the habit (my sister–see final note at the end).
I started again at age 27. I had finally got into the graduate curriculum at the School of Public Health of the University of California, Berkeley. This was 1963. The School was housed in Earl Warren Hall at the northwest corner of the campus. Graduate students could smoke in class! My then wife, Patricia, thought a graduate student ought to smoke a pipe. She bought me a nice one and I happily took up the tobacco habit again. The pipe led to cigars and then back to cigarettes. I inhaled them all. At around age 38 or 39 I started to cough up black stuff, so I was scared into quitting again and felt much better, immediately. No more clearing of the throat and bronchi for half an hour every morning, and much more energy. Now, more than 30 years later, I cannot stand the smell of cigarettes, but I do occasionally find the smell of a pipe or a cigar intriguing.
…Now the moral and spiritual benefits of smoking have never been appreciated by these correct and righteous and unemotional and unpoetic souls. But since we smokers are usually attacked from the moral, and not the artistic side, I must begin by defending the smoker’s morality, which is on the whole higher than that of the non-smokers. The man with a pipe in his mouth is the man after my heart. He is more genial, more sociable, has more intimate indiscretions to reveal, and sometimes he is quite brilliant in conversation, and in any case, I have a feeling that he likes me as much as I like him. I agree entirely with Thackeray, who wrote: The pipe draws wisdom from the lips of the philosopher, and shuts up the mouths of the foolish; it generates a style of conversation contemplative, thoughtful, benevolent, and unaffected.”
Lin Yutang’s essay goes on in this vein at some length before he then explores the virtues of Chinese incense, and it convinced me to try the pipe again. I went to a smoke shop in an upscale neighborhood of Stockholm (Sture Galleria) which had advertised a sale on specially made pipes to commemorate a major anniversary of the store’s business life. I bought one, along with the basic accouterments and the store’s special brand of tobacco. I sat on the balcony of our apartment to light up after more than 30 years, my fingers remembering all the little movements required to fill the pipe properly with tobacco. I felt a jolt when the nicotine got to where it affects the nervous system. It was a bit alarming, my body not remembering this aspect.
Practicing pipe smoking in California, 2006
I was on the verge of a trip to see my California family for an extended period, so I packed the pipe and paraphernalia in my luggage with the intention of practicing proper pipe smoking in the backyard patio. After my arrival in San Jose, I tried my best to achieve the pleasures so wonderfully described by Lin Yutang, but I concluded that the fussing with lighting and relighting and cleaning the pipe, not to speak of the dizziness and borderline nausea, was not worth the professorial image.
Heavy, persistent smokers, all:
John Robinson, third husband to my first wife, Patricia, died of complications arising from emphysema at around age 55, having lived connected to an oxygen bottle for the previous several years. Patricia continued to smoke.
Patricia Robinson, former wife, died, age 68, neck and throat cancer. She had a tracheostomy for the last several months.
Nestor Palladius, my cousin, died age 83 of lung cancer.
Len R., old friend, died age 71, lung cancer. On oxygen the last few years.
Brian B., dear friend, died, brain tumor, age 68.
Recquiescas in pace