Meanderings

Smoking to Non-Smoking

Someone asked me to write about an important life changing day in my life.

Apologies for the grammar.

On their ill fated return journey from the South Pole, Scott of the Antarctic and his crew succumbed to frostbite, starvation, and fatigue, a mere 11 miles short of their supply cache. Obviously they were not smokers. If they had been, I believe they would have survived.

Nothing motivates a smoker with no cigarettes more than the promise of a smoke. A puny Eleven miles cannot stand between a serious nicotine deprived individual and his cigarettes. If a crumb of tobacco existed on the Antarctic continent, Scott and the lads would have found it, even if it was back at the South Pole. If, in their ravenous state, they were to encounter a penguin

When Scott’s frostbitten Petty Officer stepped from their tent into a raging blizzard, with his immortalized last words,” I’m just stepping outside for a moment. I may be gone some time”, his objective was to sacrifice himself discreetly, so as not to burden his companions. Had they all been smokers, I believe they would all have followed him, to make sure he wasn’t sneaking off for a smoke.

“Quiting is easy: I’ve done it a hundred times”. So runs the old smokers adage. Giving up smoking is not easy. Not easy at all. Recovering drug addicts who have fought off heroine, cocaine, alcohol, and all their equally seductive derivatives, will invariably still be smoking tobacco at the end. Quiting smoking is like trying to kick Scotsmen out of a “pay as you leave” bar; it’s possible, but it takes dedication and maybe some tyre levers.

I tell all of this for the benefit of readers who are non smokers. Those who have never smoked tobacco, can never appreciate the satisfaction that a simple cigarette can bring at the end of a hard day. How could they feasably understand the iron grip that this ritual exerts on a smoker’s mind that refuses to let him stop puffing. Smoking becomes such a part of him that the thought of quiting frightens him as if he’d been asked to donate a limb to science.

So if you have circled a date on your calendar to start smoking any time soon, allow me to warn you now: don’t do it. You will pass a year or two enjoying it immensely then you will spend the rest of your life wishing you could stop. Taking up smoking is like getting a tattoo or selling your independence. When the ink is dry on arm or paper, it becomes a binding contract you will be held to your entire life. You can wriggle and squirm. Doctors may cut holes in your throat to help you talk or new lungs may be transplanted into your chest so you can breathe again, but the craving will not release you. You will face death as a shriveled up piece of burnt bacon lying cold in a rusty pan. There, just for spite, you will ask for one for the road.

But you can’t tell a smoker that. It just doesn’t cut through the smog.

As I said, it’s not easy to give up smoking: not easy at all.

I guess I smoked the cigarette that made me a smoker on the fringes of the French city of Lyon. A friend and I were hitching vaguely towards Avignon when we got side tracked into Lyon, the second largest city in France. We were camped by the roadside for several days waiting for a lift out of town. Each night we lit a campfire and sat around talking. My friend was a tobacco smoker. Each evening, the rich aroma of his fresh tobacco wafted across the fire and up my nostrils. It smelled delicious even to a non smoker like myself. On the spur of the moment, I asked if I could have one. My friend tossed me the packet. I rolled a wrinkled cigarette, lit it up and I slowly inhaled. I puzzled over the sensation and as I exhaled, declared it highly pleasurable. It wasn’t like eating or drinking, yet I felt I had consumed something into my body in a very odd manner. I smoked the whole thing, trying to figure out the proper way to hold it between my fingers. “That was good”, I nodded as I tossed the soggy butt-end into the fire. With those words I set off down that Smokey road.

My friend, who had watched me puff gingerly on the rollup, cleared his throat and said to me, “remember, I didn’t force you to take that cigarette. I didn’t talk you into it nor did I offer it to you. You asked of your own free will.”

I accepted his disclaimer with an indifferent shrug but by the time we got out of Lyon I was graduating from one cigarette to 2 or 3 a day. Foolishly, I still considered myself a non smoker. After a few months traveling and playing street music (busking), we were hanging out, up in the French Alps. My friend decided he wanted to go home back to Scotland. An acquaintance gave us some old vinyl records to sell at the station where we’d taken to busking since the tourists left town. We scraped enough money to buy one cheap bus fare home for my friend.

Even though I was essentially homeless and broke and winter was truly warming up, I had decided to stay in France and test my luck. I had begun a journey and I knew inside that it did not lead straight back to dead end Scotland. In France I felt some semblance of purpose to my life. Every day held challenges and every evening that I was alive was a personal victory.

My friend boarded the bus and took his tobacco with him. A year would pass before I’d see him again, but I knew I couldn’t wait that long for a cigarette. It was at that moment as I entered the tobacco store and bought a packet of drum, a set of roll up papers and a lighter, that I officially joined the smoking ranks. I was now undeniably a smoker. If someone came up to me and said, “do you smoke”, I now had no choice but to reply with a yes?

As I clawed my way through that hard winter, every cigarette was a small ray of sunshine. I felt like a refugee. My clothes fell to rags and I laced them together with shoelaces. The strings on my guitar were like barbed wire. My frozen fingers felt as big and numb as bananas as I stood in the windy subway tunnel every day at the station. The competition for the one spot to play was intense. The local bums and winos had taken to begging there. Other musicians were in line too, gypsy women goaded their babies to cry which, in that frigid climate; I suspect didn’t take much prodding. Hell, I could have cried myself. Busking in that tunnel was like singing inside a snow blower. Then there was the police who came along at irregular intervals and kicked everybody out.

One day a small boy stood in front of me as I played. He looked shy and innocent enough till he lunged at my guitar case and crammed as much of my earnings as he could into his mouth. Then he ran off down the tunnel.

As summer finally rolled around, the snow line receded and my body began to defrost. I set about the important business of bumming around the continent with my guitar and living a life of ease. I hitched to Amsterdam, home of Drum Tobacco; I spent a few months in Salzburg, Mozart’s home town. I busked outside his front door and got moved along. I took a part time job at a hotel that showed the Sound of Music movie every day at two o clock. I was payed in omelets. When I got sick of omelets, I went north to Scandinavia and criss crossed Germany and Switzerland and France playing on the street at every hamlet of a town I drifted into.

In those early days, I enjoyed every cigarette. I puffed merrily away under the stars. I was young and healthy and living an active outdoor life. If I was hitching somewhere and had only a few coins, I much preferred to buy tobacco rather than a sandwich. A sandwich would be swiftly eaten whereas a pack of tobacco had no nutritional value, but it did offer more long term comfort as I stood all day by a roadside. Soon enough though I had nicotine stained fingers and a morning frog in my throat, but it didn’t bother me much. It didn’t affect my guitar playing but it did take a toll on the vocals. By then I was having a cigarette with morning coffee, a cigarette before busking, one after busking, one with every evening beer, one before bed and if I could have smoked in my sleep, I’d have had a few then too.

Some years later I took up residence in Southern Germany, in the beautiful medieval town of Regensburg on the Danube River. Here, I entered into the gig scene where I played music at night in dark, smokey bars. By this stage in my sooty career, I could roll a cigarette and have it lit in less than 10 seconds, [Faster than an Olympic athlete could run 100 meters.) Though I was smoking more than ever, I still felt healthy enough. I was in my mid twenties, when one day, some fellow smoking friends and I played a game of football (soccer) in the Villa Park. It was not one of our brighter ideas.

We huffed and puffed and our poor hearts pumped. Our lungs choked and coughed to the point of suffocation. We endured about 10 minutes before collapsing, gasping like landed fish on the grass. This was not good. We realized we were no longer the football heroes of our youths. The smoking, I decided was beginning to make its mark. It was a little scary. I decided to quit: and quit I did. So did my girlfriend whom I shared an apartment with. Naturally we began to argue till one of us would storm off to buy cigarettes. On returning, the other would say, “well if you can smoke then so can I”. Thus peace was restored.

But we persevered.

Not smoking in bars was the hardest. I noticed that without cigarettes in hand, I had begun to gulp my beer much faster. After a few pints I would begin to bum one or two cigarettes. I would bum from everyone at the table night after night until people grew annoyed with my begging and would say,” you haven’t given up smoking cigarettes, you’ve only given up buying cigarettes.” I’d slump off to the cigarette machine, defeated once more.

Our next ingenious idea to stop our nasty habit involved a tree beside the Danube. We would buy a pack of cigarettes and go for a long walk with the dog along the river. After we’d smoked one cigarette each we would attach the packet to a branch high in the chosen tree and walk home. If either of us wanted a cigarette then we had to do a two mile round trip to the tree for a puff. Needless to say that the dog got a lot of exercise during that experiment.

One day we arrived at our tree, desperate for our puff. There was a boyfriend and girlfriend right there sitting below our tree. Leaning against it: Having an intimate moment. We prowled around for a little while but they showed not a hint of leaving. after an hour or so I stomped right up to them and reaching over them I grabbed the lower branches of the tree. ”Excuse me”, I said boldly as if I worked for the Parks Department. “I’m just checking this tree and it can’t wait. Indeed it can’t.” They looked up at me as if I were mad but didn’t get up. I climbed clumsily over them and into the tree. When I came back down with two cigarettes in hand, I apologized for the inconvenience. “Just getting some cigarettes,” I mumbled. Then as a parting shot I added, “It’s a tobacco tree.”

Try as we might, the longest time we survived without a cigarette was a couple of months and even that had plenty of cheating moments. After years of smoking I was still puffing my way helplessly to the grave. The frog in the throat was turning into a large amphibian and my nose was permanently blocked and I was learning that there’s nothing like a good cough in the morning. I was winded just walking up a flight of stairs. Maybe it was time to get away from the bar scene for a while?

As it happened, we'd decided Regensburg was becoming too routine. So we left Germany and wandered around Europe in our van with our dog and our tobacco. We picked grapes and I played street music till October came around and we found ourselves living for a time in France near Limoge, with my sister.

She lived in a lonely old farm house far out in the countryside. Xmas was approaching and my girlfriend was going home to America for the holidays. She would be gone for 1 month. I was left with some groceries and some money which hopefully would last 4 weeks till her return. After she departed it became apparent that there was not enough money for both beer and cigarettes. Something had to be sacrificed. Beer or tobacco? I decided that now was as good a time as any to stop my evil smoking habit. I was stranded in the countryside with no girlfriend to argue with and no city pressures to send me running for the sanctuary of cigarette smoke in my lungs. How could I lose? If it came to a choice, I decided a lifetime supply of beer easily beats a lifetime supply of tabax.

On the morning of the 20th of December 1996 my tobacco pouch was empty. By midday I had raided the ashtray and then the trash can. Before it got dark I scoured the back yards for old discarded butts. I dried them out on the stove and attempted to smoke them. They were disgusting. Then I remembered the ash tray in the van. I found a few in there but by now every corner had been searched thrice over. There was not a crumb of tobacco for ten miles. The next morning I kept busy chopping wood and helping with chores. I began to build a garden wall and I painted and sketched and cooked. Every time I stopped for a break my mind thought instantly on tobacco. Instead of smoking I reached for a beer. Once again I was drinking a beer for each potential cigarette. Luckily they were small beers. I was chain drinking as opposed to chain smoking. I asked myself, “What did I do in my breaks before I was a smoker?”

The strangest thing about this attempt to stop smoking was that it worked. I quit smoking. The only close call was on Xmas Eve in town, I was waiting for my sister, who was at the town community centre Christmas affair. She was delayed and I stood outside to wait. My first thought was that this would be a great time for a smoke but I had no tobacco... and I’d stopped. I paced back and forth: waiting and waiting. I realized I was standing outside a tobacco store. “Oh Jeez no”, I said out loud. I went back into the community centre searching for my sister. She was still busy. I went back out. The tobacco called to me. Luring me, like a mermaid lures a sailor to his death. I’d only been an ex smoker for a couple of days and I was still practically defenseless to its charms. I considered bumming a cigarette from someone to help me through this moment of weakness. But I knew if I did, I’d be back to square one and with a single toke I’d be a spineless smoker again.

One and a half hours I stood outside the tobacco store, jingling restless coins in my pocket, more than once I turned to go in, almost clasping the door handle, watching others go in and come back out. Watching people unwrap their favorite brands like Christmas presents and light up. Me, staring at their cigarette butts crushed on the pavement. Just in time, my sister came out and we drove home cigaretteless. My lungs booed but my mind cheered.

The month passed. My girlfriend came back. She was still a smoker and she still craved that after dinner cigarette. She thoughtfully would sneak off to have it out of sight. Strangely, I didn’t crave it as much as I thought I would. I almost felt sorry for her, seeing her still enslaved. I never gave her a hard time about smoking as a lot of ex-smokers are prone to do. Often they become downright self-righteous and annoying, but I didn’t get that way. I’d had a quiet month in the countryside, far from the peer pressures and strains of barroom society. I hadn't been surrounded by smokers constantly offering me cigarettes and ridiculing my efforts to quit. I was in a good frame of mind. My girlfriend finished her packet and quit.

That was over ten years ago. I am mostly proud of how we stopped. All on our own: no nicotine patches or hypnotism. No acupuncture. We did it with our own will power, in our own way and time, and it worked. I put 15 years of smoking behind me. We’ve both still stopped. I feel so much healthier. I no longer wheeze my way up stairways. I play football (soccer) and walk for miles with my old dog. My lungs no longer gasp and rasp for air. My fingers have lost their nicotine tan. I no longer cough like an old diesel in the mornings. All in all I feel a lot better. Now I’m just working on that alcohol problem.

I think back to that distant day up in the French Alps when my friend went home and I bought my first tobacco. I became an official smoker that day. Wherever I went, I had tobacco with me. It became a part of me. Even between cigarettes, I was still a full time smoker: forever on call: waiting to be paged by the demand to light up. But now I ask myself, when will the day come when I can safely say I am a non smoker. Can I never trust myself? Can I never more savor the exquisite contentment of leaning back on a comfy chair with a fresh roll up after eating a greasy pizza and blowing a smoke ring towards the sky? Sadly for an ex- smoker there is no such thing as just one cigarette. I need only think back to Lyon to realize just how addictive one cigarette can be.

For me, personally, there will always be the lingering fear that I will fall back into sin. Like a dormant volcano I could erupt again any time and start spouting fumes. I can live in the shadow of that eruption as long as I’ve got my beer. So pass that bottle over here and help me douse my flames.

Nowadays, cigarette packets carry warnings to inform us that smoking is bad for your health, but for Scott, the Non Smoker, of the Antarctic who died down there in that tobaccoless, frozen wasteland, can we make an exception and say this one time that NOT smoking was bad for his health.