Thursday, 27 November 2014

A kids take: toking on a smoke

When I was a kid most people older than me smoked – including my mum and dad. Mum smoked cigarettes until into her late sixties and dad smoked a pipe until he was diagnosed with kidney trouble that required dialysis. Some nurses, as mum was, could smoke with the best of them. But journalists and writers, such as my dad, well they needed to smoke because it apparently helped them with their work.
The natural connection between the great outdoors and reflection could only be fully realised with the assistance of a pipe for it undoubtedly enhanced the writer’s creative process. If you don’t agree, have a look at this photo of my dad walking along a Melbourne beach in the 1950’s, taken for a newspaper article promoting one of his books.

I distinctly remember the aromatic smell of pipe tobacco. It was pleasant and alluring and it meant I was around dad, so comforting too.
Curiously no under-age smokers appeared to smoke a pipe. Maybe smoking cigarettes was an apprenticeship for the pipe.

I was about ten or eleven when I considered it time to start my apprenticeship. I had observed lots of people smoking and all the smoke it produced. It just looked so stupid. Yet, it was clearly the thing to do because my neighbour, Bruce Shorland, had started. He would have been about a year or two older than me while his brother, Alan, was a year younger. We hung out together.
There were also lots of guys on the TV smoking. Mostly they were good at doing men things like lassoing cattle, driving trucks, using tools and talking to women. The last had the least appeal to me. I had two older sisters and I avoided speaking to them unless strictly necessary. The Marlboro Man was definitely the coolest of all despite the women thing.

Bruce knew stuff. If I followed his lead my pursuit of knowing stuff would come quicker. He was even prepared to risk the consequences of telling an uncomfortable truth. I realised this a few years earlier when the three of us were playing under my house when he suddenly challenged the sacred cow of the Christian child’s universe. ‘Guess what?’ he blurted. ‘Santa’s not true. It’s your parents.’ Alan and I stared at him and each other in amazement, shock and disbelief. Bruce may have known stuff but this was a preposterous claim and Alan and I held tight. Later Alan, holding back tears, told his mother what Bruce had said. Marjory was outraged so big brother received a hiding and was sent to bed without any dinner.
This served only to enhance his appetite for being a rebel. Bruce arranged for us to go with him to meet a group of other kids under the bridge by the creek near Warrigal Road. On arrival there were six or seven boys, some older, some my age or younger and they were all smoking. There was not a lot of talking. One of the older boys blew a smoke ring. How amazing was that. ‘Do youse guys smoke?’ came the question from someone. This appeared a challenge of sorts, like ‘prove it’. Bruce had already told us to tell the others we smoked. Maybe by doing so he would accrue brownie points in front of his new mates.

So some cigarettes were offered around and Bruce, Alan and I all took one each. Bruce lit his first (from someone handing their lit cig) and then lit ours. He could do the draw-back which meant he could really smoke and was possibly on the way to being able to do smoke rings. Alan looked nervous. I drew on the filter and coughed. In the same breath I said, ‘must have gone down the wrong way’. The other guys could see through me and laughed, but accepted my feigned bravado with tolerable grace.
The part of my brain tuned in to good and bad sensations clearly registered this as non-pleasurable. Sucking smoke into my gob – why? I masked it and said, through my coughing ‘yeah, I like to smoke’. This was my first big venture into being one of the boys and I was seriously conflicted.

Sometime later I ended up paying for a packet of Escort 10’s. I guess Bruce got them from somewhere. I realised they were a badge of honour. I also knew that I would be much happier giving them to others than smoking them myself.
I had been able to avoid a return to the creek since the earlier episode. This was mainly because, though unspoken between us, Alan was on the same wavelength and we found excuses not to go. This turned out to be fortunate for it led to my first epiphany.

For Bruce had then introduced us to another taboo – ‘naughty magazines’. We soon had heaps of these stashed in our various cubby houses. There was something about them that was exciting and adult. Looking at them entranced me in ways I had not previously known. The sense of anticipation and awe at flipping through the pages because it was ‘wrong’ made this secret pleasure even more tantalising and addictive.
I still had my Escort 10’s tucked into a hidey spot of the cubby. One day a friend of Bruce’s visited. A few minutes later I was offered an incredible deal - to swap the cigarettes for a stack of these mysterious and exciting magazines. From that moment on I learned a couple of perplexing truths which throughout my life would require attention and good management.

The first: Marlboro Man was onto something after all by talking to those women. They clearly liked him because of his cigarettes and even smoked themselves. I hated the cigarettes but began to like women (girls) as I grew up. My conundrum was that I would not smoke another cigarette. I therefore had to spend a lot of time thinking about how to overcome this distinct disadvantage in attracting female company as clearly smoking was a magnet. Secondly, could I be liked for who I was and not some false image I projected? Then, in what was appalling timing, I became a teenager.


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