When I was in grade school in the 1950s, it was fairly rare to run into an adult who didn’t smoke. By the time I was in the eighth grade it was getting pretty rare to run into an eighth grade boy who didn’t smoke. The girls seem to wait until high school.
The Catholic school I went to strictly forbade smoking anywhere on the grounds, of course. But we eighth-grade boys flagrantly ignored the rule. In between classes, we would head for the boys’ room to light up. From time to time, a nun would barge into the boys’ room and try to catch us. One of my strongest grade school memories is the sound of a rosary rattling followed by the sound zippers zipping, and cigarettes going psst, psst, psst in urinals. Sometimes a nun would stand outside the boys’ room with a jar and smell our breath as we came out. Anyone who smelled of tobacco had to empty his pockets into the jar—change, combs, pocket knives, everything.
Once when I was talking to a nun, I dropped the book I was holding and muttered “Fuck!” As I leaned over to pick it up, my pack of cigarettes fell out of its hiding place in my inside jacket pocket. I think I tried to claim that I really didn’t smoke very much. “If it weren’t a habit, boy, the cigarettes wouldn’t be falling out of your jacket, and the same goes for what comes out of your mouth.” Of course she confiscated the cigarettes.
But cigarettes were pretty cheap in the 1950s, even for a kid. For a while a pack of 20 cigarettes was 23 cents, and if you put a quarter in a machine to buy a pack, the pack came with your 2 cents change inside the cellophane the pack was wrapped in. Grocery stores must have readily sold cigarettes to minors too. At least I don’t remember having any trouble buying them.
I’ve read that researchers began to suspect the link between smoking and lung cancer as early as the 1930s, but the greatest risk associated with smoking in the 1950s was that it might stunt your growth. I was tall for my age and figured I could spare a few inches. Camel cigarette ads touted Camels as the brand preferred by most doctors and featured a wise-looking doctor in a white coat with a big smile puffing away. Menthol cigarettes were recommended for scratchy throats.
And smoking was everywhere. You could even smoke in the back rows of movie theaters. The actors on screen were invariably smoking.
I continued to smoke for 40 years and finally quit with the help of nicotine gum. I chewed my last Nicorette while I was having a heart attack in the emergency room of a hospital. My current doctor seems to think that 40 years of smoking might have sown the seeds for lung cancer and out of an abundance of caution has ordered x-rays, a CT scan, and a pulmonary function test.
For some reason I could easily imagine the young woman who administered the pulmonary function test in a nun’s habit. I thought she kept giving me a disgusted, accusatory look. I wasn’t about to swear, and I was ready to empty my pockets into a jar for her. In the end, though, she smiled and said “These don’t look like the test results of somebody who smoked for 40 years. If your doctor sees anything, he will call you.”
Maybe I’ve dodged a bullet.