Saturday, January 28, 2017
A Church of the Open Road
My grandfather, “Hap” Bagnell smoked Lucky Strikes, a habit conferred upon him by the US Army. So-called “tailor-mades” were once offered as part of a doughboy’s c-rations. Young teens in the 1960s didn’t receive c-rations, but we could easily get our hands on cigarettes. Cigarettes made us cool. Cigarettes made us adult. Cigarettes made the girls like us. Or so we thought.
In those days the Marlboro ad campaign was moving from the elegant choice for women of the forties and fifties to the rugged “come to where the flavor is” west. Cue Elmer Bernstein. Many of the guys in the seventh and eighth grade fancied themselves leather-skinned cow busters, therefore the routes spoking out to the neighborhoods from the junior high were littered with Marlboro butts. Some kids were a bit more individualistic. The town jeweler’s son lived a half mile away from me. He picked a menthol brand called Alpine. Their slogan was “Go to the mountains, it’ll do a lot for you.” One of the twins who lived next door was different too. His brand was Tareyton – “I’d rather fight than switch” – although he wasn’t much of a fighter. Ultimately, as kids were joshing and poking at each other and puffing on the way home from school, I felt late to the party. Out of the gang. Different, in a bad way. That’s how you feel when you’re thirteen. And I knew I needed to do something about it.
Out through a couple of orchards in back of our house, a tilt-up, pre-McDonald’s hamburger stand was positioned next to the state highway. Going to the “Jolly Kone” was a slightly longer, alternate route from school, but there you could get an order of fries and a milkshake for about eighty-five cents, so a visit was worth the extra time and trouble.
In the back corner of the stand’s small, enclosed dining area stood a cigarette vending machine about the size of a jukebox. On the front of the machine were three or four rows of rectangular clear plastic buttons. Beneath each surface was a small likeness of a package of cigarettes. There must have been three dozen to choose from. Staring at it one day, while downing a strawberry shake and waiting for my fries to cool off, I was overwhelmed by all the choices. Which of these brands would ultimately be mine?
I wanted to fit in so I had to start packin’ smokes, but within limits, I liked being a bit different. So I eliminated Marlboro for obvious reasons and both Tareytons and Alpines. I considered Lucky Strikes for a long while but figured maybe I wasn’t being fair with the others brands on that machine. I ruminated on this for quite some time until, walking home with the boys one day, I settled on a plan. I’d start with whatever brand was in the upper left hand corner of those rows of buttons and move across until I settled on something that I liked. The next time I dropped in for my fries and shake, I figured I’d take the 15 cents change I was to get from my dollar bill, drop it in the slot, push that first button and pocket whatever came out.
One problem with this plan however: A pack of cigarettes cost 35 cents.
The next time, I’d be ready.
And I was.
I placed my order. “Your usual?” the owner asked.
“Yeah,” I stammered as he slid my change across the Formica counter.
When he turned and went to work dropping my fries into the sizzling vat and whirring my shake together in the Hamilton Beach, I slipped over to the cigarette machine. The mechanical activity in the kitchen would certainly cover the sounds of my sin. Deftly, I slipped a quarter I’d saved and the dime I’d just received into the slot. They clattered into place sounding like thunder to me. I glanced over my shoulder, happy to see the cook not peeking round the corner at me, then I stabbed at the upper left button. Something tumbled out of the machine like a rock fall and thumped into a slot at the bottom. Blindly, I grabbed whatever had fallen out, slipped it into the front pocket of my jeans and escaped through the screened back door of the dining area. No fries and shake this day.
Heart pounding, I raced through the orchards to an old shed I’d predetermined would be safe to begin my exploration of finer tobacco products and where I’d hidden a book of Hap’s matches. Making the boy-cave, I paused for a moment to catch my breath. Then I fished in my pocket and pulled out the pack of cigarettes. Chesterfields. Never heard of ‘em before. The package was adorned with some sort of shield or coat of arms and lettered in fancy English style stuff.
Pretty sophisticated, I thought. I think I’m gonna like these!
I fumbled with the package until I found the slip of cellophane that when pulled would unwrap itself revealing a foil top that I tickled open with my nervous fingers. Tightly packed inside was an unknown quantity of something tobacco-y enveloped neatly and uniformly in rolls of thin white paper. I picked and pulled and picked and pulled at one until, with a ragged end and its contents spilling out, the first cigarette came free. Mangled, I looked at the thing. I must have really torn it up because, unlike the Marlboros, Tareytons or Alpines, it had no filter. It must have busted off, remaining in the package. I tossed the cigarette away, vowing to be more careful the next time. The second one came more freely from the pack. Its contents still tight and neatly wrapped, there was no filter on this one either. I peered into the dark cavity left by the first two samples, but saw nothing. The third one came out with ease and, yet again, filterless.
Finally, I reasoned that this must be how this Chesterfields were made. Convenient, I thought, and you can light either end. So I picked one, stuck an end in my mouth and on about the third or fifth try, lit the other end.
If you could somehow combine week-old barbecue ash from our grill, wilted spinach dried and dotted blue with mold and, perhaps some rusted steel wool, that flavor combination would fall well short of how awful what I’d just tasted, tasted. I pulled the thing out as my eyes began to water slightly. Maybe its something you just have to get used to, I thought, so I took another drag. And then a third. Not good, but maybe getting better? What did I have to compare this taste to? For several minutes, I puffed and wiped my eyes and puffed and wiped my now dampening brow until the thing was burned down close enough to scorch my tender fingers.
Before I stubbed it out, I recalled that several of the boys could light a second one off the first if they held the new one steadily between their lips and touched the lighted tip of the nearly spent butt to it. And I’d seen Bogey do this in the movies. Cross-eyed, I tried it rather clumsily. In the process, the orange cinder of my first smoke briefly seared my thumb and index finger as I touched it to a replacement that wouldn’t hold still in my unpracticed lips. Grimacing, I held on, thinking that this, perhaps, was something the Marlboro man had likely mastered. Maybe this contributed to his being so rugged and worldly and leathery. Less than half way through the second, however, my forehead drenched, my body somehow sweaty, a chill hit me. I shivered a bit, then shook. I leaned back, then forward and heaved a painful dry heave. I was in way over my head.
Struggling to find my feet, I staggered from my hideout toward the house. Grandpa Hap intercepted me. “So, boy,” he said, “How you like smokin’ tailor-mades?”
I looked up at him though my watery eyes. How the hell do adults always seem to know? My lips quivered, but nothing came out.
“It’d be a good idea not to start,” he said, winking and slapping me on the back.
And I didn’t.
The next day I buried the rest of that pack of Chesterfields in the bottom of the garbage can – surely no one would find them there – and waited restlessly until the following Tuesday when the disposal company came by to cart off our trash.
When you’re thirteen, fourteen or fifteen, walking and poking and joshing your way to or from junior high, sixty seems old – a long time away. Suddenly, when you’re in your sixties, it somehow seems young. Too young. I think this as I am taking the long, slow journey home from services for the first of the gang of neighborhood kids I grew up with. The one who’d made Tareyton his brand.
© 2017Church of the Open Road Press