Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Smoking Car

I quit smoking ten years ago, and in honor of that here's a funny story about my dad's first stint at smoking (I'm pretty sure I got his permission to tell this story five years ago when I wrote this piece; if not, then, um, dad, I did this thing).

My dad and his French-Canadian mother rode a train to Connecticut after visiting family in Quebec for about a month. A gentleman sat in the train compartment with them as it steamed along towards the U.S. (in my mind it's a steam powered locomotive, and honestly, I have no idea, but it's not important, it's just a visual). The man pulled out a thin cigarette, lit it, and tried to smoke it. I say tried because my dad boldly plucked it from the startled man's fingers before he could take a second drag. My dad puffed on that cigarette like a cosmopolitan businessman who worked on Wall Street, his palm flat with the white tobacco stick resting between his index and middle fingers as comfortably as a pencil. My father, playing the part of a grown man was all of two years old. Yes, I said two years old.

Apparently, my dad's uncles thought it was hilarious to watch a two year old smoke (really, who doesn't think that's funny?) Unbeknownst to their sister they would light a cigarette or a pipe, place it in his toddler hand, and then they'd fall on the floor laughing themselves silly at this aberration. If this happened today there would be a viral video and child neglect charges, but this was the 1940's; doctors prescribed smoking to calm nerves, so back then a child smoking might have been seen as a way to keep him entertained, much like handing over your iPhone to a screaming toddler is today.

So picture, if you will, the cover of Van Halen's "1984": the blonde cherub with the curl of hair dangling over its forehead, casually leaning against a table, looking like a freshly born angel -- except for the cigarette burning between his chubby fingers. That's how I picture my dad, aged two, taking tokes off a stranger's cigarette, without a care in the world...until it registered in my usually reserved grandmother's mind what was occurring.

She slapped the enkindled cigarette out of my dad's hand. It spun end over end onto the floor. The gentleman smoker, speechless but amused, stamped out the cigarette with his shoe. My dad, confused at why he'd just been slapped, cried and watched through teary eyes his cigarette get crushed underfoot. He held out his flush hand for a replacement. The gentleman chuckled. My grandmother covered her face with both hands. My dad wailed, opening and closing his outstretched hand like a baby bird wanting to be fed.

Thinking on her feet, she offered the man a penny for another cigarette (it's 1942!!!). He proffered it and she motioned for her petulant son to come closer. His crying abruptly stopped as soon as the stick was fit between his fingers. He put it in his mouth and waited...and waited...and waited. When he realized what he was missing, he frowned and pointed to the unlit tip. My dad wasn't a big whiner, however, this was important. The severity of this injustice and the uselessness of an unlit cigarette brought forth a tiny whimper.

My grandmother shook her head and told her son if he wanted to smoke he would have to light it himself, she wasn't doing it for him. She didn't smoke, why should she indulge him? She asked the gentleman for a match and he handed her a thin matchbook. After tearing a match free she gave it to her son. He knew what he was doing, he saw his father strike a match twenty times a day. He had this, he'd be smoking in no time.

Many years later, as my dad related this story to me, he held out the back of his hand, pointing to a small mark between the knuckles of his middle and ring fingers. He said, "This is the scar from that match." And that was his last cigarette -- for eleven years.

(I'd like to add that my dad quit smoking before I was born, so my bad habit was by no means a result of seeing him smoke).


  1. That's a true story that my mom and uncles told many times as I was growing up.
    You're right Jon, if that happened today I guess I would be in the care of Child Protective Service. LOL.
    I just looked at my hand, although very faint, the scar is still there after 75 years.

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