Note to readers: This blog post is an excerpt of a considerably longer story in my recent memoir, Cold Turkey at Nine: The Memoir of a Problem Child. It may be ordered from your favorite local retail bookstore in many countries, or Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or other online sources. It is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book forms. Check it out here!
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When I was two years old, still wearing training pants, my eight-year-old and much admired brother, Nolen Robert, taught me to smoke. Thus began for me a period of seven years of smoking. I quit “cold turkey” at age nine, for a shocking reason. We lived on a small Tennessee farm about 60 miles northwest of Nashville that was hilly and wooded, with some pasture land for cattle and hogs, four chicken houses, a cornfield, a vegetable garden, a smokehouse for curing meat, and an outhouse. We also raised a half-acre of Burley cigarette tobacco along the east side of our house. We both had seen Daddy and other relatives and neighbors roll cigarettes from a cloth bag or metal can of store-bought tobacco, using manufactured cigarette papers. We knew about licking the paper and twisting the far end of the cigarette paper to keep the tobacco from falling out before lighting it. Nolen Robert and I had seen a lot of rolling, puffing, and inhaling. World War II had ended the year before I began to smoke, but at my tender age the war and its effects on the country were not registered in my memory. As summer progresses Burley tobacco plants continue to put out new bright green leaves before topping causes them to enlarge, while the middle large leaves turn to golden and yellow colors. In the heat of summer, however, the oldest lower leaves begin to dry out and turn brown. On hot August days, these leaves become brittle, easily crumbling between your hands. But this particular August, Nolen Robert picked up a box of Mother’s wooden kitchen matches and a section of newspaper from The Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle (Tennessee’s oldest newspaper), and gestured for me to follow him.
We went into the tobacco field about 50 yards to a spot between two rows of tobacco. As we sat down, with the six-foot high tobacco towering over us, Nolen Robert spread out a full sheet of newspaper on the ground. Then he broke off a couple of the bottom dried leaves and began to crumble them between his hands. I was only two, but I got the hang of it and began to help him. The leaves were nearly two feet long and a foot wide, with a mildly gummy substance that stained our hands a light brown. We spread the crumbled tobacco leaves in a diagonal line across the newspaper. Then my brother rolled up the newspaper around the crumbled tobacco and licked the edge of the paper to make this extra-long cigarette hold together. We had no inkling that anything was harmful about what we were about to do, but somehow we knew that our parents disapproved of little boys smoking. We were getting away with something and that added to the excitement, heightening the anticipation. My mentor lovingly placed this long cigarette in my hands and told me to hold and puff the cigarette while he lit it. He had to help me light it because my arms were not long enough to hold the giant two-and-a-half-foot cigarette in my mouth and light the far end at the same time. Nolen Robert was responsible for the matches, and I trusted him completely. What a great older brother—he was teaching me to smoke! I felt so grown up at only two years of age. I felt BIG like Nolen Robert, Daddy, my uncles, and our neighbors. Obviously, Nolen Robert was already an experienced smoker. He either picked it up from watching Daddy and others, or was taught by an older cousin or neighbor boy. At any rate, with this auspicious start at the tutelage of a competent older brother, I was successfully launched into a happy but eventually troubled seven-year period of smoking. Some readers may reasonably question my ability to remember that far back. However, research psychologists have documented earliest vivid memories going back to 18 months old in some people, and most are formed from age 2 to 3 1/2. And still others develop vivid memories later. Nolen Robert taught me to crumble up a supply of tobacco that we hid in paper bags. We learned to put up tobacco for year round use, the way Mother had learned to can peaches, pickles, and beans. Our smoking became more sophisticated soon after our start with pages from the newspaper. When Daddy threw away the empty bags of Country Gentleman, Nolen Robert retrieved them. Since my father smoked most of the tobacco in his pipe, this meant that the cigarette papers were still under the wrapper. So it was that we moved up to real cigarette papers that we filled with our crumbled tobacco, rolled them up, and sealed them with a practiced lick. On occasion, as the law of averages would have it, Mother or Daddy would catch us smoking. That meant trouble. Our tobacco and papers would be confiscated, followed by discipline delivered mainly by Daddy. I don’t recall any of the discipline being painful, except for the terrible feeling of parental disapproval. The discipline was generally effective for several days, but then we’d resume. As a first grader and beyond (there was no kindergarten in our area), I don’t recall any of my classmates smoking, except occasionally one of them might find me smoking during recess and ask for a puff. In those cases, their smoking was clearly a novelty, and in my case I was clearly “experienced.” No teacher ever caught me smoking at school, thanks to nearby hiding places in the fields and woods. No one ever tattled. Sometimes my parents would give me pocket change to buy candy or a Coke at Uncle W. G.’ s grocery store, about a mile south of our farm. Uncle W. G. was also a mule trader and tractor salesman, so he would often have hired help minding the store while he was away. One helper, Miss Sally Byde Underwood, was a somewhat plump, very friendly middle-aged woman who could keep a secret. I asked her one day, if I were to save up my pocket change, would she sell me tobacco—without telling my parents, Uncle W. G., or anyone else. She promised not to tell, and I began to buy my own Country Gentleman smoking tobacco instead of candy or Cokes. But a troubling realization about my smoking began to cloud my young consciousness. When I had started first grade, I was physically similar to most of the other boys. All seemed normal. Now in the fourth grade, it dawned on me that my male classmates were growing larger and taller than I was—I was becoming a skinny little runt! This was a shock of numbing proportions. I was dumbfounded! Something had to be done. During a recess on a bright sunny day, I sneaked off the playground into a wheat field, hid from view in a shallow gully, and smoked my last cigarette. The only explanation I was able to come up with for my diminutive stature was that seven years of smoking had stunted my physical growth. No one told me tobacco would stunt my growth, but inside me I knew, no doubt about it. I had to kick the tobacco habit. So, I quit “cold turkey” at age nine, and never lit another cigarette.