The demon nicotine queen got her grip on me the day my mother bundled me up in a newborn’s blanket for that first road trip within days of my birth. I’m sure my parents both smoked in the car on the way home, as did almost everyone they passed in the halls of the hospital in 1950. Fortunately, the windows in the car were probably cracked open a little, one of the health benefits of being born in June.
That windows were sealed shut, however, when the family went Christmas shopping, three or four of us fidgeting in the back seat while the youngest of six kids was perched on my mom’s lap or nestled between her and my dad. Both parents puffed away on the 40 to 50-minute drive downtown from the suburbs of St. Laurent, their way of preparing to keep track of a collection of escape artists in varying sizes and speeds, all bent on running amok through Eaton’s, Simpson’s or Ogilvy’s.
Everyone smoked everywhere in that golden age of tobacco in the 1950s and ‘60s, long before there was a whisper of evidence that it may not be as good for you as the tobacco corporations had everyone to believe. Cigarette propaganda ruled the airwaves on television and radio, while newspapers and magazines pitched their products in full page spreads. I can still hear the martial-flavoured music that accompanied the rousing chorus of “Mark Ten for Men! Mark Ten for Men! Man-sized taste! Man-sized taste! Mark Ten for Men!”
Every restaurant had ashtrays on the tables, every department store had those shiny big brass receptacles that could easily handle a couple of dozen butts beside every elevator and at the top and bottom of every set of stairs.
Many of my classmates lit up by the time they were 12, often egged on by their older siblings or friends as a rite of rebellion. Despite the strict regimen imposed on students at our high school by the ruling Brothers of the Sacred Heart, students were allowed to smoke on school property during recess and lunch hours providing they produced a note of consent from their parents.
My older brothers no longer had to sneak a puff once they started working and contributing to help my parents with the cost of raising six kids in the dark ages before a national medical plan. There was always three or four open packs on the kitchen table, and everyone lit up within seconds of the youngest child’s last mouthful of dinner. Dad preferred Buckinghams, while my mother was partial to Players, for her a comforting, familiar facsimile of what she started smoking growing up in England during the Second World War.
I didn’t smoke, resisting throughout my teens until I turned 18. Odd, considering I grew up in a nicotine canopy and most of my friends and girlfriends had started years before. How I got hooked, line and sinker is a perplexing and peculiar story in itself, one best saved until next time.
Rick Stiebel is a semi-retired local journalist. This is the first of a series of Rickter Scales that details the writer’s struggles with tobacco addiction in graphic detail, and his ongoing efforts to quit.