By: Garland Davis
I grew up in tobacco country. Many of my relatives and most of our neighbors grew the leaf. Just about every adult I knew used tobacco in one form or another.
My grandfather smoked a corncob pipe. He would make the pipe bowls from cobs and the pipe stems from a vine that was hollow when dried. Pap made his pipes during the winter when it was cold and wet. He went through a pipe about every month. He had a box with fifteen to twenty pipes stored in it.
Each year he would twist cured tobacco leaves and hang them in the loft (attic) to age. He would always use the oldest ones first. He carried it in a bag in his pocket and would use his knife to shave it off into his pipe bowl. He always made more than he needed and sometimes gave or sold a twist to one of his friends. My grandmother dipped snuff and would sometimes smoke a corncob pipe of her own. She also used Pap’s Virginia Twist tobacco.
My dad would light an El Cheapo cigar before breakfast each morning and leave it in the ashtray until after breakfast. He chewed it the rest of the day, never relit it. I think he did that every day that I knew him. I remember him coming home from work with barely a half inch left of the cigar.
My mom smoked cigarettes, Lucky Strikes. She changed to filter cigarettes sometime after I left for the Navy and continued to smoke until well into her sixties. She had some problems with COPD in her seventies. Probably would have fared better if she had never smoked.
I had a couple of uncles who both chewed tobacco and smoked cigarettes simultaneously. The other uncles either smoked or chewed. All but one of my aunts dipped snuff and most of my cousins smoked cigarettes.
And most everyone who smoked, chewed or dipped used a product of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. The whole economy of the city of Winston-Salem was based on the eleven RJR factories spread throughout the city. My mother is the only exception I can think of. Lucky Strikes were made by American Tobacco Company which was located about thirty miles away in another town.
I have previously related my sole experience with snuff at age two. I was in the seventh grade when I had my only experience with chewing tobacco. This other fool named Eddie showed me a half pack of Beech Nut Chewing Tobacco that he had found walking to school that morning. At recess, we went into the edge of the woods by the playground and chewed the hell out of some Beech Nut. Back in class, Eddie suddenly jumped up and ran for the boy’s room. He upchucked before he made it. I didn’t throw up, but I was probably neon green. The teacher, Mr. Edwards, immediately understood the cause of Eddie’s problem and since anything he was involved in, I was sure to be somewhere nearby, he took us to the cloak room and had us empty our pockets. He took the Beech Nut, went to his desk and got his paddle and whipped our asses. Never had the desire to try it again. Not because of the ass whipping. Just the smell of chewing tobacco still triggers the gag reflex, even after sixty years.
I think I was about twelve when I snuck one of Pap’s tobacco Twists out and Junior and I made us a couple of corncob pipes and spent a whole afternoon smoking. I never looked back from that point. For the next forty-one years, with the exception of a period in Boot Camp when the smoking lamp was out for my entire company, I smoked cigarettes and cigars. I would sneak my mom’s smokes and when I had twenty cents, I would buy a pack and keep it hidden in a crack between the logs in the barn. There was a TV program that I liked about poker playing brothers named Maverick. They smoked cigars. When I had the money, I would buy cigars and smoke them.
Kids as young as six learned to smoke by smoking “Rabbit Tobacco.” Wikipedia says of Rabbit Tobacco – Gnaphalium obtusifolium. Unmistakable by its creamy appearance in the still green background of the early fall meadows. Leaves long, elliptical and silver green colored. Plant up to one meter high. Unusual fragrance. Can be smoked for respiratory ailments or made into a relaxing tea. A common tobacco substitute used by children in rural areas. It is said to have a mild sedative effect. Contrary to popular belief, rabbit tobacco is not marijuana. It is known by many names: life everlasting, sweet balsam, white balsam, sweet cudweed, cat’s foot, fragrant everlasting, Indian posy, etc.
As kids we used to harvest the dry Rabbit Tobacco and would smoke it in corncob pipes. The adults thought it was cute. No effort was ever really made to stop us. Imprinted the act of smoking on kids early.
There is a lot of talk about second hand smoke. I really don’t believe that it is a danger. Hell, the entire atmosphere of Western North Carolina was second hand smoke during the fifties when I was growing up. If it was a real danger, then most of my generation would already be dead. Uh, wait a minute… most of them are, but I think it is more attributable to aging instead of the air we breathed growing up.
The anomaly in the lifestyle to which I was subjected was the person who did not smoke, dip or chew.
Now moonshine whiskey is another story. Perhaps I’ll tell it someday.