One Lonely Day = 15 Cigarettes

This summer has been wonderful, and strange at the same time. Weather-wise I couldn’t ask for anything better, but Labor Day weekend was a big disappointment. It felt like Frankfort celebrated a weekend off. For forty years we have had a Fall Festival on Labor Day weekend. This year it was cancelled because of COVID. We will eventually recover from this shock, but it may take a long time, like several years.

Suddenly, fall is sneaking in and the weather is changing. Temperatures are dropping rapidly. It seems like I just got acclimated to living in ninety degrees when all of a sudden today it was sixty. Next week we will have some warm days but in general the temps will swing downward. Fall is in the air, the leaves are dropping from the trees and changing color too. Flowers and plant life are withering from the recent drought. I called it sneaking in, but it seems more like a thud, and its here.

The weather change has me thinking about wintering in a warm climate. I haven’t had that urge for several years, but now I do. I need to get away and shock my life into something new. The one problem I have with this plan is that it is the stress of distancing that has caused me to want to seek out a new life somewhere else, and COVID will be with me anywhere in the world I might want to escape to. I have a lot of thinking and researching to do before I make any reservations.

One scary thought is that my friend base in Phoenix is smaller now than it was six years ago. Being alone will not help to improve my attitude at all. I read a short article published in September, 2020 issue of Departures magazine titled “Happiness” by author Eviana Hartman on how happiness affects people’s lives and one sentence stunned me.

“Happy people are less likely to catch a virus, and loneliness can be as damaging to physical health as smoking fifteen cigarettes per day.”

I quit smoking forty-two years ago, and it scares me to know that I can wipe out the benefits by feeling lonely. Loneliness is one of the biggest problems I encountered after each of my life partners died. It took a long time to be happy again, and I worked hard at changing my life in order to reach a happy state. So far, I haven’t reached happiness after Peg’s passing, but it’s only been fourteen months.

All I can say is that I’m working on it, and that is all I want to say about that.

Prince Albert

             Grampa Jim left a ladder up against the farmhouse. It was a homemade ladder, and was very heavy.  I was too small to be able to lift it or carry it, so finding the ladder in place presented an opportunity.  Before I climbed up, I made sure Mom was doing something, and would not catch me easily.  Up the ladder I started.  Lifting my short legs up to each rung felt like stretching to my shoulder.  The first few rungs were easy. About half way up, I began to feel the bounce of the ladder.  I was terrified, but kept on climbing.  Once I got on the porch roof I felt safe again, as long as I stayed away from the edges and didn’t look down

            The main house had a gable roof.  The porch roof was flat but sloped down.  At the end was a door to access the attic of the house.  The door was square and low, and locked with a hook. It was easy to open. 

            I unhooked the latch, and pushed the door open. The space was the dark, and hot air hit me in the face.  It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.  I stepped onto one of the several boards placed across the ceiling rafters.  There was no insulation and the ceiling showed between the rafters.  One slip and I would go crashing through.  I was still small enough that I did not have to duck low to clear the rafters as I walked on a plank. A few steps into the darkness, I began to see the outlines of some very large, very brown leaves laying flat on the boards.  What are these and why are they here?  I asked myself. Then I remembered that Grampa had a few tobacco plants on the farm.  The dry brown leaves looked just like the tobacco I saw growing.  The attic was less of an adventure after that day, and I did not go back until much later, but for a reason.

            Gramps had a boarder living with him.  The rent kept Grampa Jim in Camels and his daily bottle of beer.  His name was Cszilag, Pista, which translated from Hungarian read Star, Steve.  For some reason, old country people call or refer to someone by the Sur name first, then their given name.  Steve Star became a central character in my life later on.  At this time, I got a brainstorm to play a prank on Steve.   He was a lonely old man who worked in the pickle factory in Coloma.  All we knew about him was that he liked to get drunk on wine.  He boarded with Gramps for many years.  When we came to the farm, Mom set the rules and he had to live by them or hit the road.  One rule was “no drinking”.  He lived up to the charge. 

            After supper, Steve enjoyed a smoke on his corncob pipe.  He sat on the log chairs under the willow and packed his  pipe with tobacco from a can of Prince Albert. The tin can was always in his hip pocket.  The Prince Albert cans were unique in shape because the fit into a pocket very nicely.  The hinged lid insured the smoker would not lose it, and it snapped shut.  Empty cans littered the house and yard.   Steve had a habit of leaving them wherever they became empty.  Gramps used them to store nails and screws, although they made lousy storage for those types of things.

            One day I asked Gramps what the leaves were in the attic.  After interrogating me about how I knew about them and lecturing me on the hazard of climbing shaky ladders, he told me it was tobacco.  Gramps tried the tobacco and did not like it, but left the leaves in the attic.  They were several years old, and so dry that the slightest touch caused them to crumble.  I got the idea to test the tobacco, but not by smoking it myself.  I found a Prince Albert can that looked new.  The ladder was still against the porch.  I snuck into the attic and crumpled enough tobacco to fill a Prince Albert can.

            While Steve was at work, I sneakily placed the can on his dresser.  The remainder of my day felt like eternity while I waited for him to come home.  We ate supper and he finally went outside to smoke.  He pinched a wad of tobacco for his pipe, and noticed that it was dry.  Smoking tobacco, I learned, is moist, even though it is brown from age.  He continued to fill and lit up.  It only took one drag for him to be convinced that something was seriously wrong.  I could not contain myself any longer and started laughing hysterically.  He looked at me as he puffed out and began coughing uncontrollably.  When he finally stopped, a string of Hungarian words, which I had never heard before came from his mouth. I can only assume that these were words on Mom’s list of ‘forbidden’s’.  At the instant that I burst into laughter, and Steve started cussing, I broke into a run. I ran as fast as I could to get away.  Steve Star had finally put it all together and was emptying the contents of the Prince Albert can on the grass.  When Gramps heard the whole story, he smiled.  When Mom heard the story, she scolded me for being so mean.

One Vice In Life

     If Grampa Jim had one vice in life, it was smoking.  I never saw him without his cigarettes.  He carried stick matches to light up.  Occasionally he asked me to find him a match, but he was never without his cigarettes.  He smoked Camels.  I never saw him with any other brand.

     When Gramps did not have enough money to buy Camels, his second choice was a sack of Bull Durham tobacco with papers. When he wanted a smoke, he made one. He was an artist when rolling a cigarette. First, he opened the sack, and pulled a single sheet of paper from the packet. He curled the paper to form a trough, and carefully shook tobacco onto it. Next, he clenched the drawstring of the bag in his teeth and pulled the bag closed. I watched in amazement as he closed the bag while balancing the open paper without ever losing a single flake of tobacco. Once the bag was back in his shirt, he held the cigarette with both hands. Carefully, he rolled the paper into a cylinder. When he finished, the paper surrounded the tobacco except for a short edge. He carefully lifted it to his lips, and swiftly gave a lick against the exposed paper. He folded the moist edge over the cylinder, and welded it shut. He was ready to light up.

      Gramps grew tobacco on the farm. His friends grew tobacco, so he grew it too.  He did not grow much. I never saw more than four plants. The plant grew as tall as corn, and had large green leaves.  When the leaves were ready, he picked them, and strung them on a pole to dry in the attic.

     The leaves turned from green to golden brown during drying.  He crumbled the dry brittle leaves by hand into millions of little pieces. He stored the shredded tobacco in a bag until he was ready to make cigarettes.

     He had a second way to make cigarettes that utilized a little machine made of wood. It worked by turning a hand crank. First, he placed a sheet of cigarette paper into the machine, and sprinkled some tobacco onto the paper.  A single turn of the handle wrapped the paper around the tobacco.  Finally, he moistened the overlapping paper to make it stick together. This method enabled him to make several smokes at one time.

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