The Smoky Holidays. A Boyhood Mini-Memoir.

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One of the first things I remember about Christmas vacation as a schoolboy living in Southeast Minneapolis was the lingering sore throat and hacking cough that came from second hand smoke.

Everyone smoked back in the late Fifties and early Sixties.  My dad. My mom. My uncles and aunts. The neighbors. My older brother. If we’d had a dog, it would have probably lit up a Winston as well.

At school, of course, even though the teachers puffed away inside their sacrosanct lounge, at least the classrooms were free of tobacco fumes – instead we had the heady perfume of mimeograph fluid and chalk dust.  But once the winter vacation started I was cooped up at home, in a house full of smokers.

The adults gave each other gaily wrapped cartons of cigarettes for presents.  In fact, the tobacco companies printed special cartons that sported mistletoe and candy cane designs, as well as old Santa himself jovially gazing out in approval.  And my stocking inevitably contained packs of candy cigarettes, with brand names such as Marlboro and Kent boldly emblazoned right on them; they were sticks of pure sugar, with a red-dyed tip, that I kept dangling between my lips like Humphry Bogart.

Naturally all the windows and storm windows were shut and sealed tight against the bitter cold in our home.  There was nowhere for tobacco smoke to go except into our clothes, hair and lungs.  When the aunts and uncles and cousins came over for spritz cookies and mugs of coffee I could see the layers of tobacco smoke languidly drifting through the living room and dining room like atmospheric fog in a Universal studios horror film.

When it got too bad my mother would light a bayberry candle.  This was universally believed to ‘eat’ the smoke up. To this day I associate the scent of bayberry with nicotine.

By Christmas Eve my throat was as raw as hamburger.  I coughed and hawked up spittle like an old man.

My parent’s diagnosis was bronchitis, so after opening presents Christmas Day I was put to bed with Vicks Vaporub slathered over my chest, and an electric steam humidifier hissing 24/7 in my room; it fogged up the windows completely, so all I could see was an opaque landscape that hinted at bare elm branches and blurry shapes mysteriously gliding along the sidewalks.

When no one was around I’d open both the window and the storm window in my room to gasp some fresh air – until I heard my mother coming up the stairs with my Campbell’s chicken noodle soup; then I’d slam them both shut and lay back, hoping she would also bring me some of the brandied plum pudding we got from relatives in England each year.

Willy nilly, I was sent back to school as soon as it started again, and my ‘bronchitis’ would clear up immediately.

Finally, in 1964, the Surgeon General came out with his report on smoking.  My mother and all the aunts gave it up immediately.  My dad and his brothers were harder to convince.  But now smoking was banished from the house.  My dad had to go out on the front porch, even if it were blizzarding, if he wanted to have a Salem.

And I was never troubled with holiday ‘bronchitis’ again.