The Smoky Holidays. A Boyhood Mini-Memoir.


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.






I am the measles virus, and I visit everywhere;

No country is untarnished by my tender, loving care.

I hope to visit you someday, if I haven’t been there yet.

I’ll leave you with some memories you will not soon forget.


A sneeze, a cough, a runny nose – that’s all I do require

To slip into your body and set it all on fire.

I’m fond of little children; they are such a joy to sicken.

My Koplik’s spots will make the doctor’s fees rise up and quicken.


Don’t bother to get vaccinated – it nearly is a crime;

You and I are meant together to spend lots of time.

And if you get pneumonia or go blind as a result,

Please know it’s just my job and is not meant as an insult.

One Man’s Meat is Another Man’s Poison.


I read emulsifiers in my choc’late shake may cause

My gut to be as useless as a piece of rotten gauze.

Reader’s Digest says that processed meat is even worse,

And eating lots of hotdogs will land you inside a hearse.


Saturated fat in coconuts and soups therefrom

Make the outlook for weight loss unusually glum.

Even popcorn microwaved has sodium galore;

Eat a bowl and see as how your blood pressure will soar.


Frozen diet entrees are not really too nutritious.

And fruit juice is all sugar, its benefits fictitious.

Ev’rywhere I look an article warns that I’m feeding

Poison to myself . . . and so, I’ve given up on READING.

Eulogy to Spock

Leonard Nimoy. R.I.P.
Leonard Nimoy. R.I.P.

(from the New York Times obituary)

I never liked him much because his logic was intense.

For boys who play with spaceships, it did not make any sense.

Cold reason isn’t something that a boy appreciates;

Such acumen is foreign and it soon evaporates.


No, if you zoom through outer space you meet such wonders there

That there is no time for calculations or despair.

Just thrills and cool technology; green monsters and death rays –

These are what made boyhood such extraordinary days.


But Spock was like a parent, scolding crewmen to behave.

He was an algorithm that could walk and talk and shave.

I wouldn’t call him flawed, and yet I wouldn’t call him right.

His logic could not save him from the grave’s eternal night.


Brian Anderson; The Beer Miler.

brian anderson

(Inspired by a story by Richard Chin)

I started as a beer miler a long, long time ago;

When I could run a mile real fast and drinking made me glow.

I wasn’t bingeing, not at all; the experts testified

That downing beer while running would not ever get me fried.


I ran and drank, and drank and ran, and so the years did twinkle;

Until one day I woke up feeling more like Rip Van Winkle.

My clothes in rags, my beard snow white; a stranger to the world.

My loved ones gone and me alone; I very nearly hurled.


My legs have given out on me; I cannot run a yard.

And Leinenkugel’s left my liver bloated, green and scarred.

And so I sit and drink, and drink and sit, and wonder why

They made my drinking seem as wholesome as warm apple pie.


Ode to Obesity.


(Inspired by an article by Melissa Healy)

Of all the modern plagues that cripple joy right off the bat,

None are tolerated worse than being awful fat.

Parents of a chubby child are charged with child abuse;

Their kitchen raided, looking for a hint of choc’late mousse.


Try and get a job if you are plump or overweight.

Try and spend your Friday nights out on a steamy date.

Try and find a suit or pair of pants that ain’t grotesque.

Try and live your life without a feeling of burlesque.


Never trust a guru who says they have conquered fat;

They take all of your money but next day will leave you flat.

The world needs more of Falstaff and much less of Jenny Craig;

Who says I have to walk around and look like some clothes peg?