Wednesday, May 04, 2011

"Smoke 'em if you got 'em."

Going through Life magazine issues from 1948 reminds me how much America has changed in 60 years, in some important ways. In those days smoking was considered very urbane, very cool. Hip people smoked cigarettes.

These four ads are all selling something different, but cigarettes are shown in each: an Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake movie, diamonds from the De Beers syndicate, Hart Schaffner & Marx suits, and yes, even cigarettes, plugged by no less than a future president of the U.S.

I got addicted to cigarettes when I was in the U.S. Army in the mid-'60s. I quit ten years later, just before my son was born. I don't remember being influenced by advertising, although it was everywhere. My smoking was more because of my peer group. In the Army the call was, "All right men, take a five minute break. Smoke 'em if you got 'em." The whole platoon would light up, sending a huge noxious cloud into the atmosphere. When I quit in '77 there were laws being passed about smoking in public places. Then the segregation of smokers began, sending smokers first into special smoking areas of the building, and then when the laws were tightened, out the doors to smoke. Smokers have a special pariah status now, and sometimes in winter I drive by an office building and see several people standing, shivering, smoking in the rain or snow. I don't like smoking, but I don't like to see prejudices against smokers. The treatment of smokers reminds me of black people being told to go to the back of the bus.

The Goofy animated cartoon, "No Smoking," may have been influenced by Walt Disney's own chain-smoking habit. Children's book author, Bill Peet, who worked for Disney during the early '40s, shows a caricature of Disney, cigarette in hand, listening to Peet going through the storyboards for Dumbo. Disney died of lung cancer 15 years after the Goofy cartoon was made in 1951.

Illustration from Bill Peet, An Autobiography, 1989.

My dad followed Disney a year later, dying of a heart attack induced by 35 years of heavy smoking.

You'd think I would have been smarter, having my father die of the same habit I was just taking up, but I wasn't. By the time he died I was just like George Geef (Goofy) in the cartoon.

Quitting was hellish and while going through nicotine withdrawals I often cursed myself for starting.


DEMiller said...

Sorry you were addicted to smoking, but I have zero sympathy for smokers. I have endured their arrogance for many years. They never once showed me any sympathy. I had to inhale their fumes at work and in public for years. I had smoke blown in my face and had to work while others took a "smoke break". I feel a sense of satisfaction when I see then shivering on the sidewalks today.

El Postino said...

I remember you. I used to wait until you'd come in and then blow smoke in your face.

Sorry about that. I promise, I won't do it again.

Kirk said...

Lot of blue-collar people still smoke. I've worked in various factories and warehouses where the majority of people end up outside during breaks and lunch, and non-smokers (such as myself) end up with the breakrooms all to ourselves. I think there's still a kind of a macho cachet (even among women) in the blue-collar sphere regarding smoking, though eventually the cachet wears out, and all you have left is the addiction.

El Postino said...

I remember looking at myself in the mirror while smoking and thinking how cool I looked. Bogey, Alan Ladd and John Wayne had nothing on me with a cig dangling from my lip.

I also came from Utah, and it was (and is) a sign of rebellion in a state where most people have never smoked.