It’s a wonder I never got hooked on tobacco. Most of the people I adored during my formative years smoked, dipped or chewed, but for reasons I’ll explain later, I never did.
I remember my grandpa Charlie Watson smoking as he sat in his overalls on an oak stump the size of a #3 washtub. None of those sissified filtered smokes for him. No sir. He rolled his own.
He did a lot of work for the mines in those days and he had a blacksmith shop behind his house. He’d heat and beat orange-hot strips of metal into U-shapes. These later became shoes for the mining mules.
When his arm tired from beating hot metal, he’d sit on the stump, which also served as a workbench, and take a smoke break.
From the bib of his overalls, he’d pull out his Prince Albert tobacco, which was in a can as red as a stop sign. Curling a thin rolling paper with his index finger, he’d thump in a little tobacco, snap the can closed with one hand, and place it back in his pocket. With practiced motion, he’d twist a cigarette as tight as a ready-roll and seal it together with a lick of the tongue.
The routine was almost a ritual. Somehow, the act of rolling his own cigarettes gave him time to think. As he blew smoke skyward he’d sometimes wax metaphorical and say, “These dang (I cleaned that word up) thangs are nails in my coffin.”
My Grandma Watson never smoked, but she always had a spittoon within arm’s reach. She often spent evenings on her front porch dipping and reflecting on life. She’d put a pinch of Bruton snuff just inside her bottom lip. After a while, she’d make a V with her middle and index finger, raise it to her mouth, lean toward the edge of the porch and spit an amber stream the size of a pencil into the yard.
My dad and my brothers also smoked, but thanks to an invaluable life lesson, I decided tobacco wasn’t for me.
Little-league baseball was a part of every summer when I was a kid, and one day just before practice, a teammate offered me a chew.
“You want some of this? It’s great,” he said with a bulging jaw. He looked like he’d lost another fight with his older sister, who was as mean as a snake with an abscessed tooth.
“Sure,” I said a little too quickly. Appearing naive was a big concern at that age, so I reached into my jeans for my Old Timer pocketknife to cut off a corner. “Just bite it off,” he chided. I slid the knife back in to my pocket and took the plug from him.
It looked a little like a chunk of cow dung, and didn’t smell much better.
Almost breaking a tooth, I gnawed off a corner. Thanking him, I handed the plug back to him. Not wanting my friend to think I was without vices, I didn’t ask what to do with the juice.
I chewed the tobacco for a while but instead of spitting the juice out, I swallowed it.
Practice was short that day. My head began to swim, and my stomach churned as if I’d swallowed a live eel. I threw up so hard that muscles throughout my body ached for a week.
That one episode was all it took to realize that tobacco was not for me.
Rick Watson is a columnist and author. His latest book Life Changes is available on Amazon.com. You can contact him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org