The Smoking Generation

Jan 13, 2014, 11:06 AM, Posted by Jeff Meade

Chuck and Jean on their wedding day Chuck and Jean on their wedding day

When I was a little kid growing up in Norwich, N.Y., I earned candy money by helping out at Saturday night bingo, held in the basement hall of St. Bartholomew Church.

By "helping out," I mean taking orders (and collecting tips) from the little old ladies who were so focused on their bingo cards that they could not leave the table long enough to get themselves a drink or a snack.

Virtually all of those old ladies smoked. A blue-gray haze hung over the room like a dingy veil. I might as well have been chain-smoking Lucky Strikes the whole night.

When those old ladies placed their orders, their vocal chords coarsened by decades of smoking—“Get me a meatball sandwich, will ya, hon?" —they sounded to my impressionable young ears like the tough-guy character actor Broderick Crawford. (The little mustaches, perhaps, completed the illusion.)

People younger than I am probably can't imagine what it was like to live in that world, a world in which smoking was ubiquitous.

A brief walk down memory lane seems in order.

In those days:

  • I could wander down to the corner store and pick up a pack of Chesterfield Kings for my father for 29 cents—and the guy behind the counter would think nothing of selling them to me.
  • Every house had at least one ash tray, each little bowl overflowing with ashes, cigarette butts, and burned-out paper match sticks. I can remember making an ash tray in a summer arts program. At a local elementary school, no less.  It was a tear-shaped blob of glittery molded plastic with a small black tray squished down into the middle.
  • TV commercials assaulted our impressionable young minds constantly—even during The Flintstones. For whatever reason, I still remember the bouncy little jingle for Larks. (A play on the Lone Ranger theme.) I also recall the Virginia Slims ad, which somehow managed to invoke the spirit of women's liberation and insert an unsubtle message of male condescension at the same time. ("You've got your own cigarette now, baby! You've come a long, long way!!")

I never succumbed to the siren song of smoking, but for millions of folks in my parents' generation, lighting up seemed like a harmless, pleasurable, sociable thing to do. I didn't believe it. If smoking was OK, why wasn't I allowed to smoke until I was 18?

I worried about my parents smoking, but it didn't seem like the kind of conversation an 8- or 9-year-old kid could have with a grownup.

But then, in January 1964, when I was 12, Surgeon General Luther Terry issued his landmark report on the health hazards of smoking. For a while, I pestered my parents to give it up.

But only for a little while. I soon realized that just reminding my parents that smoking could kill them wasn't enough to make them stop. I realized that, once you had started, stopping was hard. Incredibly hard.

Both my parents quit cold turkey in 1982. Not because they wanted to, but because they had to.

In my mother's case, a doctor discovered a precancerous lesion in her throat. I don't recall my mom ever smoking more than a pack of Marlboros a day, but that word "cancer" scared the hell out of her. She quit, and never looked back. She came to loathe the smell of cigarette smoke.

Later that year, on Thanksgiving, my father suffered his first heart attack. He was a Benson and Hedges man then, three or four packs a day.

My mom drove him to the hospital. She told me he chain-smoked all the way to the ER.

Dad died five years ago of ... well, a lot of things. Diabetes was a major player, but cardiovascular disease figured prominently in his years of illness, suffering, and, ultimately, his death.

A day after this past Christmas, I drove my mom to the ER. She had severe belly pain. The diagnosis wasn't long in coming: diverticulitis.

But it wasn't the diverticulitis that concerned the physician's assistant who treated my mother. It was her oxygen saturation levels, which were abnormally low. Subsequent tests turned up evidence of blood clots in her legs.

The PA asked my mother if she smoked, but she said, no, she'd quit years ago. And he told her that, even though she had stopped smoking in the early 1980s, she could blame smoking in part for the damage to the lining of the blood vessels in her legs, damage that contributed to the formation of blood clots.

The PA admitted my mother, and started her on blood thinners.

My wife and I visited Mom in the hospital on Friday night, the 27th of December. She was in good spirits, and grousing that she wasn't yet allowed to eat solid food.

We spoke to her nurse on the way out, and she said my mom seemed to be doing well. The doctors were optimistic about her progress.

Saturday morning at about 7 o'clock, my phone rang. It was my sister. She said my mother had gone into cardiac arrest, and that she had been resuscitated. Then came the words I really wasn't expecting to hear: She wasn't expected to survive. The message was clear.  If we wanted to say our goodbyes, we needed to get to the hospital in a hurry.

When we arrived, the doctors in the cardiac intensive care unit made it official. Mom had suffered a pulmonary embolism, and she wasn't responding to treatment. If we wanted them to keep on trying, they would ... but the outcome likely would be the same. We elected to end what seemed like a futile battle to save my mother's life right then and there.  We were sure that that's what she would want.

A few minutes later, my two brothers, my sister, our spouses, and the grandkids gathered at Mom's bedside, and we prayed with the priest from her parish as he administered the sacrament of the sick. We left the room for a few moments so my mom's nurse could remove her breathing tube. None of us wanted to see that. Then he told us to come back in the room to wait for the end. It was not long in coming. She was gone in less than a minute.

We buried my mom a few days ago, alongside my father.

Over the last week, friends and relatives have been telling me that my mom is in a better place. I'm Catholic, admittedly just a notch or two above the Christmas and Easter variety, but I do believe that that is true.

I believe the tobacco industry will suffer its own day of reckoning. Maybe not soon, but some day. We here at the Foundation have played a strong role in hastening the industry's demise. RWJF's battle against the tobacco industry, spearheaded by our former President and CEO Steve Schroeder, is one of our crowning achievements. Still, there is still an incredible amount of work to be done before Big Tobacco snuffs it, once and for all.

When that day comes, as I hope and pray it will, I will happily dance on its grave.

Jeff Meade is a senior writer/producer for rwjf.org.