Lisa Hamblen Hood: Through the Fence 3-11-13
Tobacco is a shining apple of temptation in youthful Garden of Eden. Like any self destructive vice, kids don’t see the ugly side at first — only the fascinating allure of the taboo. When my cousin was a little boy, his daddy let him put fat cigars in his mouth to complete his cowboy outfit. It wasn’t long before he was wanted to smoke them. And unlike most kids, that didn’t ever make him sick.
I remember watching with fascination as my granddaddy sat on his back porch and tapped the Prince Albert can gently into a crisp cigarette paper. He could only smoke when he wasn’t working; otherwise he’d have a pinch of that powdery dental scotch snuff. It looked like Hershey’s cocoa and came in a crinkled glass jar with an aluminum lid. We have a whole cabinet full of those now that we use for juice glasses. My great grandmother and other old women of her era kept a little can of snuff about the size of a film canister inside her front apron pocket. As she worked in her garden or in the kitchen, she would put a little clump of it inside her front lip. I never saw her spit; maybe she swallowed it. Either way, it added to her mystique.
I never tried that stuff, but I did swipe a bag of my uncle’s Beech Nut chewing tobacco one time and shared it with my cousin and my sister. We climbed a mimosa tree in my grandmother’s yard and opened the fragrant foil pouch. The smell and flavor of the sweet stringy leaves was intriguing, but the nausea and headache that followed were not very fun — certainly motivation enough never to try it again.
I knew of a woman who told stories of her tobacco usage when she was a young girl. She had watched her grandparents and uncles smoke and dip all her life and thought she’d give it a try. Like my granddad, hers didn’t have any “ready rolls,” and she didn’t want to take the risk of swiping the can and the papers. One of her cousins told her that they could get a “buzz” from smoking grapevine. So they went out behind her grandparents’ barn, broke off some of the dried vine and snapped them into pieces about 4- or 5-inches long. They snagged a few matches from the top of the gas stove in the kitchen and lit themselves a smoke. Inhaling deeply, they blew out the pungent smoke, trying not to cough. The sticks were hollow and got blazing hot on the ends that they sucked on. All of them got little red blister rings inside their lips and also burned their tongues. But they didn’t care. For those stolen moments, they were Bette Davis, Clark Gable and other big screen stars that they’d seen in the movies that made smoking look sophisticated and glamorous.
When they weren’t smoking, they were dipping. But they didn’t have the stomach for the powdery snuff; they wanted something more “kid friendly.” One of them got the brilliant idea of dipping cinnamon. It had the same color and consistency of the real thing without the drastic effects. To make it more palatable, they mixed it with sugar. They’d sneak into the pantry and grab the jar of cinnamon, mix it with a little sugar and then fill their front lips. All afternoon, they’d run and play while little brown streams of spittle escaped from the corners of their mouths and dribbled down their chins. They experienced the feeling they were wanting without the troubling consequences of nicotine ingestion.
The only problem with their little “addiction” came later when their mother would start to make a cake or batch of cookies, and the cinnamon jar would be empty. She knew who the culprits were. Like typical mothers of the times, she’d administer stern corporal punishment. She’d break off small, prickly peach tree switches and lay more than a few well placed strokes on their bare legs. As much as they bawled and squalled, they were usually unrepentant. The forbidden fruit was always worth the high price that they had to pay — a few stripes on their legs was nothing compared to the ultimate “coolness” of smoking and dipping like their grandparents and movie star idols. ❖