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Great Moments

In the Company of Men
Laban Carrick Hill
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

Back in Covington, Tennessee, about 45 miles northeast of Memphis, my granddaddy always had a big, fat old cigar shoved in the side of his mouth. My grandma didn't much care for the habit, but she put up with it. She was a church-going Methodist and preferred the more genteel and discreet habit of dipping snuff for herself.

My granddaddy loved his cigars and smoked them day and night, inside and outside, awake and asleep. I can remember him in his furniture store on the town square just across from the courthouse, rocked back in one of the brown Naugahyde La-Z-Boys lined against the wall, with a stogie pinched between two pink knuckles, dozing the afternoon away. Smoke would drift lazily toward the ceiling like steam rising from
the hot pavement after an afternoon shower.

I'd sit at the other end of the store and drink ice cold Co' Colas wondering why my grandma let him smoke those stinkers inside when she wouldn't let him bring liquor in the house, since liquor always made him nice and friendly. But I figured my grandmother had her reasons.

My Uncle Melvin always took a more philosophical approach. Once my granddaddy nodded off, Uncle Melvin would lean back in his chair, prop his feet up on the oak desk near the cash register, and pontificate on how there are two types of cigar smokers in the world.

One, he'd say, cut the end off nice and clean with a pocket knife. Uncle Melvin would draw his knife out and cut off an imaginary end of a cigar, brushing the cutting gently off his lap. Then, he'd tell me that this kind of cigar smoker would light the opposite end carefully to get it burning evenly. This kind of smoker, he would continue, always stubbed his cigar out halfway down so he didn't smoke any of the bitter end.

My uncle would then give me a mischievous smile and slide another imaginary stogie from his shirt pocket. "Now, this cigar is what you call a stinker, a five-center. You can buy this fella down at Andy's pool hall." He'd wave it under my nose so I could get a good whiff of it, and finally he'd bury the end deep in the side of his mouth almost to his back molars. He'd explain that this kind of smoker nervously chewed his cigar end and lit it like he was doing it in a hurricane. For this type, he'd say, the cigar burned awkwardly up one side. My uncle would lick his thumb and show me how this kind of smoker had to lay on a dab of spit on the fast side so the other could catch up. He'd tell me this type was the kind that would smoke a cigar down to where he couldn't hold onto it any longer and the butt would be a soggy mess of black leaf tobacco disintegrating between his lips.

I'd like to be able to say that my granddaddy was the former, but he wasn't. He hung onto his cigar like he spent his last nickel on it. I remember how he would peel the stained cellophane wrapper off a cigar with obvious heft, and chew on its end for an hour or so. Then, he'd strike a wooden match and draw the flame with a vigorous sucking motion until a red ember glowed angrily from the dry end. Ironically, he collected lighters and even had a hand-grenade lighter of which he was particularly proud, but he never used them. They were just for show.

By the time I reached adolescence, my granddaddy had passed away, but his example burned deeply in my memory. So when I began searching for the trappings of manhood, I naturally turned to cigars and chose a particularly foul brand whose name had the ring of sweat-stained, hard-drinking men, called Swisher Sweets. Their name conjured up a whole mouthful of brown saliva that seemed to represent something I longed for.

On Friday nights my friends and I would head over to the 7-11 convenience store and buy a package of Swisher Sweets each. Then, we'd swagger over to the cemetery and sit on headstones late into the evening, smoking our cigars and arguing the virtues of American versus Japanese motorcycles, though, in our heart of hearts, we knew that none of us would buy anything but a Harley.

When I turned 18, I moved to New York City where I quickly gravitated to small, sophisticated cigars, called Dannemann's. These dark and tightly packed machine-made cigars seemed more fitting to the harsh city lifestyle. When smoked, the tobacco was strong and bitter. In a romantic way, the cigars reminded me that life was hard, but that I could gain a taste for it. Eventually, though, I began to desire something more and haunted the cigar stores in Chelsea where I could buy fresh, hand-rolled cigars.

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