It was 1957. As was our annual habit, my grandparents, two uncles and their families and my family had been in Miami Beach, away from the chill and gray of Cleveland since mid-December. I vividly recall this particular Christmas vacation because it was the first time I became consciously aware of the three-day absence of my father, uncles and grandfather. My mother offhandedly informed me they had gone to a place called Cuba. I had never heard of it. I was 10 years old.
It was warm and breezy at Miami International Airport that day while we were waiting for the ground crew to wheel up the stairs to the plane that had just brought them back. It wasn't until we had arrived back at our hotel, the Sea Gull, somewhere around Twentieth Street and Collins Avenue, that my father ceremoniously removed the cigars from the box and handed it to me. I suppose the cigars went into that special case my father had; The Box became mine. It was a wooden box, about eight inches wide by eight inches long and about an inch and a half deep. The only markings on it were on the lid; some foreign words I couldn't translate and a triangle created by three pairs of sabres. Over the years, the valued and oftentimes secret objects that came to occupy
the box varied; the one thing that never changed was the aroma of the wood from which the box was made. Or perhaps it was the aroma of what had occupied the box before it had become mine. I can still recall it.
Flash ahead to 1981. I had decided to combine a little business with the pleasure of a honeymoon. My wife and I were with two French couples having dinner at an outdoor café called Café de Paris in Monte Carlo. I had just presented four seminars on cosmetic and reconstructive dentistry to French, Swiss and Italian dentists. (The miracle of simultaneous translators made it all possible.) Surrounded by the magic of Monaco, I looked back with gratitude and appreciation upon my professional education that had afforded me the opportunity to be where I was.
The abhorrent odor of cigarette smoke abruptly brought me back from my reverie; the four of them, our hosts, were each smoking a cigarette with one hand while the other hand was occupied transporting forkfuls of food from their plates to their mouths. Both my wife and I avoided cigarettes and cigarette smokers with vigor; but in Europe, even more so than in the States, it appeared as though everyone smoked and did so without interruption. The two men, like myself, were dentists.
I seriously inquired of each of them whether or not they had ever studied any scientific literature regarding the perils of cigarette smoking. They admitted so, yet continued to smoke cigarettes. As diplomatically as I could, I attempted to further enlighten them, but to no avail. For professional reasons, I read, reviewed and kept current on the numerous medical and dental studies regarding the effects of tobacco, both the kind you smoke and the kind you chew. Every one of my dental patients who smoked was provided with the results of these studies and every attempt was made to offer any assistance at my disposal to help them kick the habit. Oral cancer, lung cancer and hardening of the arteries are all directly linked to cigarette smoking and tobacco chewing. These two dentists and their wives acknowledged my efforts with sincere interest between puffs. I knew when enough was enough and got off my soapbox.
The evening continued with a friendly, lengthy and in-depth discussion of the differences in dentistry between Europe and the United States. When they asked me if I would be willing to return the next year to provide updated seminars, I enthusiastically agreed on the spot.
Back home I became more interested in the smoking habits of Europeans and sought out any scientific articles that compared the smoking habits in Europe with those of the United States. Of course, at that time there was an effort to get Americans to quit smoking. There was evidence of some 40 or more known toxic substances that are exuded into the air by a lighted cigarette; poisons such as arsenic, mercury and sulfuric acid. The details concluded that the paper, filter and chemical binder were infinitely more toxic than the tobacco itself. The conclusions of all the studies were similar: one was more apt to live a longer and healthier life if one did not smoke cigarettes.
As I had continued to correspond with my two new dental colleagues in France, I made it a point to send them such studies. One letter arrived on my desk in the spring from one of those dentists inquiring if there were any scientific studies regarding, exclusively, the smoking of cigars. My interest was piqued anew. I made a diligent search but could only find studies that mentioned cigar smoking along with cigarette smoking--not one studied the effects of cigar smoking only. I learned cigar smokers were only occasionally included in tobacco usage studies; however, cigarette smokers were almost always included and made up the bulk of the subjects.
One year later, we were back in the French Riviera, once again dining outdoors at the Café de Paris with my two French dental colleagues and their wives. I was quite surprised to observe that during the entire dinner not one of the four smoked a cigarette. The look of wonder on my face must have been evident. They explained: the articles and studies I had sent them provided a much-needed awakening. Although they still smoked cigarettes, they did so much less frequently and certainly not while dining. However, they said, cigars had now become their passion. It wasn't until after dinner that anyone lit cigarettes. And then it was only the two French women.
My two dental colleagues asked if I would accompany them to the newsstand located in the arcade adjacent to the outdoor café. One motioned for me to follow him into what appeared to be a glass-enclosed closet. After the sliding glass door was closed behind us, the smell permeating that closet hit me. I knew that aroma, but I couldn't place it. I looked around. I was in a cigar humidor. Hundreds of boxes adorned the shelves; some open, some sealed. All were made of wood and most had a curious triangle embedded into their lids. Then it all came back to me with a rush. These boxes were like the one my father had given to me as a young boy. Both men asked if anything was wrong with me because of the expression on my face.
After they made their purchases and we returned to our table, I explained. Upon hearing the story of The Box, they offered me a long, dark and wonderfully aromatic cigar. Now my wife was in shock. Knowing my strong feelings about smoking, she inquired as to the state of my sanity when I began to smoke it. She became much less agitated when she began to appreciate its nonthreatening, even acceptable aroma. It was a Davidoff Dom Perignon from Cuba; my first cigar, a most delightful and unforgettable experience.
By the time we were to return to the United States, I had become a frequent and recognized patron of that humidor, often accompanied by my wife, who would lend her assistance in helping me make my selection of Montecristos and Davidoffs. Since then, we have returned to that same spot every summer. During the 11 or so months between visits, my Davidoffs are never far from me. [Editor's note: At the time this story was written, Cuban Davidoffs were still available.]
Nowadays, when I have completed the task of transferring my Grand Cru No. 1s to my cigar humidor, I give the empty box to my young son. Perhaps someday, he, too, will fully understand what it is to truly appreciate and enjoy a good cigar. I hope so, for it is one of life's elegant pleasures.
Oh, by the way, I still present seminars in the south of France and I still have The Box. My son keeps asking me why he can't have that one. I just smile and quietly remind him that, one day, he will.
Robert Jay Fish, D.D.S., J.D., F.A.G.D., practices cosmetic, restorative and reconstructive dentistry in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.