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Great Moments

A Measure of Time
Bernard Kalb
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Bacon, May/Jun 00

I kill time between flights by dropping in on the airport duty-free tobacco shop, and the same thing always happens: a quick nostalgic reconnoitering of the famous cigar brands to see if--ah yes, there, in row 3! And there, row 5! And there, top row! Unopened boxes unlocking memories.  

Montecristos, row 3, and I'm back a quarter of a century in room 208 of the Caravelle in Saigon after a day in the booby-trapped boonies of Vietnam. H. Upmanns, row 5, and I am rolling on the deck of the USS Glacier maneuvering between the threatening icebergs of Antarctica in the mid-1950s. Romeo y Julietas, top row; where am I? In China, 1972, watching President Nixon as Marco Polo standing on the Great Wall and endorsing it as a "great wall." All these fancy cigars remind me of a cigar I do not see: the old White Owls--are they still around?  

Up until Vietnam, a cigar was a cigar was a cigar, with none of the special significance that the Montecristos were to later acquire.   My first cigars were my father's, a long, long time ago. Those White Owls. Their aroma is still with me. I have a photograph of my father, smiling, that cigar in his hand mocking the Depression of the 1930s. It was one of his few luxuries--a gift to himself--and I marveled at the way his smoking a White Owl transformed him from an anonymous piecework wage-earner to a gentleman of leisure, smiling as though he didn't have a worry in the world. It was the best five cents ever spent.  

My next cigar was very upscale, the Cuban H. Upmann, and it was quite by accident that I came across this famous Havana export that was celebrated in the best salons around the world. As a humble correspondent for The New York Times, I was covering a mid-1950s expedition to Antarctica that included the famed polar explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd. I don't recall if he smoked, but his son, Dickie Byrd--I think he was a U.S. Navy lieutenant--was also on the journey south and I clearly remember that he collected cigar bands. In any case, the PX aboard the USS Glacier featured a variety of domestic cigars, but the executive officer, as I recall, preferred Cubans, so H. Upmann went along for the ride. Buying a visa to an unknown world, I tried my first Upmann--and thought of my father's less mellow White Owls. This all took place pre-Fidel, so I could puff away perfectly legally as our ship deftly avoided embracing any of the icebergs looming around us.  

And then, Peking in 1972, and my Great Cigar Leap Forward, to paraphrase Chairman Mao. As it happened, I was one of the CBS correspondents, along with Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, who had the good fortune to be part of the press corps accompanying President Nixon on that diplomatic extravaganza to China and his tête-à-tête with the chairman. Yes, it was great that the United States and China were finally defusing tensions and talking détente. Yes, it was a stroke of genius that Washington was playing the China card against the anxious Soviets.  

But to me all of that was a sideshow. What really transcended these strategic dimensions was the discovery that, in the lobby of my hotel, I could buy Romeo y Julietas fresh from Havana for $7.50 a box! Twenty-five of them! In tubes! Churchills! And at $7.50 a box, who cared about Sino-American relations, Mao and Nixon and even Henry Kissinger! You couldn't get them back home; this was post-Fidel now, and Havanas were on the no-no list of imports. But here, there were boxes of them, forbidden cigars in the Forbidden City. Conspicuous smoking immediately lit up the celestial heavens! I'd have one lit cigar between my lips, another tucked precariously over an ear, and I even tried to see whether I could balance one between my toes. I must have looked like a furnace with smoke floating out of three chimneys, and I wasn't the only such furnace on the reportorial landscape. If I could be assured that the statute of limitations has expired, I might even have a few additional confessions about whether any of those contraband Havanas made the journey back to the States.  

But these are bits and pieces in my humidor of memories that go back eras. Cigars light up many memories for me, but Montecristos and Vietnam are the most vividly linked. Back then--I'm thinking the late 1960s--when the war was making casualties of us all, a Montecristo at the end of a scary day in the field helped me to journey from one world to another, from the violently surreal to the ordinary. I'd puff on my Montecristo stingily, make it last as long as possible, cigar smoke replacing cordite smoke, the comforting aroma conjuring up images of dinner jackets and brandy instead of ambushes and punji sticks.  

For a few hours, I could escape the whole tortured landscape of Vietnam: the GIs, Viet Cong, ARVN, NVA, DMZ, napalm, Cu Chi tunnels, Khe Sanh, My Lai, the Delta, medevacs, body bags...endless images. So different from the outwardly serene and captivating images of my very first trip to Saigon in 1956 to cover the inauguration of president Ngo Dinh Diem, as well as the inauguration of deluded U.S. optimism. "Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong." Robert McNamara, wasn't it? Almost 40 years later; all those casualties later.  

I was living in Hong Kong between 1962 and 1965, as Southeast Asia bureau chief for CBS News, and again, after an interlude in Paris, between 1966 and 1970. Those early years were a great assignment--and not only because I could pick up a box of Montecristo No. 1s for under $30. Asia was mine to roam, that great exotic arc of geography filled with a million stories, from the Philippines to India--no visas to China in those days--and I'd smoke everything from Tabacaleras in Manila to cheroots in Rangoon as I wandered the region, covering everything from coups d'état to abbreviated wars. Even romance!  

Do you remember that shy socialite from New York planning to marry the handsome chogyal (king) of Sikkim in Gangtok, in deepest Asia, in 1963? Do you remember Sikkim? Gangtok? I had cabled CBS New York, saying this was a great human-interest story we couldn't afford to miss, Asia and America tying the knot, blah blah blah. Heady days, those. The foreign desk back home bought it, and off we flew. It turned out to be a fabulous bash complete with Buddhist monks blowing 10-foot prayer horns and invoking the blessings of the gods. Did the chogyal pass out cigars? Too long ago to remember; I'm sure I brought my own. But I do recall borrowing top hat and tails from one of the VIP guests, no less than U.S. Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith, so that I could be properly attired for a wedding stand-upper in the foothills of the Himalayas. Style, toujours le style!  


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