I am a federal worker who quite often commutes the Northeast corridor via Amtrak Metroliner from Philadelphia to D.C. and back in the same day. This grueling trek requires an early departure, so I always visit my humidor to pack away a good cigar for my visit in case the opportunity presents itself. One day, I finished my scheduled business and returned to the train station, just missing my train by seconds. Since the Metroliner runs on hourly schedules, I had an hour to stand under the station portico in the shade and enjoy my Don Tomás.
After lighting up, I was treated to a performance by a great jazz saxophonist, who was playing out on the traffic island for cash. What a great way to end the day! It got better, however, when the cigar aroma allowed me to transcend the age barrier and get the treat of a lifetime! I got to speak with Mr. Johnson, who was 89 years young. He remarked as he walked by, "That cigar smells real good. In fact, I used to smoke Phillys and Muriels." I felt bad about bringing just a single cigar, but he told me he couldn't smoke cigars anymore anyway, although he missed them greatly.
At that point, we talked for about 45 minutes about his life as a retired postal worker (he still carried around his retirement papers), how much a horn player makes in a day, and his wife, who had passed away several years ago. Before she died, she made sure he would still go for his daily walk that they both used to take religiously, and since he lived in D.C., he had to continue to dress in a dignified manner for his walk. He did cut a dapper figure at 89.
Unfortunately for me, trains do eventually arrive, cigars must burn toward their bands, and my meeting with Mr. Johnson had to end. It would not, however, be forgotten. I wrote this letter to make sure Mr. Johnson's tale never dies.
Russel J. Griffith
Bellmawr, New Jersey
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My cigar odyssey began more than 12 years ago, when as a young man of 15 I would steal my father's H. Upmanns, which he shamefully kept in the refrigerator. Throughout my adolescence I watched the great men in my life celebrate their triumphs, bond with friends and relax after long days with a cigar. Consequently, I began to consider cigars as a symbol of success.
Entering the United States Military Academy after high school only furthered my beliefs. The American military has a great and colorful history of cigar smokers, and the Corps of Cadets does its best to continue that tradition at Army-Navy game tailgates and informal gatherings of future Army officers. Visions of Sherman vigorously chewing his cigar during the siege of Vicksburg, of Patton casually lighting up during his 1944 dash across France, and of the common grunt raiding wine and Cognac cellars in Lorraine during the race to the Rhine and finding the added bonus of aged cigars, permeate American military history.
My story begins in March of last year when I, along with thousands of my closest friends, deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of the NATO Stabilization Force. In addition to packing all the necessary military gear required for the mission, I had the daunting task of selecting which few cigars would deploy with me as part of my personal supply. One of the great benefits of serving the Army is having the opportunity to live in Germany--and having access to all the Cohibas, Montecristos and Partagas that I could ever desire. However, you can only pack and carry so much, and after conducting a thorough analysis of the Bosnian climate and probable transportation damage, I selected a box of Dunhill 1994 Tabaras for the trip. Unfortunately, peace enforcement operations are extremely stressful, especially in a country of nearly a million land mines, and my fellow officers and I quickly went through my smokes.
The U.S. Army has the greatest logistical and soldier support capability in the world, but for some unknown reason, our camp supply sergeants were unable to procure replacement cigars through the military. As a last-ditch effort to save the mission, I contacted a relief agency called Cigar.Com at their Web site. I explained to them that the fate of the NATO mission hung in the balance, and they quickly responded to our plea. In just a few weeks I received more than three thousand cigars for the soldiers of Task Force 2-2 Infantry. For the next few months the warm Bosnian nights were illuminated--not with artillery or mortars, but with the brilliant fires of soldiers enjoying the relaxing pleasures of the best cigars in the world--free ones.
The soothing draw of a cigar was not only a great source of pleasure for our soldiers, it was also a very effective weapon in the "psychological warfare" conducted by U.S. troops throughout our sector. Correctly recognizing the relaxing effect cigars have, our company and task force commanders began to use them to manipulate stubborn military and civilian leaders. During heated negotiations, when neither side would budge, it was often the soothing draw of [one of our cigars] that would bring out the better judgment of the parties involved. While the Department of Defense may never admit it, more so than any smart bomb or special operations team mission, it was the common cigar that maintained the peace in the former Yugoslavia from March to October of 1997.
As I crossed the Sava River heading north this past October, I was filled with a great sense of accomplishment. The mission belonged to someone else now, and it was my time to celebrate. I thought long and hard trying to determine the most appropriate means of celebrating the end of this chapter in my life, and I came down to two choices. I could emulate a great American general, George Patton, and urinate in the Sava as he did in the Rhine in 1945. Or I could sit back and light up one last Balkian cigar as my Hummer crossed over into Croatia. I did the latter, and tried my best to look like Schwarzenegger as we headed home.
Captain, U.S. Army
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Editor's note: The following letter was forwarded to our attention by the writer.
Dear Larry King,
You are a solid interviewer and the success of your TV show reflects your excellence. But, making statements like "nobody smokes anymore" (which you said last night on "Larry King Weekend" coverage of the Duke of Windsor auction) not only offended the smokers who were guests on the show, but offended all people who choose to smoke tobacco (of which I and millions of others are representative). Further, such a statement (which only the any-means-to-an-end-toward-prohibition antismoking industry would applaud) is, of course, blatantly absurd! If no one smoked anymore, why in heaven's name is the media (especially CNN) fueling the most fanatic, irrational and pious campaign of the decade toward a single, legal product? Why the ridiculous tobacco "settlement" congressional discussions? Why the continued growth of the tobacco industry worldwide?
Though I am not employed by the tobacco industry in any way, I have become more and more disgusted and angered over the paternalistic and holier-than-thou attitudes reflected over tobacco by politicians and the news media. Always cloaked in the safe, self-righteous and politically correct statement "for our children," the real impetus behind these attacks is greed and prohibition. Clearly, this fanaticism has got to stop.
The fact that you choose to no longer smoke is your business. In the "land of the free," however, kindly return the courtesy by getting off the backs of adult smokers who continue (and will continue) to enjoy smoking.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
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My wife (of 34 years) and I were headed from our home in Windsor, Ontario, for our sixth holiday in Cuba. As our trip was in part related to cigars, I thought I would share some of my experiences with your readers.
Three years ago an acquaintance in Cuba had convinced me to try a Cohiba, and I have never looked back. The next Christmas, my daughter gave me a subscription to Cigar Aficionado, and my life was complete!
I had been extremely busy prior to leaving on this vacation and had not had time for my weekly cigar for about three weeks. We had a one-hour stopover at one airport in Cuba and I was pleased to see someone rolling cigars inside the airport terminal. A five-dollar bill got us two very cold beers, a "no-name" cigar of very high quality, and 50 cents change. What an enjoyable stopover.
Some three hours later, we were at our hotel, and after unpacking we headed for the store in the lobby. I had already decided that on this trip I would not purchase black-market cigars, but would only purchase from government-approved stores. Although I had previously purchased black-market cigars that I thought were of excellent quality at ridiculously low prices ($25 per box for Montecristo No. 4s), I reasoned that if I were at home in Canada I would not stoop to buying what could be stolen property, and that my values should be the same in Cuba.
Suddenly, my high ideals were brought under review when the store clerk told me that they were out of cigars. She said that they might receive a shipment later in the week, but I knew that she really meant a Cuban week, which really meant a Canadian month. When I complained to the resident Canadian tour representative (who had previously told us that black-market cigars would be confiscated at the airport by Cuban officials when we departed), she said not to worry, that we would be going on a tour of a major city in four days and that our tour would include a cigar factory.
I couldn't believe it! We were on vacation in Cuba and I didn't have a cigar. At that point my lofty ideals were set aside and I began to draw on my previous experience in searching out cigars on the black market. After finding a driver with limited English, my wife and I and a newly found friend, who was also interested in cigars, left the hotel property and soon found ourselves on a dirt road in a settlement of homes carved out of the forest. It was dusk and we were well off the beaten track in a settlement of very modest Cuban homes, among goats, chickens, pigs and other livestock. Had I been in any other country except Cuba, I would undoubtedly have been considering changes that I could have made to my will, but over the years I had learned to feel very comfortable and secure anywhere in Cuba.
Our driver pulled into the backyard of one of the homes and had a fairly lengthy conversation in Spanish with the owner. We were directed to a nearby home just down the road, which seemed to be uninhabited. The resident of the first home walked behind the car and we were instructed to stay in the vehicle as there was supposedly a "bad" dog, which was a threat to our safety. Through our interpreter, whose English was very limited, I found that I could not purchase Romeo y Julietas, but I could buy a box of Montecristo No. 2s for $32. With the acquisition of the cigars, our vacation suddenly was turned around. We were back at the hotel by 6 p.m., in time for a wonderful meal, followed by a fine cigar. Word had spread that I had "made a buy" and other guests of the hotel dropped by our table to inspect the merchandise.
Four days later we were in Santiago de Cuba, a city on the southeast coast. When we arrived at a small cigar factory, I was amazed as we left the tour bus at the number of people on the street selling boxes of black-market $25 Montecristo No. 4s. I was even more surprised as we walked through the factory when a young lad at one of the work stations reached under his table and offered me a box of Cohibas for $30. I opted instead to buy cigars at the authorized store where, unfortunately, the selection was not as great as from black-market sources. I purchased three boxes: Partagas, Sancho Panzas and El Rey del Mundos, for a total cost of $220. This was the most I had paid for Cuban cigars, but at least I was relatively certain that they were not fakes.
My last acquisition, on the following day, was a box of black-market Romeo y Julieta Churchills, which are among the best cigars that I have smoked in my limited experience. My goal is to be immediately able to spot fakes and poor-quality cigars, but this may take some time.
I never cease to be mystified by the Cuban cigar black market. Sales are never made in the open; rather, they are made by such means as using deserted offices at the hotel and by passing cigars wrapped in beach towels. On one occasion, we (my wife wouldn't let me go alone) were required to walk down a deserted road on a rainy night, past hotel security guards, to meet two hotel employees who rode up on bicycles, right on schedule. The mysterious part of the transaction is that if I can find people who sell cigars on the black market, why can't the Cuban officials also find and prosecute them? I have been told by hotel employees that they would lose their jobs if they were caught, but I don't necessarily believe them. Perhaps in the future, someone from your magazine will shed light on this mystery.