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Smoking on the Back Porch

| By Richard Wile | From John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

Reclining in the porch swing, I spin my cigar between my thumb and forefinger--savoring its heft and the way it shines in the candlelight like fine leather. The night breeze pushes the wind chimes and a distant train whistle sends familiar shivers up my back. I snip the end of my $10 Dunhill with my cigar scissors, light a strip of cedar from the candle, and bring the flame from the cedar to the tobacco. I watch the smoke mix with the smoke from Grampy Lufkin's 10-cent White Owl as he and Nanny sit on this porch 40 years ago, listening to crickets and complaining about the smell of a pig farm up the road.

Grampy was one of several cigar smokers I remember while growing up, but more than any of the others, his cigar was part of him, like his railroad cap, his glasses and his hearing aid. In all my memories of him--polishing the chrome portholes of one of the Buicks he bought every two years, pointing out tufts of grass I've missed clipping along the side of the garage, or running a pine board through the table saw in his workshop--his jaw remains clenched around his cigar. Or rather, his cigar holder. Grampy Lufkin never put the cigar itself into his mouth, and he never put his cigar down. I don't remember his ever puffing a cigar. Drawing slowly and evenly, wisps of smoke leaking from the corners of his mourh, he probably consumed no more than four or five White Owls a day.

Grampy Lufkin personified hard work and conservative politics. He tended to be serious and critical of others. He didn't drink, and he was judgmental of those who did. I preferred my mother's father, Grampy Cleaves, who wore faded flannel shirts unbuttoned at the sleeves and wrinkled green chinos, who hunted and fished and drank Narragansett beer straight out of long-neck bottles.

I remember the night Grampy Cleaves came over to the house with two handmade Cuban cigars for my father and him to smoke while they watched the Friday night fights on TV. No one in my family could afford 40 cents apiece for Cuban machine-rolled cigars, let alone at least twice that for hand-rolled ones, but though he drove an oil truck for a living and was primarily a pipe and cigarette smoker, Grampy Cleaves would still get premium cigars now and then and give them away.

White Owls, Blackstones, Dutch Masters, Robert Burns--these were the cigars I remember as being part of the social fabric of the small Maine town that helped raise me. These were the cigars advertised in Life magazine and in the local newspaper. You bought them at Vaughan's Drug Store, from a glass display case to the left as you went in the door, across the aisle from trays of warm cashews and Spanish peanuts. Robert Burns had the largest selection: six shapes selling from 2 for 25 cents to 25 cents apiece. I remember buying a 25-cent Imperial to celebrate graduating from high school.

My first cigar was a Phillies Cheroot, whose TV ads I remember used cowboys and wide-open western prairies before Marlboro's did. These small cigars in the red-and-white package became a way for me to rebel against and become part of the adult community at the same time. I was in high school, where what counted were sports, the size of certain parts of your anatomy, and learning how to drive and unhook bras in the same family Ford. It was a time for James Dean and Elvis Presley; for getting angry at the Dutch Masters-puffing town barber, Snap Moxcey, because he couldn't cut my flattop level; for being ashamed of Grampy Lufkin because he spent his weekend chauffeuring my grandmother to Eastern Star (a women's club) instead of being a real man, like those in the True magazines I kept beside my bed.

I can't remember who gave me that first cigar, but I remember being at the local carnival with Spider and Willie and Goose and Marty--maybe even Pea Soup and Wild Bill--sauntering through the rides and the games and fun houses, looking for girls. As we paused in front of the Giant Swing to light our cigars, I met Susan, who was to become my first love, coming with her friends from the opposite direction. The Ferris wheel, old hat by the time I'd turned 12, became new again that night with Susan and my cheroot; her leg against mine, her head resting against my arm across the back of the bench seat, the two of us alone in the night sky looking down on the crowd. This is how it will be, I thought, when I'm rich and famous: this feeling of rising from town and having everyone below gape up in admiration.

When I went to college, cigars like Robert Burns, Tiparillos and the new White Owl Tips were part of the social scene. I remember the advertising: "Should a gentleman offer a lady a Tiparillo?" and "See that tip? It's flexible." After the surgeon general's report on cigarettes in 1964, I tried tipped cigars for a time, but they tasted plastic, and besides, having read Kerouac, I was still in rebellion against anything that smacked of conformity. I preferred Roi-Tans ("Man to man... smoke new Roi-Tan"), or even better, Crooks ("rum soaked"), favored by the smoke jumpers whom I idolized and imitated (except for the parachuting part) during two summers I spent in Idaho working for the U.S. Forest Service. Shaped like poorly printed "S's," guaranteed to disintegrate into chewing tobacco, Crooks were the complete antithesis of what Madison Avenue considered a good smoke. They belonged with nights at six and seven thousand feet in Colorado and Wyoming and Idaho, with the satisfaction of having worked 18 hours to contain a forest fire, with stars so close I could reach up and grab a handful anytime I wanted.

After college, I became a pipe smoker, and later, an ex-smoker and jogger, blending grains for granola instead of tobacco for my pipe. Some 10 years ago, I moved back to the town in which I'd been raised--the town I couldn't wait to leave 25 years earlier. My grandfathers and Snap Moxcey were deceased, but Nanny Lufkin still lived in the same house. In many ways the others lived there, too, as she told me stories of the Depression and the Second World War: of when Snap Moxcey and his father used to cut hair side by side, of when Grampy Lufkin helped shingle a neighbor's roof in return for a dozen eggs. I learned that when the Depression began, Grampy had been a 40-year-old bachelor living with his mother, and I realized the financial and social challenges he must have faced in this small, conservative Maine town when he'd married Nanny, a divorced woman with a 10-year-old son, my father.

Before she died, my grandmother sold her house to me. A few summers ago, my wife and I had the living room redone and Grampy's flowered wallpaper reappeared, even uglier than I remember. But over the windows I also saw valances he built that fit so perfectly they really didn't need screws to hold them in place. I saw floors he laid, wardrobes he built, wiring he installed: in short, the care he put into the house. I realized, too, the concern Grampy showed not only for his stepson, but for his stepson's children as well.

Some nights, in the garage besides his workbench, under the old cans of nails, I could smell the fragrance of cigar smoke, and one Saturday afternoon I walked to the corner store and bought a red-and-white package of Phillies Cheroots. There's enough of my Grampy Cleaves in me, however, that the next time I was in Harvard Square I went to Leavitt and Peirce, where owner-manager Paul Macdonald introduced me to Hoyo de Monterrey Excaliburs.

My semiweekly Dunhill, Ashton or Hoyo de Monterrey has become a rite, a ceremony in honor of heritage. Over the past 40 years, I've watched society's perceptions of cigars and cigar smokers change, but what those who simplistically blame magazines and advertisers for our practice don't understand is how smoking fulfills the basic human need for ritual and contemplation. Tonight, as I reflect on my own changing perceptions about Grampy Lufkin, about this house and this town, I can sense a rhythm, like the tide's ebb and flow, the rocking back and forth of the porch swing, or the inhale/exhale of my smoking. I think of Ecclesiastes: "To everything there is a season," and of the beautiful summer evening in which I now find myself.

Out of the night a door slams and a dog barks. The evening breeze again nudges the wind chimes and the light from the candle flickers on the windowsill. The smoke from my cigar has filled the air like incense.

Richard Wile is a writer and writing instructor in Yarmouth, Maine.