Red Man

It's amazing, really, that I never took up smoking. Practically everyone in my family was caught in the web of tobacco: Daddy, Momma, sisters Audrey, Carolyn and Frankie, and a host of tertiary aunts, uncles and cousins. The habit was neither frowned upon nor encouraged by my kinfolk, the tacit warning being, "If you're old enough to smoke, you're old enough to buy your own. Lung cancer is your choice, but don't be bumming any cigarettes from me!" Smoking didn't interest me whatsoever. It wasn't rebellious and was uncool as my father's boring four-door Plymouth Satellite.

When Rhonda, my same-aged niece/best friend who lived in the trailer next door to ours finally married and moved to the small burg of Ooltewah -- "Owl's Nest" -- Tennessee, ten miles north of Chattanooga, I didn't mourn my very real loss by blaming her husband Lynn for taking Rhonda but seized the opportunity to expand my horizons by hanging out with them every chance I could. Lynn became the cool high school pal I'd never had. At Ooltewah High School Lynn had been the football quarterback, and his longish wavy blond hair set him apart from his friends with whom he occasionally dabbled in motorcycles and pot. He was a redneck hippie poised on the cusp of responsibility and success. I admired him immensely and he appreciated me for my position in his pretty, new wife's life.

Many a weekend I spent time at the couple's new house helping them build, landscape and paint. Lynn constructed a small barn-cum-storage building, and it was as we were painting the structure Lynn offered me my first "chew" of Beech-Nut Chewing Tobacco® which I accepted with only a modicum of cajoling. I did not turn green. I did not throw up. I got an almost instant buzz as the nicotine passed through the semipermeable mucous membrane of my mouth and took the fast lane straight to my brain.

I was hooked.

Ultimately unsatisfied with Beech Nut (too many stems), I tried Levi Garrett® which lost its flavor pretty quickly. I settled into Red Man®, which boasted an excellent long-lasting flavor, no stems and cool, timeless packaging. My mother claimed to be part Native American (we called it "Indian"), and though I had neither dark hair nor Cher-like cheekbones, I, too, celebrated my heritage by choosing a noble carcinogen. My habit rapidly grew to a one package every three days or so routine, and not only was I enjoying my new vice, I was seduced by the working class/redneck machismo I felt it imbued my lower middle class trailer-dwelling existence.

Red Man was my companion for nearly 20 years, well into my teaching career. I did not worry about the social implications or the Sword of Mouth Cancer that hung ominously by a beard hair over my head. It took a trip to London in the mid-90s to inspire my abandoning chewing tobacco. Even if I could find Red Man in England, I knew instinctively that the price would be prohibitive given my extensive involvement with the stuff, and customs wouldn't allow me to carry enough to keep me continuously spitting for over two weeks.

So I quit. Cold turkey. I have never cheated. Not even once.

Do I miss it? Yes. I could resume the habit in a second, but I don't. I simply do not want to break my record. I could piously cite health reasons or claim to save money. I could crow about eliminating a filthy habit, but none of these would be true.

Still, as Piaf sang, "No Regrets" . . .

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