One Christmas when I was a boy, I went to the then-new Southdale shopping center — nobody had yet coined the term “mall,” though Southdale was the first — just outside Minneapolis with my mother. I was waiting on a gallery bench outside a store, when I saw a young man and a young woman fly into one another’s arms in delight and surprise. The two of them, college-age and apparently returned home for the season, had been shopping with their families, and had evidently not expected to see one another — at least not quite yet.
There they stood, lovers, their arms around each other, blushing with delight, while, in the background, their families smiled. By silent consent, the families melted away, leaving the two alone. I sat and watched. The young woman displayed that wonderful, fresh, clean, trim type of beauty the Midwest produces. The man, also typical, was a rangy, beaky, amiable sort, like a middleweight wrestler. They lit cigarettes and they smiled and they told each other stories about their semesters away at college. The restrained susurrus of holiday Southdale plashed about them, people, fountains, gentle music.
The world was a lot nicer when everybody smoked.
My first editor, Bob Bork, used to arrive at work in the morning, hang up his baseball cap, and stack two fresh packs of Viceroys, one on top of the other, next to his telephone. Bob once read over one of my stories, written when I was fifteen, and complimented me in terms I’ll never forget: “Ya got the touch, boy!” Bob could blow the biggest, thickest, heaviest smoke rings I’ve ever seen. He told about the time he blew one in a bar and it settled perfectly around a beer bottle. “Do that again!” demanded the astonished guy on the stool next to him.
There were Jim and Tom MacDonald, two wonderful young men, brothers, with beautiful bass voices, who sang in our church choir. At choir practice one Thursday night, Tom said to Jim, “Give me cigarette and I’ll make it disappear.” Jim gave him one. Tom lit it. After church, downstairs in the parish hall, the whole congregation bloomed in the aromas of smoke and coffee, and the laughter rang out.
My mother’s dear cousin Jean, the best friend a teenaged boy ever had, used to stump awkwardly around her apartment out by Lake Minnetonka and make me comfortable while she smoked non-stop and we listened to her component stereo system good and loud, and talked about everything. And, in her late forties, my Aunt Lettie fell in love with a St. Paul cop, a widower, and ended up with the happiest marriage I have ever seen. Russ, with his white crewcut and square beefy face, would sit in his favorite chair in the house he had built and puff on El Producto seconds (two dollars for a box of 50) while Lettie bustled in and out of the kitchen, beaming at him. Russ outlived Lettie by more than 20 years, long enough for me to try one of his cigars. They were terrible.
The world has changed, and it’s a meaner place. Little children who once would have gathered around a pipe smoker to say, “That smells good” and “Daddy, why don’t you smoke a pipe?” now point fingers and say “That stinks!” and “You’re gonna die!” Carrie Nation and her saloon-busting hatchet are totems of historical ridicule today. But Carrie Nation’s heirs in the anti-smoking movement have tapped into all the same wretched excesses of American culture — bluenosery, totalitarianism, and vandalism. There is a difference, of course. Today’s Carrie Nations have used thirty years of anti-tobacco jihadery to practice the sinister modern techniques of the Big Lie and the Big Lawsuit.
Along the way, they’ve corrupted science, destroyed objective journalism, and made the truth nothing more than a commodity. They’ve demonized tens of millions of people and turned tens of millions more into preening, self-righteous jerks.
And of course they’re not done. Having practiced and perfected their techniques, they’re now casting around for new targets. Food looms as the most likely. But there are others, lots of others.
I would say that George Orwell himself would be challenged to describe it all. But of course he wouldn’t.