I understand the irresistible control nicotine can have. The desire to smoke even though the smoker knows tobacco is responsible for thousands of deaths every year may be incomprehensible to those who have never been cursed with it. But I was not shocked by that smoker in Berhman’s Tavern in St. Louis, Missouri who on Wednesday, August 28, 2019 chose to light up a cigarette as a would-be armed robber threatened to kill him if he did not lie down on the tavern floor. Even immediate death from a pistol was not as frightening as dying without a last cigarette. Perhaps the bar patron was envisioning all those old black and white movies where the condemned prisoner is afforded a final smoke before the firing squad does its grisly work.
As for me, a one-time smoker who now would need a gun to my head to make me smoke, I recalled what a death grip nicotine had on me years ago. When I joined the United States Air Force and was ordered to Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas in the sweltering summer heat of 1963 what my country required of me was a rude awakening; no girls, no beer and, cruelest of all, no cigarettes except when allowed by our TI’s (Training Instructors).
We had three TI’s for our flight of 85 men. Each one tried his best to make us feel like Luke in Cool Hand Luke. They left no doubt in our young minds that all of America’s problems were caused by our “Failure to communicate”, that is, to simply already know what the TI’s meant by various shouts and grunts. One such shout was that we had better not even think of smoking without permission. At the same time we were told the time might come when we would be allowed to smoke but if we did not have any cigarettes available at that time, “Too bad!”. Of course, since the TI’s inspected our pockets every day the sadistic sergeants thought we would be unable to smoke even when given the chance. However, my habit was such I stuffed a full pack of Lucky Strikes with two wooden matches down into my left sock and prayed for when relief would come. One 100 degree day it did. At a break in the fun the TI’s were having running us through some nonsense drill one TI suddenly yelled, “If you got ’em, smoke ’em!”. Well, to the TI’s chagrin, I had ’em and passed one out to each member of my 18-man squad and had each one light the next man’s from his. I was a hero to my guys. Unfortunately, my reward from the TI’s was KP for two days. It was worth it even though I almost keeled over due to the heat and the long period without nicotine from those stale, sweat-stained cancer causers.
Anyway, that was then and this is now and while I understand the St. Louis smoker’s Hobson’s choice between going smokeless or maybe getting shot, except for the occasional celebratory cigar, I’ll now voluntarily stick with what the Air Force tried to do for me in 1963.