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Sunday, Jan. 23, 2005
There’s a physical tingling sensation in my mouth right now. I’ve had it before - it’s the sort of mouth you’d get on the first hot day of summer when Mom would make that first cold pitcher of lemonade. Remember that? You’d spy that sphere of lemon yellow goodness with a dozen ice cubes on top and some pulp swirling around the bottom and your lips would contract in a pucker before you even poured the first glass.

After that first gulp of citrus and sugar you felt like your teeth had just loosened a little bit from the tartness of it all and the only thing to do was to drink more. And then pour a second glass on top of that and drain it to the bottom in one gulp.

But the mouth, the way your mouth reacted. For about fifteen minutes your mouth was set in yearning mode. The eyes saw, the mouth reacted.

When you smoke for 30 odd years and then set ‘em aside, you get that feeling 24/7.

It ain’t pleasant, I’m just sayin’.

I mentioned an old mentor in Friday’s entry who I could probably mine for material for a good month. Louis was a character, a real live old timer who was born way back in the hills of Virginia during the first world war. He had a face not unlike the oak trees whose wood he admired, which is to say craggy, and a disposition to match. They stuck me on a bench next to his in the shop, hoping that some knowledge would rub off or that I could be of some help to him.

Every morning Louis would roll into that shop at 7:55 am, set his lunch pail on the bench, unlock his tool drawers and pick up on his project within 10 seconds. There was none of the coffee drinking or grab assing that went on with the rest of us at that time of day, he was set to his task and relentlessly pursued it. As senior mechanic he had the unspoken run of the place, you generally did not set up a machine or move material around unless you were sure that he wouldn’t be using it for a while. The consequences of not observing the rule might be a simple glaring eye, or an acid tongued lecture that would run on all day. Louis didn’t say a lot, but you did tend to listen when he did.

I don’t know why he took an interest in me, other than I didn’t go anywhere near his stuff, didn’t bug him with a lot of questions. He wouldn’t lend me his tools (and I wouldn’t dream of asking) but he might watch me struggle with something for a while and step in with a word or two. He was, as I tried to be, a good bench ‘neighbor’ and in a commercial wood shop, you learn how to do that quickly if you want to keep your tools and materials intact.

Louis had a running feud with the other old timer in the shop that had gone on for years before I got there. It had escalated to the point that when Louis had left for a field install one day, the other old timer drove a forklift into the shop, casually hooked a chain around an entire wagon load of window parts Louis had been slaving over for a week and just . . . drove off with them. Out of the shop, across the lumberyard and behind a railroad boxcar full of fresh 2 x 4’s. I believe only me and another kid were privy to the whole thing and we knew better than to stick our noses into the Louis vs. Chapman fight.

The two of them went out to another jobsite, a state run mental hospital, some time later and Louis took the upper hand. Somehow he “lost” Chapman’s all important visitor badge and when it came time to leave for the day, Louis just checked out a little early, to warm up the truck or something, and never did go back inside to get Chapman out or vouch for him . . .

As grumpy old men go, either of those two make me look like a 5th grade girl.

The point of all this background is to tell the tale of the day I heard Louis ramble on for nearly an entire lunch break about smoking. Cigarettes in particular. He was just breaking out a sandwich when I strolled to my bench, hopped on and fired up a Salem Light.

“What the hell you doin’, kid?” he wanted to know.

“Taking a lunch break Louis, just like you.” I had a feeling I knew where he was headed but this was not someone you wanted to disagree with right from jump.

“Well take yer damn lunch someplace else. I’m eatin’ over here. I don’t need that cloud o’ smoke messin’ wit my sammich.”

It should be noted that there was at least twenty feet between us, the ceiling height of the shop was thirty feet, and a huge bay door was open and drafting the area. So I hesitated, just little.

“You’re kidding me, right? You can’t even smell that smoke from over there.”

He gnawed at his liverwurst and rye, poured some coffee from his thermos and turned a baleful eye my way. “Doesn’t matter if I can smell it or not. It’s jest nasty. Put that sumbitch out.” He had no problem with sensitivity, did our Louis.

I put it out. “Didn’t you ever smoke Louis?”

As I’ve said, he was usually a man of few words, but there were certain subjects near and dear to him, and I’d just found one of the real red herrings.

“Yer damn skippy I smoked! Puffed them little devils for goin’ on thirty years or more. Two packs a day! No filters, either! Oh I made you look like a sissy, I did. Never caught me without a fag in me mouth.”

I was a little amazed. The man had rarely spoken five consecutive words to me before. But Louis was just getting warmed up.

“First thing in the morning’, cup o’ joe and a cigarette, yes sir. Jump on the wagon goin’ down the mountain with the sun comin’ up and ever’body puffin’ away . . . work all day, smoke all day. Ten cent a pack they was, and the man came ‘round with his cart every afternoon. Every afternoon there I was buyin’ another twenty cent worth, and all my buddies too. Then on home and there I was still puffin’ on one getting’ into bed at night.” He shook his head at the memory. “Damnation! Nasty things.”

I had to ask. “If they were so nasty how come you kept at it for thirty years?”

“Why shoot I don’t know. Everybody smoked in those days, boy. Tweren’t nobody knowed any better, hell they was telling’ us it was good to smoke. Keep yer nerves steady and all.”

I was quiet for a minute, still trying to comprehend cigarettes at ten cents a pack. Even if they did come from the man with a cart. And as he often did, Louis read my mind.

“So how much you payin’ for them devils, boy? What’re they now, 75 cent a pack?” He was genuinely curious.

“Um, I paid $1.25 for these,” I said, waving the pack around for show.

It was probably a good thing he wasn’t in the middle of a swallow of coffee. With his eyes bulging behind thick black rimmed glasses, he yelped “Jebus, a buck and a quarter? You got to be out yer mind, boy! What, that’s half an hour’s work for you ain’t it?”

I had to admit it was. These were different times, folks.

“Well I swear. I thought I was a fool. Makes me look like a gotdam genius now, don’t it? Imagine that, a buck and a quarter . . .” and he rambled on like that, talking to himself for a minute, his head shaking to and fro.

He’d finished his sandwich, and his banana, and his chunk of cake. He carefully capped the ancient thermos and wiped hands on pants, seemingly in deep thought. “I tell ye something boy. I gived them devils up ten years ago and you ought to take my advice. Don’t go on smoking’ for thirty years afore you try and give ‘em up. ‘Taint easy.”

At the time they were touting gum and mints specially designed for the smoker trying to quit, and I innocently asked him if he’d used any of that.

He seemed a bit offended. “Naw, hell no! I didn’t use any of that junk, didn’t go to no quack doctor or let some long hair hold my hand or any of that crap. I just up and quit one day. Kept a pack in my shirt pocket for two weeks and never touched a one! Just looked the devil in the eye and spit on ‘em, I did! That’s the trouble wit you young kids, got no will power! Gotta grab the devil by the balls and swing him around a little! Give ‘em a little ride!”

This was interesting, but I smelled exaggeration. “You kept a pack in your shirt for two weeks and never had one? C’mon Louis, why would you do that? Why keep them with you?”

His eyes glinted. “I’ll show ye why. Gimmee that pack o’ devils you got there.”

I had a half dozen cigarettes left in the pack, and at the time it would have been enough to get me through the day, and out to my truck, where another pack lay waiting on the dash. I handed them over to Louis, who grasped them in that one physical feature common to all wood mechanics, a huge and calloused hand with an oversized wrist attached.

“Now watch boy. I kept them in me shirt pocket here” and he tucked the pack neatly into his pocket. “And I’d work all day long, thinking’ about how much I wanted one of them devils, and how much I hated on em’ too. Ever’ now and then I’d draw one out . .” (and as I watched, he did) “ . . and take a big ol’ sniff of it . .” (he sniffed at the cigarette as he would a fine wine) “ . . and then I’d put it right back. Right there where I could keep an eye on it.” And he sat back on his bench, legs swinging, seemingly satisfied.

“But Louis, how did that help you to stop smoking?”

He looked shocked. “Why, ain’t you been listenin’? I didn’t want ‘em anymore! So I put the devil where I could keep an eye on him. Right there,” patting the pack in his pocket. “Right where they usually were. ‘Cept I didn’t want no more, see? Didn’t want, didn’t need. Weren’t worth anything to me no more.”

I wasn’t quite into the mountain man logic that was behind all this, Louis had his ways, and psychological explanations weren’t one of his strong points by any means. Besides, lunch time was nearly over and the other mechanics were starting to trickle in, wadding up brown paper bags and putting thermoses away. Louis’ old nemesis Chapman among them.

“Besides which boy, they always served a purpose up there in me pocket, you know? Always had something handy.” He drew the pack out and studied on them for a second. Louis had another gleam in his eye, and I didn’t quite like this one. “Like when you’d see some pile o’ worthlessness like that there. Look at that numbskull Chapman there, boy.”

I looked, Chapman was just a little old guy, but his very presence always seemed to rankle Louis in some way. Twenty years of feuding on a shop floor will do that, I suppose. Chapman strolled by with a grin for me and a sneer in the direction of his arch rival.

Louis had a sneer of his own going on, and the two titans glared and sneered and growled like two big dogs with hair standing on their backs. This went on every day at some point, sometimes several times a day if they were working anywhere near each other. But since it was after lunch, Chapman elected not to stand and make a verbal “Who you lookin’ at you old goat” fight out of it. He kept rolling on to his own bench as the lunch whistle sounded and the machines started back up.

“Hey Louis, can I have my cigarettes back now?” I’d not seen him make much of a point for all the shirt pocket antics and sniffing and pontificating.

“Eh?” He looked in his hand.

There, mangled in a fashion only a Popeye sized hand and forearm could muster, were the twisted and shredded remains of a paper pack, and the half dozen cigarettes that had been in there, which he promptly tossed in a trash barrel.

“Bah. You didn’t need them anyway, boy. Now stand up straight and get over here on this window sash fer a minute, I gotta flip her ass over.”

To this very minute I can hear that Virginia back hills accent, and see the horn rimmed glasses and the massive hands. The man’s long dead now, he passed years ago with little fanfare, just a lifetime of knowledge and a house full of tools. A quiet wife and a daughter who no one ever saw, a tiny house with a neat lawn.

I realize that I listened to him selectively at times, his advice was gold when it involved wood and the things you do with it. But I forgot all about that smoking for thirty years business, and how hard it would be.

I imagine it was harder than he let on, he sermonized about devils and a strong will and all that. But thirty years is . . . well, it’s thirty years of habit. Nasty old habit that it is.

I tend to wear t-shirts a lot of the time, too.

Usually, they have no pockets at all.

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