Al Batt: Do Camel cigarettes have one hump or two?

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

“What will it be?”

Al Batt

“It will be OK,” I assured the server. It turned out she wasn’t inquiring about my nasty hangnail.  She wanted me to order. I thought about saying, “I want a rubber band sandwich and make it snappy,” but she had a stern look, which indicated I should forgo any further attempts at jocularity.

I’d just talked to a fellow who was about to turn 93. People had told me he was a nice guy, but he was easy prey to vices. He smoked too much. I wondered how old he’d be if he didn’t smoke like a chimney.

I see employees lining up outside places of business for the smoking derby on frigid days. They race to finish cigarettes before hypothermia hits. Smoking is a love that passeth all understanding, but I don’t judge others. I’m not good at it, I don’t have the time and it’s not my job.

“Happy Days” and “MASH” hadn’t finished their original runs for long when I’d attended a conference in a big hotel in an even bigger city and listened to a former football coach who had become a CEO. His “motivational” seminar was an odd one. That wasn’t its title, but apparently, it was how to improve your day by ruining someone else’s. The future CEOs in the crowd applauded lustily.

Around that time, I’d watched an old 8 mm film showcasing the previous generation of neighborhood people. It was good to see those long-gone folks, but in every glimpse of the past, someone was smoking. This was back when doctors, movie stars and athletes smoked proudly.  Doctors appeared in cigarette ads. Smoking gave folks something to do when they were doing nothing. Smoking was a common health faux pas. Teenagers walked around with cigarette packs rolled up in the  sleeves of a plain white T-shirt.

I sat in a restaurant and faced a table where a man was smoking. I gave him one of those upward “What’s up?” nods. That meant he was a nodding acquaintance. I knew him a little, not a lot. He, either a gifted or an accomplished smoker, blew a smoke ring and then blew another, smaller ring through the first. It was impressive.

A high school buddy could flip a lit cigarette into his mouth, gripping it between his teeth and his lower lip, and hold it there until the threat of detection by a teacher had vanished. I bet the guy at the other table could have done that.

I watched the fellow smoke. He was good. A talented smoker. He talked while a cigarette bounced on his lips without dropping any ash. He lit one cigarette off the glowing end of the diminished one before it. They were iconic Camels, strong and unfiltered. “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” was one of their advertising slogans. I’d never have walked a mile for a Camel or over to him to criticize his smoking habit, but he moseyed over to my table. So, I felt free to let him have it. We howdied but we didn’t shake.

I said, “I’ve been watching you smoke.” He said he’d noticed me watching him smoke. I told him he was good. 

“I hear that a lot,” he said. I said he should quit. “Why, you said I’m good?” He seemed hurt.

 “It’s not good for your health,” I said. “How much do you smoke each day?” 

He said he averaged two or three packs a day, adding “I’ve smoked for 48 years and I haven’t formed the habit yet.” 

My mother told me we were here to help others. Each time she said that, smart-alecky me replied, “Well, what are the others here for?”

Inspired by my mother’s words, the ex-football coach’s odd motivational talk and a strong gravitational pull to save the world, I kept after the poor nicotined dude, despite knowing we value the opinions of others most when they align with ours.

 He said he had genetics on his side. His grandfather had lived to be 104.

 “Did he smoke two or three packs of cigarettes each day?” I had him there.

 “No,” said the chronic smoker, “he minded his own business.”

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday in the Tribune.