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Smokers, Hang On To Your Butts

©2017 Hal Padgett


—This really happened—


A recent Dear Prudence reader vilified her upstairs neighbors who flick their burning cigarette butts onto the lawn below. It has revived an unresolved issue in my life that I conveniently turned my back on nearly half a century ago. Flip the calendar to September 1963 . . .


I was twelve years old and had just started the seventh grade. During the previous six months my uncontrollable erections had become a frequent companion. Far from what an adult might perceive as the normal scope of sexual stimuli, these arousals would occur from the most benign actions: things like breathing, or spotting a cloud-shaped cloud in the sky-shaped sky. I was pumped with instinct, but had yet to become hip to the scientific rhyme and reason of natural urges to procreate and repopulate my species. (My father-son talk was a book plagued by third-rate illustrations that made little if any sense.)


Only one thing was certain—pubescent girls were all that truly mattered. Unfortunately, “accessing” them required confidence and tact. All I had were pimples, crippling shyness, and a slight speech impediment—I talked exceedingly fast, with muddied diction.


So who to turn to for advice? All my so-called friends were older, more physically powerful, and insufferably cruel. They would’ve fed on my doubt and turmoil like iron-fisted brown shirts, reducing me to tears; then they would’ve thrown me into a bed of sandspurs, just to watch me cry some more.


For most of my short life, my father had been the one I turned to in times of trouble. But he had recently become a born again Christian: Even at the tender age of twelve I strongly suspected that Jesus worshipping and advice on womanizing mixed like oil and water.


That left only my mother. Yeah, right. Like I was going to approach my eau de nicotine mother and mention my uncontrollable erections to segue into my confusion over the feminine mystique. I envisioned my reluctant creep to her bedside table—a sweating six-ounce “baby Coke” bottle wrapped in a white napkin, resting in a pool of condensation next to an overflowing beanbag ashtray. Her face would be washed in gray from the glow of the twelve-inch black and white television across the smoky room. As always, she would look glamorous and menacing, like Bette Davis, head cocked, smoke billowing out her flared nostrils. It would be obvious that whatever radiated from the tiny box was more important than my concerns.


And then it hit me that the images on the screen that made her zombie eyes sparkle brightest were of brooding men with cigarettes dangling from their lips. Lee Marvin. David Jansen. That was it: smoking cigarettes was my ticket to bravado.


A few days later it was the usual Friday night teen infestation at the Navy Point Theater. Teens gathered; teens made out. The Sandra Dee-Troy Donahue schlock on the screen was no comfort as I sat next to this girl [her name was Barbie] who was rumored to “kinda like” me. But I couldn’t hold her hand because my palms were soaking wet. I couldn’t think or speak because I was terrified.


And then, thank God, it was intermission. I ran outside and paced the sidewalk. Then I remembered the smoking imagery. Some kid gave me a cigarette. I lighted it—sucking nervous, awkward puffs, without inhaling—hoping to take on the persona of James Dean.


Sure enough, this attracted a female. She walked over to me and began talking. I actually talked back, fully confident she would soon succumb to my brooding macho charm. And then it seemed she was suppressing laughter—at my expense.


“You’re not even inhaling,” she said.


“Am too,” I said, then promptly inhaled “firsthand” cigarette smoke for the first time in my life.


Within seconds I knew I had to walk out of the light, toward the promise of a safe haven in the darkness and moist grass. Once there, I lay down face first and briefly considered grazing like a cow, but actually more like a cat, so I would have something to throw up once the inevitable heaving took hold of me.


That was the first and the last cigarette I ever smoked. But here’s where that unresolved issue I mentioned in the opening paragraph comes into play: I have no idea what I did with that cigarette butt. It still eats at me that I might’ve just dropped it on the sidewalk and unwittingly joined the untold legions of littering scumbags.


While I long ago achieved impunity for any statute violations for littering, I’m afraid there’s no such thing as an emotional statute of limitations for my offense. Sure, I was only twelve years old at the time, and suddenly had become so sick that I thought I was going to die. But my heightened sense of mortality was no excuse for me to scar our planet in a moment of disregard. By having flicked but once my butt, I am forever an ass.

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