It’s a matter of timing, you see,
Whether one survives. Survival is
Related to whether one zigs, or zags,
Or pirouettes perfectly, or just
Hunkers down at
Exactly the right instant
By accident.
You take Jimbo, for instance.
Thirty-five years ago a pack of cigarettes
Cost eleven cents in the Ship’s Store
Outside CONUS.
That’s a buck ten a carton,
Any brand you like.
Lucky Strike was the favorite,
Short, sweet, harsh.
Pall Mall was a coffin nail,
Second only to king Camel –
Shredded bullshit –
Smoked only by the bravest.
No one smoked filter tips,
Which were for pussies;
They did not serve up that one
Sweet, raw cut of tobacco
Which you could spit out
Cool as Bogart.
Winstons were acceptable,
Even though they were filtered.
I don’t know why.
Maybe because Winston-Salem is in Carolina,
In the South,
Where everybody smokes.
Menthols (Kool, Salem)
Were for pimps and benny-boys.
The US Navy expected us to smoke.
Boys are manlike,
Susceptible to man things,
Which the Navy knows.
The best way to control a man
Is to control his vices.
Why else would they stock the Ship’s Store
With smokes less than cost,
Or perpetuate a myth as salty as the “Smoking Lamp,”
Or slip four-butt mini-packs
Into each and every C-rat carton in the Fleet?
Smokes were General Issue,
Like Beans and Weenies, and Fruit Cocktail,
And Undersized Asswipe.
The Navy wanted us to smoke
So we smoked.
We were good at it, too.
Gung Ho.
Squared away.
I knew one Texas boy who could blow
A humongous smoke ring clear across the compartment,
Then, with the same lungful,
Blow a second smoke ring right
Through the middle of the first one!
He was held in high regard.
A bosun striker with buck teeth
Could blow SQUARE smoke rings!
(Two dimensional ones, of course,
Not cubes; Not even a bosun’s mate
Is THAT clever).
Every hand smoked his own style.
Some smoked fast – hot boxing, we called it.
Others lipped ’em, wetting the mouth end with their spit
And making it hard to bum a drag
If you were squeamish.
No one held his cigarette like a damned Civilian,
Between his fingers, hot end up.
Sailors learn early to cup the burning coal
In the palm of the hand
To shield it from the spray and the wind
And the eyes of the lookout.
Everyone smoked while the eagle shit,
Except the college boys,
Who never amounted to much anyway.
If you ran out, you bummed:
“Borrow a smoke?”
“Got a fag?”
“Bum a weed?
“Gimme a nail!”
“Catch you payday,”
“Chief owes me 7 for 5,”
“Man, I’m havin’ a nicotine fit!”
If they had jacked the price up to
Ten bucks a butt, we
Would still have smoked, because
That’s what the Navy wanted us to do,
And that’s what we did.
Even if they had passed a reg against smoking,
We would still have smoked –
Bootlegged them, or growed our own,
(Like the applejack we brewed
In the paint locker),
Or smoked broom straws or worn out swabs…
The skipper didn’t like the look of cigarette packs
Rolled up in our skivvie shirt sleeves, like James Dean,
Or in our dungaree shirt pockets,
Or in the breast pocket of our dress blues.
Petty officers would dress us down
And Shore Patrol would stop us on the street.
So we carried our cigarettes in our socks,
Where they sometimes got sweaty
If we didn’t carry them in one of those
Plastic cigarette case things that
No self-respecting Bosun’s Mate would use,
Only Cooks and Steward’s Mates
And other bottom feeders.
One time in the South China Sea in 1962,
When Laos erupted the first time,
Me and my mates were chipping paint
Around the Main Deck cloverleafs,
Sweating in the 120-degree sun,
Laboring hard and loving/hating it.
A tenderhearted OOD passed the word
“Now Hear This: The Smoking Lamp is Lighted!”
Bless you, sir.
I reached in my socks for my pack of
Genuine, Unfiltered, King Size, Coffin Nail,
Lung-searing, God Bless You Pall Malls
(The same as Jimbo smoked).
You guessed it:
They were soaked clear through from
The sweat running down
From my balls into my shoes,
Sogging my smokes on the way by.
In polite society, my shipmates might have
Declined my kind offer of a refreshing smoke,
But not in the South China Sea,
Not on that ol’ tub of a ship,
Not in that heat, and
Not at that time.
Nobody didn’t smoke ’em clear down
To the fingertips.
I guess it must have been the right thing to do, too,
Because, so far as I know, not one of us
Who smoked those ball-sweat butts
That day ever caught cancer.
Jimbo was discharged from the Navy in that same year
And I never even met him until 23 years later
When we’d both been out of the Navy so long we
Almost weren’t sailors anymore.
If Jimbo had joined the Navy maybe one year later
Than he did, he might – just might – have got stationed
On that same ol’ crock tub as I was on.
He might have been my shipmate,
Chipping paint off the cloverleafs
Right beside me,
And he might – just might –
Have smoked one of those ball-sweat Pall Malls
That day, and maybe he
Wouldn’t be dead now of lung cancer.
It’s all a matter of timing, you see.

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