When I was 16, my biggest goal in life was to learn how to smoke. Not because I thought it was particularly good for me, but because hanging around a street corner, sucking on a cigarette butt commanded just about as much respect as any post-pubescent male could expect out of life.
And who wouldn't respect someone for spending their allowance on something that was not only disgusting, but almost guaranteed to kill them, turn their teeth yellow, give them bad breath and make their clothes reek?
Lighting up my first cigarette was everything I thought it would be and more --sort of like circling my lips around the exhaust pipe of an 18-wheeler as the driver stepped on the gas. The hot fumes singed the lining of my throat and fried my palate as they scorched their way to my lungs.
I loved it.
When I enlisted in the Navy, I found that smoking cigarettes was essential to survival. Several times a day, the drill instructor would yell out, "Smoke break. Smoke 'em if ya got 'em." If you "didn't got 'em," he'd soon find some distasteful task for you to do like scrubbing the inside of garbage cans, so everyone smoked.
In all fairness, I didn't get hooked on cigarettes by myself. I had the Marlboro Man to thank for that. Throughout history, when soldiers returned home from military conflicts, Madison Avenue made sure that they were right there with them. After years of living in swamps and trenches, they wanted to show GIs how much fun they could have prancing around a tennis court or golf course with a lit cigarette.
Lucky Strike was the first out of the gate in the 1940s with ads featuring men and women at their country club, enjoying their freedom: "What a day ... what a game ... what a cigarette! Why is Lucky so much a part of moments like this?"
Tobacco companies soon learned that enlisting big name stars like John Wayne and Ronald Reagan was an effective way to glorify cigarette smoking. During the promotion of his 1954 film, "Big Jim McClain," The Duke sat comfortably on the set with a cigarette in his hand: "Mild and good tasting, pack after pack. And I should know. I've been smokin' em for 20 years."
Another up-and-coming actor with political aspirations promised, "Want to be the next president? Just do what Ronald Reagan does -- smoke lots and lots of Pall Mall brand cigarettes! The sooner you start, the faster you'll rise to political success!"
It wasn't until 1977 that I finally decided to ignore the advice of John Wayne and Ronald Reagan and do something good for my health. I tried to quit smoking. After I got swept up in the jogging craze, I found that it was almost impossible to run while simultaneously hacking up a lung. You rarely saw a skinny Ethiopian crossing the finish line of the Boston Marathon with a Camel dangling from his lips. Cigarette smoking and jogging made incompatible bedfellows, so one of them would have to go. The question was which one?
In those days, there weren't any shortcuts to quitting -- no Chantix, Topamax, Zyban, Nicoderm, Nicorette, Nicotrol, Habitrol, Buproban, Aventyl, Nicotrol, Commit or Nicorelief -- just hard core will power.
For a while, I found it helpful to suck on my thumb. But when I started losing all of my friends, I decided to switch to pacifiers, twigs and even pencils. They were sort of like having a cigarette in your mouth, but almost impossible to keep lit.
The rest of the time I just walked around in nicotine withdrawal, hyperventilating into brown paper bags and hoping the anxiety and despair would go away before I took my own life.
Then, it dawned on me that there was no reason why I should have to give up a habit I loved so much all at once. After all, if you're overweight, your doctor doesn't tell you to quit eating. No. He tells you to start cutting back on your calories.
So instead of quitting smoking cold turkey, I decided to try tapering off. How hard could it be? Except for the first cigarette in the morning, the two or three at mid-morning, the two after lunch, the three in the afternoon, the six with cocktails, the one after dinner and the two or three while watching television and getting ready for bed, I could do without smoking.
Over a series of months, I gradually dispensed with smoking a whole cigarette in one sitting. Instead, I'd take a few puffs, then pinch off the burning embers, saving the rest for later. I began squirreling away partially smoked butts in secret hiding places and making up excuses to leave the dinner table for a quick toke. I had butts hidden everywhere -- in the glove compartment of the car, inside my ski boots and in my French horn case in the attic.
My girlfriend began to suspect that I was seeing someone else behind her back. She couldn't understand why I always had to check the air in my tires or play the French horn after sex. When I finally ran out of plausible explanations, she left me for someone else. Probably a non-smoker.
All it took was a few puffs of glorious nicotine to see me through. But as long as I bought cigarettes a pack at a time, the threat of completely relapsing was my constant companion. Ultimately, I found a seedy liquor store at the beach that would sell me one cigarette at a time for a dollar.
I finally did quit smoking. I think what really did it for me was reflecting on all the time I was wasting hanging out with Chester, Mad Dog and the hookers down at the Ocean Front Liquor Store.
Over time, I became one of those born again, ex-smoking runners. I learned to despise that phlegmmy hack that only a three-pack-a-day smoker can produce when laughing at a good joke.
Without my ties to cigarette smoking, I even started buying tank tops and T-shirts without pockets. I must have matured a bit, as well. I didn't give one thought to whether or not I looked cool.
Being alive trumps looking cool any day of the week.
Allen Smith, of Vail, is the author of "Watching Grandma Circle the Drain" and "Ski Instructors Confidential." You can reach him at www.snowwriter.com.