04-16-2020 Letters and Commentary

THE HOARSE WHISPERER… for the past two years or so I’ve had problems with my voice, most notably raspy and weak by afternoon.

While I was happy to blame the trouble on my diabetes, there was that nagging suspicion that it could be something worse. Perhaps the culprit was my tonsils, long overdue for removal. Or the big C., or perish the thought, 2/3 of a lifetime smoking, cigarettes, pipes and cigars, in that order. Who knows the smoking issue might have been pushed off the national stage by the Coronavirus-19?

Come to think of it, I haven’t seen any idiots vaping with their kids in the backseat either. Without the school buses making their daily rounds and social isolation keeping them off the streets, kids are somewhat of a rarity. I hope they are all safe from COVID-19 and their parents’ foibles.

Back to the original thought… I never surveyed the smokers I’ve known. “Excuse me, when did you start smoking. When did you quit? How many times have you quit?” It’s just as well I’ve never tried… surveying former smokers would be tricky. While asking a current smoker could be downright dangerous.

Current smokers are frequently found in hideaways 15 feet from a door, solitarily sucking the gaseous poison into their lungs and looking about for the non-existent tobacco police to haul them off. Sadly, there is no tobacco police or mandatory rehab such as for their cousins, drug addicts.

I’ve been there. I recall sneaking into my sisters’ bedroom and stealing a KOOL … a mentholated filter tip targeting the ladies’ tastes. Its pack was stashed in the closet; the ash tray was nestled between the window glass and the screen. I must have had a puff or two in the past, because I knew to be careful not to inhale too deeply and suffer a coughing fit. I wanted to be cool smoking a Kool.

I recall forcing myself to inhale the smoke, still harsh, barely tolerable even though it was mentholated. I was determined to conquer the task at hand and my efforts were rewarded with dizziness and an urge to toss up my lunch. By suppertime, my feeling “green” had passed. Maybe my younger siblings noticed something different. I no longer smelled like a kid, I smelled like the adults at the table – siblings and parents too, they also smoked and had that “damp ashtray smell”.

Such was the beginning of a nasty habit that lasted, more on than off, 60 plus years. I’m no stranger to quitting. I’ve quit cigarettes a couple times, a pipe once and cigars once. I recall lighting up my pipe as a reporter at a village council meeting in the mid-seventies, emboldened by the fact that just about everyone at the meeting was smoking a cigarette including the school nurse. “Oh” the village clerk beamed, “I just love the smell of your pipe tobacco.”

I’m now recalling that since my sixteenth birthday, I was smoking publicly. In fact, my dad gave me a carton for my birthday. “From now on you buy your own” said he. Letting me know he knew I had been pilfering his Pall Malls under the right conditions.

When I arrived at boot camp three years later, we “boots’ were instructed to turn in all “contraband” as we were assigned bunks in the squadron barracks. Contraband included guns and knives, gambling equipment, pornography, cigarettes and lighters. If the sergeant mentioned pot, I don’t recall. I might have been a Detroiter, but I was a babe in the woods compared to some of the others, including a cocky Texan named George Bush.

If I had any inkling of giving up my new bad habit in Air Force blue, I was soon dissuaded. One of the first things we did was to be marched to the “patio”, a convenience store of sorts that catered to homesick boys, who wanted to call home and needed a coke and a smoke.

Our first couple days were mainly of learning to march and field strip our smokes (dismember the butt, shred the leftover tobacco, and filter, then toss them to the wind. The paper could be balled up and dropped into a pocket or swallowed). We would be marching along and the Sergeant would call out, “Flight, halt” and we’d stop marching. The next command was “fallout”. And before we could break ranks, the next call was “smokem if you gottem”. And the next breath was “those without, start policing the area”.

In no time those sent picking up trash while the smokers lolled about, got the message and begged, borrowed or stole cigarettes until the next visit to the patio. For the next few days there was a lot of gasping and choking and puking going on.

By the time we got out of basic, nearly everyone in the squadron was smoking… we even smoked on the plane going home.

Oh yeah, back to my hoarseness…I went to an ENT doctor and got the skinny on my hoarseness, it was caused by old vocal cords, too stiff to close tightly and caused in part by six decades of misuse. After a few weeks of voice therapy, I now can sing some scales and speak a few nonsense phrases without losing volume. And I do notice a big difference when I do my exercises on the ride into work.

When I forget the morning regimen, my pipes stay stiff and by lunchtime my voice is a squeak. At least I don’t smell like an ashtray (I hope).