As a kid I understood that I was much happier as a kid than I was ever likely to be as an adult. Clearly, adulthood was all about jobs, houses, cars, bills, lawn maintenance, taxes, the nightly news, and who to vote for. Whereas my chief responsibility in life was making sure not to swallow any of my Lincoln Logs.
Clearly, childhood was better.
At the same time, though, I yearned to be the coolest, sharpest, most fear-inducing kid in the world — the most undeniably adult kid in the world, basically. As such, I was forever on the lookout for anything that would help me realize my Inner Stud. And I had a pretty decent collection of stuff that had so far done exactly that for me: my genuine Hohner harmonica, my Converse high-tops, my fake but still satisfyingly menacing pirate sword — even, in an intrepid, “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” kind of way, my butterfly net.
Yet, I needed something more. Somehow, being a harmonica honking, basketball playing, butterfly collecting pirate just wasn’t doing the job.
And then one day I realized that the single most critical difference between myself and Clint Eastwood was that the Hang ‘Em High kid smoked, whereas I … really enjoyed candy cigarettes.
But of course! Smoking! My very own father smoked — and if he wasn’t the ultimate man’s man, then my name wasn’t exactly the same as his except for the stupid “Jr.” on the end. So, moving with the shadow-like stealth of the James Bond I had practically already become, I filched some matches and a cigarette out of my father’s bureau drawer. Stifling an unmanly-like giggle, I ran out into our garage, and squatted down in the darkened corner behind our water softener, where even Sherlock Holmes — another manly smoker! — couldn’t have found me.
I peered at the cigarette, admiring its narrow, two-toned uniformity. I slowly dragged it beneath my nose. It smelled potent, tangy, intoxicatingly manly. Ah, yes. There’s nothing like a good smoke after a hard day’s homework you never actually did. I saw that now.
Dangling the cigarette from my lips in true Humphrey Bogart fashion, I managed to light a match. This was it.
Good-bye, Junior. Hello, Big Bad John.
I brought the flame to the end of the cigarette. I sucked in the fulsome, expansive way I’d seen my dad do a million times before.
The shock of how horrible it was hurled me forward, where I banged my head on the water softener before toppling over sideways on the floor. My head was spinning, I was coughing almost to the point of throwing up, my stomach had become a burbling swamp — and, unbelievably, my pants were on fire. I had dropped the lit match onto my thigh. (My sturdy, tin-like Sears Roebuck bluejeans saved my life: they were scorched, but beyond getting screamingly hot for a second or two, my skin was fine.)
I pushed myself up onto my hands and knees. I dizzily located the bent and dirty cause of my sudden catastrophe where it had come to rest just beneath the water softener. Examining its now sorry condition, I suddenly understood why only real men’s men smoked. Cowboys, secret agents, and sophisticated playboys smoked because ordinary guys couldn’t smoke. Look what had happened to me! One puff — one puff! — and I was instantly reduced to a nauseous, farting, flaming floor crawler.
Clearly, being a man wasn’t for boys.
And then I felt my resolve stiffening.
Through my red, tear-filled eyes, I located my matches on the floor behind me. I gingerly straightened the dingy, mangled cigarette. I brushed off the ash at its tip. I put it back in my mouth. Hands trembling, I lit another match, and lifted the flickering flame toward my face.
If it was good enough for my dad, it was good enough for me.