I have never really been a smoker, of substances either legal or illegal. But I want to be utterly clear that I make no claim to any particular virtue of my own, for that particular transgressive lack in my Curriculum Vitae. Back in the days of the Clinton White House, I might have been the only US citizen (or heck, the only living person on earth, for all I know) who could give at least a partial nod of recognition to our erstwhile president's claim that, while he may have lit up a fatty or two back in the day, he didn't inhale. . .
Folks under 40 or so, who have lived their whole lives under the anti-smoking regime, really don't have any way to understand what it was like back in the '50s and early '60s (which were really just the latter part of the '50s; 'The 60s' of popular imagination really happened between about 1965-74; but that's another discussion for another time), when smoking was widely perceived to be hip, cool and sophisticated. Every talk-show host on TV had a cigarette in his hand, to lend an air of sophistication to the conversational art. Heck, there were even candy cigarettes for the kids (like after-dinner mints, rolled into a stick; they even had one end dyed red, so you could pretend that it was lit), so we could practice looking cool while holding a cigarette (the girls held them daintily between their fingertips, while the guys held them further down in the 'crotch' between their first two fingers).
My own extended family was a pretty smoky crew. I don't remember ever seeing either my grandmother or grandfather smoke, but two of my uncles were very dedicated cigar-smokers, and my dad also went through various periods during which he appreciated a good cigar (actually, as I think back on it, I don't think the cigar in question even had to be all that good. . .). One uncle in particular, was very fond of his cigars; so once, when our family took a trip to Mackinac Island, I bought one of those giant novelty cigars - a foot long and at least an inch in diameter - to give him as a Christmas gift (he told me that he actually lit it and took a few puffs from it, but that, even by his standards, it was pretty awful; but he appreciated the thought). And most of my aunts could often be found with a cigarette pinched between their fingertips. The holiday gatherings when the whole extended family got together were smoke-filled affairs, and no-one thought anything of it.
(As an aside, some years ago, I had to put a new furnace in one of my previous houses, and the old ductwork was wrapped in asbestos. So I did a bunch of research on just what risks I was exposing myself to with the asbestos, and how I should handle it, and one of the sources said that, even if the asbestos in question was 'friable' (ie, flaking off), the exposure from a small job like mine was roughly equivalent to spending a couple hours in a smoke-filled room. And I had spent many, many hours in smoke-filled rooms in my formative years, so I worried a lot less about the asbestos thing after that. But just to be clear, we still took the proper precautions - wetted down the surface, wrapped the ducts in plastic wrap, and wore masks.)
My parents were more ambivalent smokers than the rest of the extended family, I think. At least, they would quit from time to time. I think that my dad had essentially quit smoking for good by the time he married my stepmother (I feel it more-or-less necessary to be clear that I refer to her as my 'stepmother' just for purposes of clarity; I've never called her anything other than 'Mom'), although I do remember him going through one final cigar fling for a couple years when I was in high school.
Dad's remarriage was the near occasion of my own first pass at smoking, around the time I was ten years old, or so. My step-brother (again, I've only ever called him my 'brother') was roughly the same age as me, and I would occasionally tag along with him, to play ball in the summertime, or whatever. It was after one of these summertime ball games that he and I huddled together in the shadow of the school whose ball field we had used, and he asked me if I wanted to learn how to smoke. I nodded, and he produced a pack of cigarettes and popped one out for me. He showed me how to hold it between my lips, then how to strike a match from the little book of matches (you don't find so many of those anymore, either), and puff on the cigarette while holding the match to it, to draw enough air to light the cigarette. I managed to actually get the thing lit, all by myself, without any help, which gave me a sense of satisfaction, that I was on my way to becoming a grown-up. Then I puffed on it a few times, actually burning the tobacco, and producing an ash on the end of the cigarette. Cool! This smoking thing was really pretty easy!
Then my brother, with an air of disdain, told me that what I was doing didn't really constitute 'smoking'; in order to actually smoke the cigarette, I needed to inhale the smoke. A silent 'uh-oh' passed through the far back corners of my brain. Something about inhaling smoke just didn't seem like it would be pleasant at all, and I kind-of looked at my cigarette warily, like, 'I don't think I'm gonna like this'. But, unpleasantness be damned! Sophisticated grown-up-hood was at stake here. So I bravely took a deep drag on my cigarette, and with smoke filling my mouth, I inhaled.
And at that point, either God's mercy, or my own tragically-flawed biochemistry (or, you know, both at the same time) kicked in. The smoke travelled roughly two centimeters down my windpipe, and caused acute irritation to my bronchial lining, producing an effect that could be roughly described as, "Get that shit the HELL outta here!" I coughed, I choked, I gagged, I broke a few thousand blood-vessels in my face, and damn-near gave myself a mild stroke, trying to clear my airway of the offending particles. I tried again, figuring that, like coffee (which was my other marker of 'grown-up-hood'), I just had to persevere until I figured out how to like it. But to no avail. I inhaled a second time, and a third, and probably a few more than that, but the result never changed - every introduction of smoke particles to my trachea was met with violent spasms of rejection from my body. Eventually, I figured that a ten-year-old like myself could only give himself so many mild strokes in a given day, and I gave up.
I tried again a month or so later, with the same result. And a couple more times in subsequent years, when I was 12 or 13, and I don't think that any actual smoke particles ever actually got into my actual lungs - every single attempt ended with me coughing and choking, and none of the smoke actually, you know, inside my body.
Fast-forward to my high-school years. I was probably 15 or 16 when my brother and a few of my friends started talking about how cool it was to smoke weed, and the mellow buzz to be had thereby. Now, by the early '70s, we'd had ample exposure from our parents, schools and churches, to the idea that marijuana was a Very Bad Thing. But it is perhaps a measure of the perversity of the thought-processes of 15/16-year-olds that, when our parents, schools and churches said, 'Very Bad Thing', we processed that information as 'Unutterably Cool'; I mean, heck - the Beatles had all gotten high, and no-one was cooler than them. (It was of course, also possible that we processed some of the dire warnings from Those In Authority as 'Way Overblown'; on the other hand, we also thought that we were Freaking Invulnerable, so it is at least an open conversation as to who was In Touch With Reality to a greater/lesser degree).
So at one point, I decided that I at least wanted to check out the whole 'Weed' thing, just to see what was so doggone cool about it, after all. I gave my brother $5, and he brought me back a baggie full of chopped dried herbs. He gave me one of his rolling papers, and showed me how to roll a joint, which was kind-of exotically cool - rolling your own, and all that. Then he told me it was just like smoking a cigarette. And the same 'Oh shit' voice that I'd heard five years before, went rattling around the back of my brain again. I took a couple of tentative puffs, and my brother impatiently explained to me that, look, if you want to get the buzz, you have to inhale. And just to drive the point home, he explained that, to maximize the buzz, you wanted to draw more air, making a hissing sound as you took a pull on the joint, and then hold your breath, to let the smoke swirl around your lungs for as long as possible (which, I have to admit, did provide me with good training for use of an Albuterol inhaler, years down the road). Now I had a sinking feeling that this was another Marker of Hipness that was just gonna go by the wayside for me, but, you know, I was at least gonna go down swinging, so I took a deep draw on my homespun little doobie, and strove mightily to induct the smoke into my lungs.
But alas, my 15-year-old lungs were no more tolerant of marijuana smoke particles than my 10-year-old lungs had been of tobacco smoke particles. I coughed, I choked, I gagged, and darn-near puked, so violently did my lungs reject the smoke. My shoulders sagged, and I knew that I'd been defeated, betrayed by my own biochemistry (and, you know, God's mercy; although I had really been hoping to have a different kind of 'Cosmic Experience', if only God had been agreeable). I made a few more half-hearted attempts to experience the elusive Buzz, but I could never manage to actually ingest smoke into my lungs. Probably the closest I came was during my first year or so of college (in the early 70s, 'The Sixties' were just winding down), when, on Friday nights, the dope smoke hung like a cloud in the hall, somewhere around eye-level; it's possible I inadvertently experienced a 'second-hand high', but it wasn't sufficiently 'cosmic' for me to actually, you know, notice it. . .
So yeah - I'm definitely down with the whole, 'Yeah, but I didn't inhale' thing. Me and Bill, we understand each other. . .
In my college years, and into my very-early-married years, I made a couple more passes at smoking, but in ways that didn't bring inhaling into play. In college, a few of my friends took up cigar-smoking; and, as fate would have it, there was a very good little tobacco shop in our college town. So, every so often, for whatever occasion we deemed suitably 'special' (a buddy's wedding, or something of that order), we'd pop into the smoke shop and pick up one or two $3 cigars to enjoy with our beer (and I will admit that there is something very cool and mellow about conversation over beer and cigars). But cigar-smoking was always a 'special-occasion' kind of thing for us, and never remotely rose to the level of a 'habit'. And I didn't have to inhale.
When Jen and I were still pretty newly-married, I picked up The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and I'm sure that I remarked to her on more than one occasion that Tolkien portrayed pipe-smoking in a very cool, mellow, almost romantic, way. And so Jen, eager as she was to please her young husband, gave me my first pipe as a gift (I don't recall if it was a birthday gift, or what; but she gave me my first pipe, a really nice briar, with a pearlescent mouthpiece), along with a bag of very nicely-aromatic vanilla-blend tobacco from the smoke shop. And so, for a couple of years, I was a very occasional pipe smoker - once or twice a week, at the very most (and of course, you don't inhale pipe smoke, either, so it was perfect).
I enjoyed several things about smoking a pipe - the smell of the (unburned) tobacco; the smoke swirling around my head (somehow, cigar and cigarette smoke doesn't swirl around one's head; or at least, it doesn't conjure up those images in quite the same way pipe smoke does), like something out of The Night Before Christmas; even the little 'Pipe Culture' bits, like tamping the bowl, and cleaning it afterwards. But I could never really tolerate the taste in my mouth the morning after a night of smoking - someone has likened it to the Russian Army marching through your mouth, and I can't really quibble with that simile. So, after a couple years, once the 'romance' of pipe-smoking had worn off sufficiently, I decided that the charred/ashy aftertaste just wasn't worth it anymore. And, for all intents and purposes, I've never smoked since. Oh, if someone offers me a cigar on a Special Occasion, I'll smoke it with him, for comradeship and the honoring of the occasion. But I'm not any kind of Smoker; and I've never been any more than a failed Toker. I'll happily cop to 'Joker', though. . .
And you know. . . I don't really feel like I've missed all that much. . .
I posted another telling of parts of this story, on a somewhat different spin, a couple years ago, on my old blog. So, you can check it out (and maybe get some extra texture) (Hey, is that another ex-Beatle reference?)