It was the Air Force’s fault that I became a smoker.
That marginal fraternity of snuff dippers I’d belong to in high school was known as FUBAR, an acronym for “Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition,” derived from military slang, though we lacked the etymological expertise to know it. It just sounded cool. And defiant. We loved defiance.
To us FUBAR meant that we would not be subject to the rules others followed, no matter the consequences, though ironically our little club was riddled with rules. Some of those rules were to never refuse to get drunk, smoke a joint, hang out with “popular” kids or jocks, or to desecrate the holy act of dipping snuff by smoking a cigarette.
Getting into FUBAR wasn’t easy. You had to be outrageous and funny, dedicate yourself to every member of the FUBAR brotherhood like it was an unbreakable bond, and you could never denounce the spiritual benefits found in a can of snuff. Potential members would be blackballed the moment it became known that they smoked. I can only remember one instance in which we allowed a smoker into our inner circle, but we limited his participation by creating the singular designation of “Honorary FUBAR.”
Eventually, I quit FUBAR because I got tired of all the rules, but I kept my addiction to snuff and my distain for cigarettes.
* * *
Then came the Air Force and basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
(The military, it should be noted, is rife with rules.)
San Antonio is a hot, hot place, with humid, sometimes suffocating air. Within the rigorous military discipline of basic training, I soon discovered spitting was highly frowned upon, and unless you wanted to know what your drill instructor’s breath smelled like and get a close-up view of his dental work, you were wise to swallow whatever it was you thought you wanted to spit out.
And there was that ever-present heat. In that super-heated, soupy air, dipping snuff sapped your strength and led to dangerous dehydration. So, amazingly, I quit trying to sneak a pinch and had given it up – mostly so I didn’t die.
Along with my fellow recruits, I spent days on end dip-free and marching, running, marching, running, and marching some more in synchronized formation. But at some rare points in the day, the flight would be marched to a halt and allowed to stand “at ease” for a few minutes. But “at ease” simply meant you did not have to stand rigidly upright. You still had to keep your right (maybe left) foot planted firmly in place – unless you smoked.
Smokers were allowed to leave the formation and congregate in special rectangular areas painted on the pavement. There, they would smoke and talk and even laugh, while the rest of us stood there “at ease” like a smelly bunch of camouflaged chumps.
I thought nothing looked so inviting in the world as that rectangle of freedom where, apparently, there were no rules. But the price of admission was lighting up.
I bought my first pack of Marlboros at the BX, along with a Bic lighter. My thirst for five minutes of freedom overcame all of my distain for cigarettes and smoking, and soon I was the life of the rectangle party, smoking, joking, laughing, and making fun of our peers standing like prisoners “at ease.”
Freedom came with a price, of course. My nicotine addiction found a resurgence, and I became a heavy, captive smoker.
So much so that after basic training, I had a harder and harder time passing the Air Force’s annual “aerobics” qualification, during which we were required to prove we were fit fighting men and women by running a mile and a half. We were given so much time to complete this annual run that it should have been easy. But I’d hack and cough more and more each year, until I finally couldn’t finish, and I was put on “remedial” training. I was among some few given special dispensation and allowed to walk the mile and a half.
My fellow remedials and I laughed at our status and made fun of running in general. “Hey, when the Russians start chasing me, I’ll run.” We even sneaked a smoke during our qualifying walk.
I kept writing, of course. But not without cigarettes and a six pack of Miller at the ready.
I would have been ashamed if Mrs. Roberts could have seen me.