Smoking fans flames of memories, conversations

By Tammy Keith Published September 15, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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The subject of smoking keeps coming up in conversations lately, and it’s funny how times have changed.

My mother and I were taking a tour of Clarksville, where our family lived for one year when I was a teenager.

When we drove by the high school where Mom taught, she pointed out where she had smoking-pit duty.

I asked Mom if she smoked with the students. She told me no; she smoked in the teachers’ lounge.

When another teacher complained, the principal (also a smoker), told the teacher he could work in his classroom, but Mom couldn’t smoke in hers, so tough, basically.

Wow. The outcry that would happen today if someone lit up in the lounge.

Once when my brother was a little boy, he asked Mom if one of his beloved elementary teachers, Mrs. Howard, smoked.

Mom said, “I don’t think so.”

Shane said: “I didn’t think she was that kind of woman.”

I’m not sure what that meant in his little mind, but his mother apparently was.

Last weekend, my brother recalled that he had bought cigarettes for Mom, and I remember running in the store to get them, too.

I also volunteered to buy them when having a bunking party with some friends, and we smoked the cigarettes under a bridge. We sprayed perfume and everything aerosol we could find when we got back to the girl’s house — it was a daring thing for me, a future goody-two-shoes.

Of course, there were cigarette vending machines, where anybody with some change could buy a pack. My kids were pretty incredulous that those ever existed.

I also remember Mom giving me a lighted cigarette to light fireworks, and I’d steal a puff.

(Mom quit cold turkey about 30 years ago, by the way. She has apologized for the trips with cracked windows and the ensuing allergy headaches my brother and I got from the smoke.)

My husband said that when he was in high school, his band director smoked like a chimney. When the high school band was selected as the Bicentennial Band of Arkansas and got to play at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (one of my husband’s proudest lifetime achievements), the students rode in three buses, with one designated for the students and chaperones who smoked.

When they made a pit stop, the doors to the one bus would open, and smoke would roll out like a five-alarm fire.

In college, I didn’t have many friends who smoked, but people could smoke in their dorm rooms, and just about anywhere except the classroom.

When I got my first newspaper job, smoking went with the stressful job. I didn’t smoke, except second hand.

The clouds of smoke hung above the short walls dividing the departments. My husband and I would go home reeking of smoke.

I hated having my hair smell like smoke, and I developed an attractive habit of obsessively pulling my hair to my nose to smell it.

I also bought a battery-operated ash tray for the worst offender in the office, which helped, until the batteries died and she didn’t replace them.

One editor had a cigarette going nonstop, sometimes two, if he forgot, which was often.

My husband and I were thrilled with the prospect of working in a nonsmoking newsroom when we came to Conway. (My hair-sniffing habit died down, too.)

Nobody in my immediate family smokes now, but my mother does not deny how much she loved it back in the day.

When we toured the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville a few weekends ago, we saw a piece called Smoker #9, a woman’s hand holding a cigarette to giant red lips, exhaling smoke.

My mom posed and mimicked holding a cigarette to her lips.

I’ll bet Mrs. Howard never would have done that, but Shane, I hate to tell you. Mom was trying to protect your young innocence.

Mrs. Howard was a smoker.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or

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