My clever mother spun me a yarn when I was 14 that, apart from scaring the living wits out of me, thankfully also gave me the incentive to give up smoking.
There was a short but opportune window in time that was too good for her to ignore. It’s all timing, isn’t it? I revived this story with her on Mother’s Day recently, and curiously, she now has no recollection of having said anything at all on the subject, and has satisfied herself that I might have simply manufactured the story in its entirety. There is a very slight mischievous sparkle in her eyes when she feigns ignorance.
I started smoking a year earlier at 13, and, I have to say, we smoked a lot for such young folk. I use the collective “we”, as everyone I knew smoked as well. It wasn’t too long before my parents found out. They both smoked a lot at that time too. They were cool parents, but did not want to see their kids following in their footsteps, particularly since the data was now clear on the harm that smoking caused. But the “do as we say, not as we do” routine just wasn’t cutting it, and fell largely on deaf ears.
I had just started summer break after my last year of junior secondary school and in the following February I was to elevate to the senior campus for my last 4 years. Despite all being a part of the same school, the senior campus was this enormous awe-inspiring place sitting up on a massive hill kilometers away, and it was like a whole new world. I didn’t really know much about this new place, and my mother was fully aware of this. It was too good an opportunity for her to pass up. She could tell me anything and I would not be able to check its validity. She could have said that The Beatles had reformed and were playing in the senior school hall, and I would have believed her. And that Martians had landed on the main oval and were hiding themselves in the maintenance shed, and plucking out stray students and beaming them back to Mars for research.
Anyway, my mother waited for me to come home from school one afternoon. “Have you heard the big news about the senior school?” she quizzed, as I flew past her in the kitchen and beyond into the hallway, hurling my schoolbag purposely toward the stairwell but missing and grazing the delightful mustard colored velvet “flocked” wallpaper that covered every square inch of our household. I honestly don’t know what decorators were all thinking back in the 70’s. I shrugged off my school jacket and hoisted it toward the the newel post at the foot of the staircase bannister. It missed, but I wasn’t going back for it – I had more important things on my mind. My stomach. Mum waited patiently back in the kitchen. She knew I’d heard her, and that I would be coming back, because that’s where the fridge was.
No, I hadn’t heard the big news from the senior school…
“They’re weeding out the smokers from year 9!” she announced firmly as I re-appeared and levered the fridge door open to start grazing. I figured I would start with a bowl of Weeties (purchased in a bulk single 20 kilo box that was lowered and stored in a cupboard via the roof by crane), followed by ice-cream with chocolate topping, and then maybe a milkshake if my younger brother Barney hadn’t already drunk all the milk. He was the “milk bandit”. We were able to “unmask” him through fine-tuned statistical consumption analysis based on milk volume accumulated when he was not there. Our household consumed 4 litres a day, but If Barney was away for the weekend we would have to start freezing it or giving it to our neighbors. If you wanted a milkshake, you had to make it before Barney got home.
I considered what mum had said about the smokers. “Weeding them out? Really?” I replied, “I haven’t heard anything about weeding out smokers!”
My head was head deep in the fridge, starting to take on an antarctic glow, with hands rifling through the shelves, checking behind the 4 litre Riesling wine cask that lived in one corner, and excavating through to the known hiding spots, hoping to find something that may have magically appeared since the last time I checked. The items toward the back of the top shelf had been disturbed since my previous foray, so I knew then that my secret stash had been scavenged and polished off. I had a rock solid list of known suspects.
“They’ve decided that anyone who smokes in senior school will be well and truly booted out by year 10…the trouble-makers and the smokers … all gone!” There was a brief theatrical moment, where she mimicked a puff of smoke escaping from a magician’s hand. “What do you think about that?”
I closed the fridge door and asked if Barney was going to be home anytime soon. There was still a few litres of milk left and I wanted to get in early. If he was getting home soon, I might have to work in a milkshake before the Weeties. I stopped and looked at my mother. I could see that she was actually serious about the booting out thing. “No! … Are you serious?” I asked.
“Yes I’m bloody serious!” she warned, “The headmaster briefed parents at a school meeting a few days ago. This is real. They know all the hideouts, they know where to look. They will be doing locker checks and they are going to come down on all smokers like a tonne of bricks. They are treating smokers the same as chronic waggers, thieves, vandals, and violent bullies, and If you’re still smoking when you start there next year, you will be expelled by the end of year 10.”
It did sound serious.
I was about to say something but my elder brother Red suddenly appeared in the kitchen, also wanting to know if Barney was home yet, and he then jostled me out-of-the-way so he could stick his head in the fridge. From there the conversation shifted to what we were going to have for dinner. We knew it was going to be something good, and dinner was a far more important subject than that of expulsion from school.
After that smoking topic did not ever surface again, but my mother’s stern words stayed with me, as they often did.
We were about to spend 7 weeks over summer down at Sorrento, a popular coastal town on the Mornington Peninsula (90 minutes from Melbourne), and everyone I knew was looking forward to smoking themselves senseless on the beach for their whole vacation.
So I set myself a challenge. If I could resist the temptation and peer group pressure for 7 weeks, when everyone else was puffing around me, then I knew I would never smoke again. Rather than removing myself from situations where I would be tempted, I figured it would be far better to confront it head on.
I can vividly remember sitting in the middle of our large teenage group on the front beach at Portsea that summer, clad in “Golden Breed” T-shirts, with ridiculously long board shorts, and shedding our second layer of summer sun-burned skin. We were almost totally invisible from the outside world because of the constant Marlboro/Winfield curtain of cancer that enveloped us. I remember thinking that there could be no bigger test of my intestinal fortitude. In terms of passive smoking – sitting there amongst the group day after day – I may as well have had a carton myself.
Many of those friends from back then, upon reflection, now wish that they had joined in on the challenge. Although some have successfully given up smoking in recent years, many are still madly puffing away. Some have questioned me on my motivation in giving up smoking at that particular moment in time, and more importantly, before I was seriously hooked. My answer to that question has always been simple.
“My clever mother spun me a yarn.”