Every kid has done something stupid growing up and I have to say I did my share. If I made a list of Stupid Things I Have Done it would probably fill at least two large volumes; one for childhood, and one in progress for adulthood. In the childhood volume there would be things like jumping off the roof of our house while holding a blanket over my head by the four corners to act as a parachute. Nothing was broken, but my feet and ankles were pretty sore. My friends kept asking me why I was walking funny, and of course they thought it was a pretty cool thing to survive a jump off the roof so I told them I jumped off the roof. Far from thinking it was stupid they actually held me in some reverence for a while. Every kid wonders what free fall is like, but I had actually experienced it! The blanket didn’t slow me down, just so you know. My parents never asked me why I was walking funny. They assumed that if there was no blood and no significant swelling I was all right. Besides, if I had told them I would have been banned from the roof.
The roof was a place that I could go to enjoy the neighborhood a little more. The view was incredible. I could see in everyone’s backyard, and down the next street. I would climb up on the side of the house using the gas and electric meters as a kind of ladder, and then pull myself up. It was while I was up on the roof one day that I discovered the concept of smoking. I looked into the backyard of the people that lived behind us. I never knew who they were, or at least I have no clear memory of them. My world consisted of Elm Street, San Leandro, California. Anything beyond that was extraneous information, totally unnecessary and outside my ken. As I pondered the questions of my young life while up on the roof this day I happened to look over into the neighbors backyard. I saw a light smoke rising from the other side of the fence, and I heard the distinct sound of coughing. Really bad coughing. At first I thought it was my dog coughing up a hairball or something, but I could see him curled up in our backyard sleeping the day away. I couldn’t see who was on the other side of the fence because they were right up against it, so I yelled, “Hey, what’cha doin’ over there?”
No answer, but the coughing stopped.
“ Is it a fire?” I yelled.
“Shut up!” came the response.
“But what’s goin’ on?” I yelled again. Little kids don’t have much of a sense of subtlety.
At this point two teenagers popped their heads up and looked around. They didn’t see me at first, but my dog Grizzly saw them and started barking. They were getting a lot more attention than they wanted to I think. I recognized one of them. He had tried to bully me and my friends at the park once, and my brother Mike found out about it and beat him up. I could tell from the look on his face that he remembered me.
“What’s all the smoke from?” I yelled.
“Shut up, we’re smokin’ alright? Just quit yellin’!”
Now one of them had draped his arm over the fence with the cigarette in his hand, and this one didn’t look like the ones I saw my dad sneak out on the porch to smoke. I don’t think my dad was aware that I knew he smoked, but I saw him out on the porch sometimes at night after I was in bed and he thought I was asleep. He would stand out there with the cigarette and smoke one before he went back in the house. I think it was one of those things that everyone else in the house knew about, but never talked about. I brought it up once.
“Why were you out on the porch smoking last night, Dad?” I was just curious. I didn’t mean to start anything, but my mom gave him a look that I had not seen before, but which roughly translated probably meant something like “I told you the kids would see it!” She was not happy.
That was the only time I can recall my father looking what can best be described as flustered.
“Don’t worry about it.” was all he would say to me about it. He didn’t try to hide it after that though. In fact, he started smoking a pipe in the house right after that, I think. I enjoyed the smell of pipe tobacco though.
Anyway, the cigarette these kids were smoking didn’t look like my dad’s. The ends were twisted.
“What kind of cigarette is that?” I asked loudly.
“Will you SHUT UP?! It’s grass! Now leave us alone!” They ducked back down behind the fence and started coughing again so I left them to their own devices.
Now, I didn’t know what was in cigarettes of any kind at that time and up until now it really held little interest for me. Now my questioning mind kicked into high gear. Why, I asked myself, would somebody spend money to buy cigarettes if all that was in them was grass? Heck, we had yards full of the stuff! The wheels were spinning quickly now as I climbed down off the roof, and ran over to my best friend’s house down the street. Ronnie Bateman was a year or two younger than I was, but we had grown up together. I have no memories of my life on Elm Street without Ronnie Bateman and Peter Schmidt being there. I don’t know where Peter was that day, but Ronnie listened eagerly to my tale of the smokers in the backyard.
“They were smoking cigarettes, and they said it was grass!” I told him.
“I didn’t know they put grass in cigarettes.” He replied.
“Me neither, but that’s what they said.”
“We could make one of our own.” Said Ronnie.
“Yeah, you want to try it?” I asked.
“Sure!” he said eagerly.
We went out to his backyard and to the side of his house. They stacked all their old newspapers over there. We knew we needed paper, and we didn’t think it mattered what kind. We didn’t want to go into the house and ask for any so we settled for the weathered, yellow newsprint, the old Oakland Tribune. Ronnie went into his garage and found some matches while I ran to the front yard and pulled up a handful of grass from their lawn. The front lawn was greener and thicker than the back lawn so we figured it was better grass. We sat down and eagerly rolled the grass in a strip of newspaper that we had torn off. There was no stopping us now. It was easily three and a half inches long, and probably twice the width of any cigarette we had yet seen. Since we were using Ronnie’s grass and his paper we both agreed that he should have the first puff. I wasn’t too worried about it, after all, we had plenty of paper and a big lawn to go through.
He stuck the “cigarette” in his mouth and held the match up to the end.
“I think you have to suck in while you’re lighting it.” I said.
So he sucked in while he was lighting it. I suppose there is something to the physics of cigarettes that causes them to burn slowly. It probably has something to do with the tobacco being tightly packed or something. This grass was not tightly packed at all, and the newspaper was pretty dry.
So there were probably a lot of little pockets of air for the flame to feed off of.
These various factors probably explain what happened next.
Every time we had seen a cigarette lit, on TV or by any adult we knew, they always settled into a glowing ember on the end of the cigarette. This, however, resembled the pictures we saw on the news of forest fires. The flame grew immediately to at least twice the size that it had been on the end of the match, and since Ronnie was sucking in on the other end, the flame followed the air that was being sucked away right towards Ronnie’s face. I saw his eyes grow to the size of silver dollars through the smoke and flames as the cigarette got shorter and shorter. Ashes were falling away and floating all around us. Just as the flame, which grew as it traveled the length of the cigarette, started to singe his eyebrows he threw it down and started coughing. I thought he was going to throw up. This wasn’t gonna be just a hairball either. While he coughed I stomped out the remains of the cigarette.
When he finally quit coughing and looked up at me I saw a fine gray layer of ash on his blond eyebrows.
“So how was it?” I asked.
“Really bad!” he said in a very raspy tone, just before he started coughing again.
“I think it burned your eyebrows! Let me see, I’ve never seen burnt hair before! Wow! Hey what happened to your eyes, they’re all red!”
“I don’t know.”
“You better go to the bathroom and wash off your face and eyebrows or your mom will find out what happened.”
I went in the house with him and made sure his mom wasn’t near the bathroom. The coast was clear and he made it without incident. He washed up and came out again looking none the worse for wear. I figured watching him was enough, and I decided smoking just wasn’t for me. Ronnie figured out the same thing. Whenever he walked into a room where someone was smoking after that he always left the room looking a little “green around the gills” as they say.
I suppose I would have to include a subsection in my “Stupid Things” book called “Stupid Things I Got My Friends to Do”. It would be a strong argument against the concept of peer socialization, and would probably change the course of history.
©Dan Bode 1998