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My Vice From The Past

by Mary Jo Shannon

People who know me are often surprised to learn that I used to smoke. I suppose it seems out of character for me, but one must remember that during the 40’s and 50’s smoking was the norm for people – people, both young and old.

My habit began the summer before my junior year in college. I had just turned eighteen and now qualified for a real summer job. Western State Hospital offered summer employment for college students who were interested in psychology, which happened to be my major. Undergraduates from colleges throughout Virginia competed for the positions, and several medical students from the University of Virginia also participated. I was accepted.

Periodically the staff gave lectures to increase our understanding of the various types of mental disorders we encountered, and we reported daily to our assigned wards to assist the attendants in their routine care of the patients.

Students who smoked were allowed a ten minute break during the morning and again during the afternoon. I didn’t smoke, but how could I pass up the opportunity to sit and talk with the other girls? So I bummed a cigarette from a friend and joined them on the concrete porch with its heavy steel screen from floor to ceiling —   to keep patients from escaping. I can’t say I enjoyed my first few cigarettes, but I puffed along with the others and before long it wasn’t too unpleasant.

After a week or so I decided to buy a pack of cigarettes because I felt guilty, taking advantage of my friends. But the cigarettes soon became stale with my smoking only two a day, so I began to smoke more frequently.

By the time summer ended and I returned to college, I was a bonafide smoker – as  were most of my friends. During our free periods, we sat in the Club at Mary Baldwin, played Canasta and puffed away.

The habit was still part of my life after I graduated and became a Roanoke City school teacher. When I met Harry, we smoked together. That is, until one evening we were sitting in his car in front of Lipes’ Drug Store in South Roanoke, drinking a Coke and listening to music on the car radio. At the news break, we heard the announcement by the surgeon general that cigarette smoke was a cause of cancer.

I looked at Harry and said, “I’ll stop if you will.” He replied, “I will.” And we did – cold turkey!

We tackled our problem together, and with mutual support we overcame it. Harry had a more difficult time than I – after all, he had smoked for twelve years-  through two tours in the Army, and in college as well. But he persevered and refused to give in, although he admits that occasionally he still dreams of smoking.

How fortunate we were to make this change before we married! When I think of the dirty ashtrays, the smell of cigarette smoke that lingers in clothing and furniture, and the unpleasant taste that lingers in your mouth, I am so grateful that we did not have to contend with it as a married couple. Nor did our children have to breathe our second-hand smoke. Almost fifty-six years have passed since we chose a different path. And now our friends can’t believe that we once smoked so heavily!

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