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Celebrating a personal day of independence

The Associated Press

The young man sat on the fishing hole’s edge, really just craggy rocks left over from the nearby coal tipple’s construction, hours past when the sun dropped behind the shadowing hills.

Thursday, July 05, 2001

The young man sat on the fishing hole’s edge, really just craggy rocks left over from the nearby coal tipple’s construction, hours past when the sun dropped behind the shadowing hills.

Picking up a book of matches, kept for firecrackers and camping mostly, the boy lit what he secretly bought days before – a tightly bound packet of tobacco leaves.

He puffed. The cigar smoldered. He puffed again. Then, he smoked it.

What do I remember about that day? Very little. I do believe I didn’t inhale much. Oh, I tried with friends, while we daycamped in the hills, scrabbling over rocks and pretending, as boys will, that we men-in-training could stand anything. And our manlihood depended on our acceptance of tobacco. But our choking kept most of the smoke out of our lungs.

Yet, there I sat several summer afternoons later. The fishing pole an excuse. The cigar my goal.

What do I realize now, more than 20 years later? That my first brush with nicotine would not be my last And it would change my life.

In college, I smoked even more cigars with friends as we lounged in little gathering places around campus. With my first full-time job came a semi-regular cigar habit, especially on trips home. Just to pass the time I told myself.

A year later, I switched to little cigars, shorter and smaller, because I wanted to smoke on the five- or 10-minute drive to work. Just to pass the time.

When I met my wife, Catherine, a dozen empty packs of Winchesters stuck out from the truck door pocket. Each time I plunked a dollar on the counter for another pack, I told myself it was just something I enjoyed on occasion. Oh, and when I drove the miles between Pikeville and Morehead to visit Catherine.

A couple of years passed. At some point, I switched to Basic – real cigarettes. Catherine smoked Salem brand menthols.

One day, I walked into a convenient store, counted the dollars in my hand, looked up at the clerk and said, "A pack of Basics and two packs Salem Slim Light 100s." I can’t remember the total he rang up on the register. I do remember I had to put back the can of Pepsi because I didn’t have enough cash. And, I remember thinking as I walked out.

Would it be bread or milk or eggs I put back next time? When had cigarettes become a staple? And how?

I began paying attention to American Cancer Society ads. Statistics in AP wire stories about tobacco company lawsuits jumped out. When King’s Daughters faxed a press release on their smoking cessation program, I felt guilty for typing it then taking a stroll outside to light up.

Then, on Jan. 10 this year, Catherine and I made a choice, even though we felt unsure of its outcome. We took a seat in a KDMC conference room and, similar to an AA attendee’s admission, told everyone we were addicted to smoking but wanted to stop.

Six months of NicoDerm patches, the empowering words of program director Kim Hess, talks on stress, diet and exercise planning, weekly support meetings with others wanting to quit – which we would not trade for anything now – and hour after hour of struggle followed that cold winter day.

But it worked. As I write this, Catherine and I have been nicotine free for six weeks; our addiction to cigarettes’ 4,000 poisons and gases, their 43 carcinogens, broken.

So, today, when fireworks crackle and flags wave, yes, I will think of our great nation, our Founding Fathers and their vision, the freedom won through the lost lives of war. I will feel grateful for my freedom.

Then, I will take a deep breath, and feel freer and even more grateful.

Allen Blair is news editor at The Ironton Tribune. He can be reached via email at allen.blair@irontontribune.com