It was a typical hot summer day, and my friends and I decided to ride our bikes out to Carthage Marble in an effort to explore some of the abandoned caves. This would satisfy our desire for adventure and would also provide a way for us to get out of the heat; the caves being, on average, twenty to thirty degrees cooler than the outside air. They weren’t natural caves, but were leftover from the mining that had gone on when marble was still being extracted in Carthage Marble’s heyday. Eventually, the owner of the marble company would turn these underground caves into storage facilities; the steady, cool temperatures making them an ideal place to store perishable foods.
Everyone was instructed to bring a sack lunch, and after mine was made, I rode my bike the short distance to Jim’s house, and then the two of us rode to Andy’s, which put us at the halfway point. And then another rider or two joined in along the way. From there, we continued the trip, and somewhere along the way we stopped for the big challenge.
A brand-new package of Red Man chewing tobacco (since 1904), the leaf variety, was pulled from someone’s back pocket. The question was asked as to how many of us had chewed tobacco before, and even though most of us hadn’t, we all came up with names of people we knew that had; uncles, an older brother, or even a neighbor. It was important to maintain some credibility and familiarity with the experience, and just knowing someone who had chewed tobacco was almost as good as having chewed it yourself; this knowledge allowed you to be considered “in the know.”
I had some trepidation in recalling my first experience with tobacco, the cigarette in California, and the ensuing violent reaction that resulted, but in front of this group, I couldn’t afford to show fear or apprehension of any kind. At this age, one of the worst things that could ever happen to you was to be laughed at. I would partake, but I wasn’t volunteering to go first.
Jim grabbed the first handful out of the pouch, pulling out a nice, moist mixture of tobacco leaves and stems, and after inserting the huge wad into his mouth, he resembled an old-time baseball player on a baseball card from times gone by. I studied Jim closely, wanting to make sure I did everything exactly right, and when it came time for me to load up, I grabbed a few leaves between my index finger and thumb and proudly stuck them in my mouth, trying hard not to make a face—a face that would indicate how much the taste of the tobacco was causing an immediate gag reflex. As long as I kept it to the side of my cheek, not actually chewing it, I was okay. Jim had a huge swelling in the side of his cheek, but in my case, you couldn’t really tell by appearances if I had any chew in my mouth at all.
I hid well the feelings beginning to overtake me, at least for a while. Having never chewed tobacco before and the package itself not giving instructions, I wasn’t sure whether to swallow or spit, or swallow and spit. So I did both. As we continued on our journey and rode the remaining distance to our destination, the heat and the tobacco began to take a toll on me. I was quiet as we approached our journey’s end and was quite relieved when someone said we should stop and eat lunch.
By this time, I was nauseous, but figured that a sandwich might just wash out the remnants of the tobacco and that I would begin to feel better. I was wrong. After eating the warm mustard and cheese sandwich, I took a few steps, and what I had been fighting for the last hour finally won, and I lost my lunch right there in front of all the guys. The laughter erupted from most of my “friends,” all except Jim (he did chuckle but only briefly). Being the kindhearted person that he was, and still is, he began to console me and came up with a few excuses for me as well: “He’s never chewed tobacco before” and “It is awful hot out here” and even “He should have washed the tobacco out of his mouth before eating.” His support shut down the humiliation, and everyone pretty much left me alone after that.
The truth of the matter is tobacco and I go together like oil and water. It wasn’t the first time for that to happen nor would it be the last. [At our twentieth school reunion, Jim, Andy, John, and I decided to go on a camping/canoe trip, and on the night of the camp out, for old times’ sake, chewing tobacco was passed around and I had a similar reaction—some things never change.]
Rather than pass on these occasions, I willingly took the risk in an effort to fit in with everyone else. Finally getting inside the caves, out of the sun and hot air, was an immediate relief, and I began to feel better. The ride home was uneventful, except for the second helping of tobacco. This time, discretion was the better part of valor, and I passed.
Today, if someone wanted to torture me, forget waterboarding, just wave an open pouch of Red Man under my nose, and I’ll cop to anything: “Yes, I put the cow manure in Mr. Harrison’s car seat” and “Yes, I broke the antenna on Dad’s car” and “Yes, I was the Zodiac Killer” and “Yes, I was on the grassy knoll that day in Dallas.”
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