My dad smoked Viceroys. Could there be a more suitable name for a product that's addictive? "When are you going to quit those things?" my mother used to pester him. "When you stop asking" was his stock reply.
As each New Year approached, Dad appeased my mother with an annual resolution. "I'll cut down this year, honey," he'd promise, sitting there at the kitchen table with the bravado of a guy working on his third cigarette of the day. Seemed to me that the more a fellow smoked, the easier it would be for him to "cut down."
Dad's resolution worked like a charm. My mom was appeased, and because he smoked like a chimney, as January turned into February turned into March, it was pretty hard to argue whether or not he was smoking less, relatively speaking. So by spring we forgot all about his promise until next time.
My sister Molly and I became more aggressive about harassing his habit by the time we were teenagers. Older and wiser, we saw through the smoke of the "cutting down" routine and changed our tactic. We introduced the word "quit" along about New Year's 1972.
By that point, Dad had probably been smoking two packs a day for 30-plus years. Every morning his smoker's hack served as my alarm clock. I sometimes still hear it when I'm half awake, just before sunrise. The cough had a cadence to it, mucus of music in three beats. "Bwah-HA-ha!" it would blast through the house, chased from behind by a plume of blue smoke coming up the stairwell. Time to get up.
These were, of course, the days when people smoked everywhere. Even the timers at swimming meets, seated just behind the starting blocks, puffed away. Lipstick-stained butts dotted the wet pavement of the pool deck. Every so often you'd step on a hot one with your bare foot.
The meet starter also smoked on the job, a half-burned cigarette dangling from his mouth as he raised the pistol over his head. This was my dad. He started nearly every home meet I ever swam in. He was as devoted to my swim career as he was to his smoking. Knowing this gave me an idea to get him to quit.
"What would it take to get you to quit cigs?" I asked him one night on the porch during his after-dinner smoke. It was the summer of 1973, and I had a shot at winning the state meet in the breaststroke.
"What if I win the 100 meter at the state meet?" I asked, "Would you quit then?" This got his attention. He plopped down his TV Guide and looked at me like he was seeing me for the first time in a long while.
"Shake on it," he said.
The 1973 Kentucky Outdoor State Championships were held at Plantation Country Club in eastern Louisville. Plantation was a blue-collar club with a ratty nine-hole golf course that hugged the shoulder of the highway. But it had a fast, eight-lane, 50-meter pool.
To win the 100 breast, I figured I not only had to drop two seconds, I had to beat cross-town rival Steve Nunn, a square-headed piece of beef with a short, choppy stroke. But he could turn it over like a windmill, and as we sat behind the blocks, he revealed to me that he, too, had some extra father-son motivation going for him.
"My dad says if I beat you he'll buy me a mini-bike," Nunn announced. "Wow," I said.
With these high stakes on the line, I stepped up onto the black sandpaper deck of the block. I knew I could drop the time. I was less sure if I could beat Nunn. Our breaststroke techniques were a study in opposites. He churned and burned, climbing up over short, strong, lightning-fast pulls.
I relied on reach and a powerful high-set kick, made possible by double-jointed knees that allowed my heels to start their whip all the way up by my hips. The sun was setting behind the 10-meter diving tower as the crowd grew quiet at the start. "Take your mark" came my father's soothing voice over the P.A.
Then the gun.
An accomplished breaststroker stares straight ahead, never looking side to side to spy the competition. This is harder to do than it sounds, especially when you're in a duel with a state championship on the line. At the wall midway through the race, I turned toward the Steve Nunn side in the lane next to me. It was like looking in a mirror, the splash of our rotations, the position of our bodies a perfect match.
Having watched Steve's chop-and-plop technique over the years, I knew his inefficient sprinting style cost him in the last 30 meters. I reached further with every stroke, gathering up armloads of water, squeezing my legs hard and resetting the kick the instant they came together.
I was picking up speed as I passed under the backstroke flags with five strokes left to the wall. My hands jammed in the finish, the timers dropped their hands with the plunge of their stopwatches. I shot a look to my right. Nunn was still reaching for the wall.
My dad laughed and whooped it up behind the timers, his impartial meet-official demeanor temporarily on pause. After a quick slap on the back, he ceremoniously walked me toward the concession stand, my legs as wobbly as a new-born deer's.
He plucked the pack of Viceroys from the front pocket of his white Munsingwear golf shirt and tossed it into a big metal garbage can, where it lay like a red egg in a nest of foamy ice cream sandwich wrappers.
The next morning I slept until noon. The house was empty - or so I thought - when I made my way to the kitchen. "Bwah-HA-ha!" came the cough from the basement. I grabbed a glass of OJ and walked toward the cellar steps where, I was shocked to see, a plume of tobacco smoke rose. I headed down.
"I thought you said if I won you'd quit the cigarettes," I said, staring at his back through the smoke. He turned around to face me. "You didn't say anything about pipes," he said, the stem of a brand-new briarwood clamped between his teeth. He smoked a pipe until the day he died. A happy, hacking old man of 80 years.