I embarked on my first anti-smoking campaign in the ‘90s as I neared the transition from single digits to double digits. You see, my dad had been an avid smoker my entire life, and I had detested everything about smoking for the same amount of time.
So there I was, a proud Vandever Elementary School student (go Vikings!), with almost a decade of loathing to fuel me. I hated that my dad smoked. I hated that my clothes smelled. Our house smelled. Our car smelled. My older brother hated it, too. I think we asked my dad often to “please stop smoking” or at least did some hard core complaining and made passive-aggressive comments. I don’t think either of us had ever taken a more active approach and had certainly never launched a full-blown campaign.
It was time to up the ante, and I knew just what to do.
I started collecting the ends of the toilet paper roll, you know, the cylindrical cardboard part that’s left when you finish making use of the paper. I took that and some white poster board—because I paid attention at school when there were posters put up on the walls, advertising assemblies, sporting events, or someone running for student council. So I knew it took a quality poster to run a successful campaign.
I crafted the end of the toilet paper roll into a cigarette, using markers and my imagination, and glued it to the poster board. I drew a bold red circle around it and a strong red slash through it, just like the "no smoking” signs I had seen. I hung it in the living room above my dad's La-Z-Boy recliner. It looked pretty good.
I imagine he was slightly annoyed, and my mom probably thought it was cute and was likely proud of me. She hated his smoking, too. But the campaign didn’t elicit the desired outcome. The poster was largely ignored and ultimately removed.
It was clear that more drastic measures had to be taken.
Around the 4th of July, we often purchased packs of fireworks to shoot off in our neighborhood. Back then, it was legal to do so within city limits! Not long after the failed first campaign, my parents purchased a fireworks pack which included a little bitty tin of these tiny things called Loads.
A new idea began to hatch. And so began my second anti-smoking campaign. This time with my brother as an accomplice.
The new approach utilized the newly-acquired Loads and some peppermint Sweet Breath. Turns out smoking makes your breath smell bad, so we had plenty of gum, Tic Tacs, and Sweet Breath to spare. The brilliant angle was that if we could make cigarettes wholly unappealing to my dad, then he would quit. We would convince him, show him the error of his ways, and he would quit smoking forever. The plan was fool-proof. We grabbed the Sweet Breath and Loads and got to work.
My dad purchased cartons of cigarettes - ten packs in a carton. We didn’t tamper with every pack or with every cigarette in the packs we targeted. We were strategic and selective. Catching him off-guard was part of our tactic.
Within a pack, we would spray the filter end of a few cigarettes with the Sweet Breath, so that when he put it in his mouth, it would taste horrible. In a few others, we carefully placed a Load in the non-filter end.
The way the Loads worked was we carefully positioned one Load in the end of the cigarette, using a sewing needle to push it far enough into the cigarette, it couldn’t be seen with a naked eye. We had to be careful not to disturb the tobacco either or my dad would know it had been tampered with. My dad would light a cigarette, unaware of what was coming, and the second the flame caught to the Load, it would explode.
I gave zero thought to the fact that my father’s face would be sucking on the other end of the cigarette, and he could get hurt. I mean, I was just a kid. All I wanted was to scare him, so he associated cigarettes with fear, and to make the cigarettes taste so disgusting that he would never want to smoke them again. I had a one-track mind.
My dad was not thrilled. Not only was it terrifying to have a cigarette explode inches from his face (which felt a little like success to me), he couldn’t smoke the Sweet Breath cigarettes because they tasted so badly (also a success). He only saw wasted money. Cigarettes are expensive! (Another reason to quit!)
One day I was in the kitchen by myself, working the campaign, but I couldn’t get the Loads tin open, so I grabbed a knife for assistance.
As I maneuvered the knife around the seal of the tin, it slipped and cut my finger. It was very quick, like cutting butter. Unbeknownst to me, my brother and father had recently sharpened all of the kitchen knives.
I abandoned the “tools” in the kitchen and rushed into the living room cradling my bloody left pointer finger. My mother, a nurse, took one look at my finger and said, “Don’t get blood on your shirt.”
I didn’t get blood on my shirt or need stitches, but it was the end of the campaign. It was too dangerous. My father continued smoking until my freshman year of college, when a doctor informed him he needed to have heart surgery, five bypasses, as soon as possible.
In my family, we go big or go home.
After surgery, my father never smoked again. He would sometimes have dreams he was smoking. He would wake up and swear he could smell the smoke, taste the cigarette, smell the nicotine on his fingers.
It took cutting my dad’s chest open and cracking his ribs apart to get him to stop smoking.
Had I only known, I’d have just given him a heart attack!