For Maggie has written a letter to give me my choice between
The wee little whimpering Love and the great god Nick o’ Teen.
And I have been servant of Love for barely a twelvemonth clear
But I have been Priest of Cabanas a matter of seven year;
And the gloom of my bachelor days is flecked with the cheery light
Of stumps that I burned to Friendship and Pleasure and Work and Fight.
And I turn my eyes to the future that Maggie and I must prove
But the only light on the marshes is the Will-o’-the-Wisp of Love.
Will it see me safe through my journey or leave me bogged in the mire?
Since a puff of tobacco can cloud it, shall I follow the fitful fire?
Open the old cigar-box—let me consider anew
Old friends, and who is Maggie that I should abandon you?
A million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke;
And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke.
– from the poem The Betrothed (“You must choose between me and your cigar.”- Breach of Promise Case, circa, 1885) by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
…but a good Cigar is a Smoke
Smoking cigars is a filthy, disgusting, annoying habit that points to my low-class upbringing, crude manners, and moral degradation. It announces me a chauvinist, a misanthrope, an inconsiderate, and an embarrassing relic from an uncouth and unsophisticated era. Cigars are also deteriorating my health and probably shortening my life.
I admit this is true, all of it. But the same could be said for my writing and publishing essays and stories about the blood sports, and no one is suggesting I should stop doing that.
Cigar smoking hangs on as the last of my last indefensible vices. All the others I have left behind, or more accurately they have left me behind because my body can no longer perform or tolerate them. Rugby and single malt whiskey, for example. I have thought of picking up other antisocial vices late in life, but I am neither wealthy enough for politics nor desperate enough for religion.
So cigar smoking will have to suffice.
By most measures I am not a hard core, inveterate cigar smoker. I do not, ala Mark Twain or Winston Churchill, constantly have a corona oscuro protruding from the corner of my mouth, nor do I chew on the stump of a smoldering stogie in the fashion of Grantland Rice or Curtis LeMay. Every few weeks I put my feet up on the table in my garage clubhouse and smoke one, and on a week-long hunting trip I may smoke two or even three.
Between smoking times, the clubhouse and its contents slowly lose the pungent scent of cigar, an odor I do not find particularly foul but which seems overpoweringly fetid to some visitors in this age of tobacco smoke-free environments. No one seems concerned that they are killing themselves by drinking the agricultural chemical-laced water of the North Country, but people become hysterical if a cloud of tobacco smoke drifts their way. Well, every man to his own poison.
This noxious habit of mine dates back to my late teens when I was introduced to smoking by my long-time friend Michael Shelton who was a cigar aficionado of the first rank. He would take a fine cigar from its tube or wrapper, moisten it, trim off the end with a pocket knife, light it with a flick of his Zippo lighter, puff, exhale heartily, and proclaim (paraphrasing the quote of an infatuated Tiger Lily from J.M. Barrie’s classic children’s story) “Peter Pan is the Sun and the Moon and Cigars!” A nonsensical comment but appropriate for our cigar smoking sessions during our student days at Ohio State in the 1960s when we were infected with the Peter Pan syndrome of never wanting to grow up.
In those years, when I was younger and quite poor, I smoked cigars that cost a couple dollars apiece, more than the price of a fast-food restaurant meal, more than I could afford. My memories of those times has become clouded (by fading memory, not tobacco leaf fumes), but I seem to remember brand names such as Bering Admiral, Partagas, Hoyos, Montecristos…We chose full-bodied cigars in the perfecto or corona style; no skinny, fast-burning panatela would do.
These days, when I am not quite poor, I smoke much cheaper cigars. Paying a few dollars for a five-pack of Dutch Masters Presidents is my financial limit for sinful pleasure. There is probably a life lesson in this 50-year transition from best to least, but I’m damned if I can figure it out. In any case, whether a cigar costs $5 or 50 cents, smoking one in the course of a relaxed evening has always induced a mellow high, although I do not know if that is caused by the surge of nicotine or the deprivation of oxygen in my brain.
At long as I get the effect, either explanation is okay with me.
My dogs, by the way, seem to drift into a similar high from the second-hand cigar smoke while they laze on the sofa, but it does occasionally trigger sneezing fits in Sasha.
Smoking a cigar at the end of a day’s bird hunt, sitting on the tailgate of my pickup in the soft light of a warm autumn afternoon, is a special moment at this stage of my life, a time of tranquil, sensual pleasure blended with comforting, smoky memories. If cigar smoking is killing me, there are worse ways to go, and the enjoyment is worth the penalty.
At least that’s how it appears to me from inside the cloud.
More stories about hunting and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.