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July 10, 2023

I lived on Keppel Hill when I was in second, third, and fourth grades. That was the EARLY sixties. Back then, cigarettes were forbidden fruit for youngers.

The penalties probably differed from family to family. I can only imagine what the penalty would have been if my mother ever caught me smoking. Here’s the thing. I and at least one of my friends experimented. I just never got caught. The fact that I’m here telling the story is proof.

We lived just about halfway to the top of Keppel Hill. There was a store at the very top of the hill. I think it was called Lee’s Market. Given that the Lee family had a drive-in and a bowling alley in the vicinity, I feel somewhat confident that was the name. We could get penny candy and novelties and, if we had a windfall, a Duncan whistling yo-yo. Back in the early sixties, you could also buy cigarettes. Even in second, third, and fourth grade.

Keppel Hill is a nice, small, closed community. Not a lot of outside traffic. There is one entrance off the road halfway between Vandergrift and Leechburg and one back entrance from North Vandergrift. The point is that this was a great area for bicycle “gangs”, and bicycle transportation in particular. We rode everywhere, balloons and baseball cards spoke-rubbed to make grand noise to announce our presence and disturb peace. And I lived halfway up Keppel Hill. The second street on the left as you were going up the hill. Corner of the first block across from Todd and Flo Rupert. The squealers. I’m sure they were OK people. They were old and we (kids) thought they were mean and not much seemed to get past them. Or go unreported, and reported infractions from any source meant a beating in my house. It was the early sixties. Beatings were allowed. If I remember right, they were encouraged. Expected.

And we lived halfway up Keppel Hill 15 minutes of a Sears bicycle ride from Lee’s market. And my mother often sent me to the store for household staples. Including cigarettes. No one asked for identification or cared. And cigarettes were twenty-six cents a package and I was a balloon-in-my-spokes-bike-riding-rebel from a family of renters among a community of owners. “Those people.” And one day, I had a quarter and a penny burning a hole in my pocket and I bought a pack of cigarettes.

Here’s the thing. I could not store them in my house. There was not timeout in our house. It was sudden death. My friend and I found a place in the woods between our house and school. It was a wooded area and there was a diagonal through-path that led from our house to the school. We found some old off-the-path shanty in the middle of those woods. I bought a pack of cigarettes. Thus we got ‘em. And we smoked ‘em.

Smoking a pack of cigarettes for kids our age was a long process. We had to be careful because the woods were right across the street from Todd and Flo Rupert and they saw EVERYTHING. And reported it. I honestly don’t think we smoked the whole pack. I vaguely remember there being some left of the pack when we moved from that house. And smoking is hard at the start anyway. I’m pretty sure we did not inhale, but it was forbidden ‘fruit’, heady times in second, third, and fourth grade, and we were rebels.

I tried smoking again along about tenth grade. It was peer inspiration. They did not pressure me. That would never have worked on me. Some girls seemed impressed with the ‘bad boys’. That eventually led me to give it a try. It made me sick. I was probably inhaling this time. And as dumb as I could be sometimes during the stupid years (twelve to about 30 for most all males. I’m not sure if/when it strikes females), I was smart enough to drop the practice before it became a habit. It made me sick. I could do very well without that. Somehow I managed to deal with all of the guys with whom I loafed back then. I’m sure damage was done. Second-hand damage. I think in those days, cigarettes were $.50 a pack. Five dollars a carton though no one I was around bought cartons. That was harder to hide. We had also discovered beer.

And I said all of that to say this. My wife and I went out the other night to get some vegetable oil. She bought a frier to make fried chicken which we have once every month or two and you can’t use extra-virgin oil in it. Who knows why! We went to Dollar General in Leeper and, on the way out the door, something caught my eye that has left me flummoxed ever since.

Cigarettes are now between $9.50 and $11.00. A pack. That means between $95.00 and $110.00 a carton. I don’t smoke. I can’t figure out how anyone can afford it. Of course, I don’t know how much vaping costs and I’m sure this is popular among the younger crowd. And I hope second, third, and fourth graders are not smoking, but I remember something of what it was like when I was that age. There is a lot more control on who can buy controlled substances these days, but youngsters find ways. But $9.50 a pack. That is almost two gallons of milk, which is kind of obscene in itself.

I remember in 9th grade people would often “bum” a cigarette. I know people still do this in their smoking clusters just outside the office, and people GIVE other people those ‘spared’ cigarettes. The same person solicited for a dollar might look down condescendingly at the ‘panhandler’ with a ‘get a job’ sneer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that kind of judgment on a cigarette ‘bummer’. And I’m just shocked that a bummed cigarette now costs that same buck. The one that used to cost 2.6 cents. We’ve come a long way, baby!

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