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Irons in the fire: Mind if I smoke?

Paul Marchant Published on 23 December 2014

I’m not a smoker. It never much appealed to me – on several fronts. For one thing, I don’t think I’m tough enough to pull it off. There is something to the old James Dean Hollywood stereotype. The image of John Wayne striking a match and lighting the cigarette hanging loosely from his upper lip carries a certain cachet with it.

Would you mess with the Duke after he lit one up and shook the flame off of the match? I’d probably start hacking up a lung if I tried to smoke. At that point, the coolness factor is greatly diminished, and my tough guy image would go up in smoke, as it were.

I’m also a poor enough money manager that I’d never be able to afford life as a smoker. If I had to support a two-pack-a-day habit, the kids would have had to go without shoes.

I’m not above getting a little satisfaction from some good second-hand smoke every once in a while, though. Many fond memories of the state fair are conjured up when I smell Marlboro smoke and straw.

More than once, I’ve haggled over a $0.06 slide on a load of six-weights with an overweight order buyer with a fat stogie in his mouth, the sweet odor of his fake Cuban enhancing the ambience of the experience. The big buckaroo outfits always seem to have an old-timer or some guy on the hay crew who rolls his own.

Pipe smoke has always been my favorite. Years ago, before he gave up the habit – and his untimely death in a horse wreck – Bob Manning was the guy I most liked riding with to gather or move cows on the mountain.

He was a good hand, with good stories, and he knew the cows and the country. The final perk to Bob’s company was the pleasant aroma of the smoke wafting from his pipe.

Besides the obvious and oft-publicized detriments to personal and public health resulting from smoking, I’ve been witness to the ill effects and unintended negative consequences of the habit. Years ago, I was managing an outfit in south-central Utah. We didn’t hire much help outside of the occasional day help, and sometimes we’d split a hire of some drifter or wannabe with a neighbor.

As you might imagine, we sometimes wound up with some real high-character gentlemen. Vern was a Panhandle native from somewhere around Amarillo. He claimed to have spent years in the oilfields of Texas and Oklahoma, and by the looks of him, he was probably telling some of the truth.

He was around 50 but looked closer to 65. He was a big talker, like an obnoxious Texan who embarrasses most Texans, a tall feller who favored ball caps, Levis and sleeveless T-shirts. He still had at least half of his teeth, and darn sure spent a lot of time trying to talk cattle and horses but embarrassed himself every time he opened his mouth.

The first time I picked him up, I was driving the old beat-up 1-ton flatbed Chevy that we used to feed and run around the ranch. He asked if he could smoke in the pickup as he struck his lighter and lit up his Pall Mall. I, wanting to appear open-minded and unintimidated, acquiesced to his request as long as he left his window cracked. He assured me that the smoke smell would never stay in the cab of the truck.

Although I knew better, I made no protests to the contrary. Vern stuck around most of the winter and helped with the feeding. He’d help with the feeding at a neighbor’s place in Kanosh in the morning before he loaded up the flatbed and drove the 10 or so miles to our place.

One late January morning, at about the time I was expecting Vern to show up, I got a call from a friend in town who advised me that I might want to have the hose ready in five minutes when Vern arrived with the load of hay.

From the looks of the flames and smoke trailing the old flatbed, he surmised I could probably salvage about half of the load of hay. As Vern pulled into the yard, the flames were shooting about 2 feet above the cab of the truck and there was a trail of smoke that was settling over the valley for 2 miles.

Vern stepped out of the truck, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, completely oblivious to the inferno that had been raging just inches behind him. Were it not for the urgency of the situation at hand, I could have really taken delight in the combination of shock and stupidity on Vern’s face.

He had no idea that the ashes from his cigarette had ignited the $80-a-ton feeder hay cargo he carried. Even though the cab always smelled like a smoker’s closet, I could rest assured that he kept his promise to always crack his window open when he smoked. Thank goodness for that. Otherwise, old Vern may have burned his pants off.  end mark

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