Senior DI Kaiser lectured us when our three smoke-free weeks ended. He told us it would be a perfect time to quit since we’d had 21 days to get the nicotine out of our systems. He also reminded us how bad cigarettes were for us. And as he reminded us, he puffed on an unfiltered Pall Mall and sipped luxuriously at a cup of coffee — light and sweet — another luxury we were denied in boot camp.
Nobody quit smoking, of course. All the smokers in my platoon lit up again at the first opportunity and got dizzyingly high at the first drag. It seems nobody wanted to deny themselves the pleasure of a cigarette when faced with an uncertain future in a combat zone.
Five months later when I arrived at my field unit in Vietnam — Combined Action Platoon 2-7-10 — I discovered there were rituals and practices in place for smokers. Most CAP Marines I met smoked — the non-smokers were the exception. That may explain why the hard, fast rules were bent in our favor.
One ritual was followed for smoking at night, even in our ambush sites. In theory, smoking at night in the bush was a grievous offense. But at CAP 10 the smokers evaded the rule by the following procedure:
When Marine #1 craved a nicotine fix, he would ask Marine #2 for help. Marine #1 would crouch down with cigarette and matches in hand. Marine #2 would cover Marine #1 with a poncho, ensuring that the edges of the poncho were flush with the terrain. Then Marine #2 would give Marine #1 the go-ahead to light his cigarette.
Once the cigarette was lit, Marine #1 would would cup the glowing end tightly between his hands, with just the filter protruding between his thumbs. Holding the cigarette thusly, he would take a drag under the poncho and Marine #2 would watch to see if any of the glow escaped. When he was done, Marine #1 would advise Marine #2 to remove the poncho, before he suffocated under the rubberized canvas.
There were drawbacks. Smoking that way was painful. The glowing end of the cigarette burned hot against the palms of your tightly cupped hands, but we endured it. We endured it because the desire to smoke outweighed the discomfort of burned palms and the risk of sniper fire.
There was another, cosmetic, drawback. Smoking that way left an indelible yellowish, brown stain on the smoker’s palms that did not wash off. It eventually wore off once you got out of the bush for good. You could always tell if a CAP Marine was a smoker, or if he spent considerable time in the bush, by looking at his hands. With non-smokers, you had to gauge the wear and tear on their jungle boots.
There were other rituals. Most of the white guys smoked Winstons and Marlboros, while most of the black guys smoked Salems and Kools. Everybody got one carton a week, free, from Uncle Sam, delivered with the ammo and the mail and the C-rations. If I smoked more than a carton a week, there were little “airline” packs of four cigs apiece in every C-rat meal. And if I still couldn’t find a cigarette, I asked one of our black Marines. They always had some — for reasons I never figured out. So near the end of the week, the white guys were always bumming menthols off the black guys.
And the black guys had a unique way of opening their cigarette packs; from the bottom. That way you could get a cigarette out of the pack without touching the filter. It made so much sense when you consider we seldom had a chance to wash our hands.
I confess I’m a radical anti-smoker now. In fact I led a successful fight to ban smoking in the building where I work. But I appreciated a good smoke in Vietnam, you better believe I did. And as long as the monsoon rain didn’t drip from my helmet and extinguish my last one, it was a small but truly important pleasure.