It was a chilly early afternoon. Gray clouds scudded across a slate plated sky, broken by occasional shafts of sunlight marching across the verdant green land like golden lances. The tree shuddered and moaned under the wind’s brace, shaking its branches against winter’s advancing chill. Leaves shook with a delicate rustle, some tearing awayto go dancing down the hill and disappearing into the farmer’s field like mice among the grain.

My buddies and I sat on the grass covered bunker, a left over from World War Two. It was outside the fence in the ‘forbidden zone’ – Krautland – and we had gotten there through a hole in the fence. It seemed no matter where we went we could find an escape route – a hole in the fence, a poorly guarded outpost – sneaking out and sneaking in again. You weren’t allowed to do that. It was strictly against regulations. You were required to leave by the main gate if you meant to go, presenting your ID upon re-entering the base to the always present MP-cum-sentry there. Going through the fence was strictly forbidden and it was farmland there – farmland followed by stretches of woods where the tanks and we ‘played’.

We’d go there when we’d get bored, looking for something to do. It wasn’t that weren’t other distractions on the military bases, though we did a lot of things which were illegal, such as sabotaging an airfield’s radar installation, or stealing supplies from the supply depots – and the ammunition no less! – being another. Oft times we would go ‘play’ with the G.I.’s who were on maneuvers, lying and deceiving to our own parents about where we had been, and lying to the G.I.s commanders as well. It all depended upon whose side we were on at the time.

And of course there was the PX, theater, and snack bar – and if you were really lucky, a bowling alley or a pool. Most of the bases didn’t have the latter. That was about it. No TV or radio, no phones to use and play on, no internet, no . . . nothing. Us kids road shuttle buses like flies following a garbage truck. They were long green ones, driven by a German driver, with the classic folding doors and hard seats – Old Bluebirds painted green and recommissioned for the military’s uses. They also were our school buses when the time came, though you had to be on your toes to catch one. The Germans ran their schedules like everything – strictly on time, though God bless them, they would wait for you if they thought you were in trouble or something – on the military bases only.

But us kids were bored. We’d seen it all. We’d scouted the hangers, hung around in the snack bar, played the pinball machines – a costly expense for me. I was always hunting for one that was broken, whether by dropping my quarters back into the return slot like a loose drunk’s grip (while award a credit for our effort) or like a benevolent god, granting us kids our wish for endless credits in return for us sharing the thing and keeping quiet so the snack bar operators wouldn’t catch onto the free games. Once we kept a machine going for almost a week – gathering around it and shielding prying eyes from our gain.

This time we were on a mission, albeit one of our own making. We weren’t hanging out simply because we were bored. I had my purchase from the German canteen; another had the necessary items. We all hoisted ourselves into the tree that stood on the shoulders of the bunker, climbing its branches. We had already checked the single squared opening we’d found in the bunker – near the top, with a square runged ladder leading down. We’d gone inside a few times, but it just stunk of piss, like old beer, and there was always a thin film of water from one to a few inches deep at the bottom. A few G.I.’s had come out one time – we had hidden from them in the tree, not even knowing we were hiding – and then they had engaged in gay sex right there before us, in the weeds below the sharp rise of the bunker. It had grown funnier and funnier until we all started laughing like a bunch of crows – and then screaming “Book! Book!” we’d taken off running for our hole in the gate. The G.I.’s, all tangled in their embraces and the bedsheet they had brung had found themselves tripped up by their nakedness and the sheet they had wrapped themselves in. I was laughing so hard I was barely able to make it – ducking low as I slid like a baseball runner under that scornful lip of the bent chain link curling in the ditch near the bottom – scuffing up the dust as I went ‘in’, back on the base safe and sound, still grinning and looking at my friends . . .

We often came there where when we were bored. It was always quiet and peaceful once we’d get settle down. A Jagermiester’s hut stood out in the field – across the grain you could see fences of wooded land marching down across the horizon. It often brought me a smile, being in those woods . . . away from everyone and the base we were on.

I drew out the package I had purchased the night before and tore the top open. There were the German cigarettes I had bought and I hadn’t been picky about the brand. They were rough and unfiltered. I wouldn’t have known what brand to get anyway since I hadn’t smoked. My father owned a pipe – several well aged Meerschaums as well, but he had given up smoking some time ago. How I loved the aroma of a good pipe tobacco! How my mom hated those things – including the cigarettes I held in my hand. She hated a lot of things with a passion, insanely so some times. Including us because she hated men – hating them secretly and then vomiting out all her own fears and hatreds on us, her own children. There was a lot to be said about that woman, some of them good. But most of them are not.

This was a first for a lot of us, smoking. There were six of us in all that morning or afternoon. With the cloud cover it was hard to judge the time sometimes, but watches were rare. I had a Timex strapped to my arm; some of the other kids owned one as well – small white faces with thin black straps, each one a windup. They were for telling us what time to be home. Others relied on Taps sad siren’s song which would sound promptly at five o’clock pm to announce when it was time to be going. It was like a command from God himself, only more reliable and much more punctual.

One of the boys in our group said he had tried smoking before, sneaking some from his father. Another one chirped that they made you ‘high’, but nobody was quite sure what that meant. After all, what is ‘high’ when you are a kid and only twelve years old? You don’t associate it with some drinking that you did; that was “getting drunk” in our minds. And nobody talked about what others were doing, not much. Sometimes there were traitors in our groups, though usually we were best of friends. You never knew when a knife might fall – the knife of Army separation, or from a small group of friends, or from the disappearance of one individual by himself. Sometimes it would be the fathers who were in conflict – and then everyone would suffer. Sometimes the whole base would feel the wrath of a particularly mad and powerful C.O’s anger. Sometimes we were punished as a group; sometimes all alone. Sometimes it hurt, sometimes it didn’t; but as time went by I just quit feeling this ‘thing’: this sense of loss and separation. By withdrawing into myself I could feel myself ‘keeping myself whole’ in some way as I tried not to fracture into more pain I could bury, more parts than I was capable of keeping going at the same time.

“Here’s the matches,” said one of my friends, dragging one of those paperbacks from the PX, it’s logo small and round. It was a plain white rectangle, stamped with “PX” in black letters in something round. They burned, though, and that was the thing.

Passing the cigarettes out, I took one in my hand and put the pack back in my pocket, carefully balancing. I was sitting on a limb; we all were. Eventually I would learn to stretch out on them and take a nap – high up in the sky, unbeknownst to anyone below – sleeping and catching some breeze, one leg propped against a branch or in a vee, or if the branch was wide enough, cupping it between my shoulders and down the length of my body and letting my legs hang down.

I looked at the cigarette. It was small and round, its ends firmly packed. I was nervous. I had been warned again and again about this thing. How they were not good for you, how they could give you certain types of cancers and things. How your lungs would turn black and fall out in a violent fit of coughing (my mom’s threats on the stuff, including how she would cut our throats if she ever caught us smoking – and she had a good nose on her, that woman! She could smell a package of cigarettes a few yards away, hidden in the back of a drawer under some laundry. I should know as she caught me a few years later when I had the habit going, along with the habit of trotting up to the store where they sold those kinds of things in a machine. Marlboro became my favorite brand and you could get them for fifty to seventy-five cents, though they later went on up to a dollar, which nearly broke me of those things – and my paycheck.

They sold them in a machine over here, too, in Germany, and it had been by the machine the lady in the canteen had been guarding. It wasn’t uncommon for some Army brat to come in, and try to use the machine. But most of them had been caught and then marched away, maybe never to be seen again. You never knew. It depends on what other infractions they had been caught doing, what they were admitting, their own father’s career track and history – their future, everything, was up to second guessing. You never knew about Army command. Sometimes there were politics, deep and personal. Sometimes it just went by the book and regulation. Sometimes it depended on how much trouble the kid had got in – who had seen him do what to who’s or what things. It always depended upon your powers of observation, making sure no one was ever around. Sometimes your entire life was hinged on a word, a look; accurately guessing what others were thinking or which way they would look. We were sneaky as all get-out. You had to be.

For the most part, Americans being Americans, we were American kids. But then there were those special things, those things that set us apart from the groups of school children we were in and with. There were smaller groups among them, of course – there always are: loose groups of losers and friends, the popular ‘cliques’, the jocks and the ‘guys’. But even those were constantly changing, being revised as families shipped off overseas, or to or from somewhere. Our circle of friends was constantly rotating, the faces never remained the same. A few did. A few stick out in my mind with a burning intensity, some of them quite sad, but a lot of them are a blur. And so was this circle – all but one. He was my friend – my best one – and yet he was missing from that thing; this ‘group’ of rougher kids – and more daring kids. Of course his father mistreated him as well; expecting perfection and beating him when he was stoned drunk – sometimes beating him badly and violently in my mind. But not being there for this was good for him, for he went on, much later in his ‘career’, to become a fighter pilot of some kind. An expert in his field no doubt – he had a sharp mind, where mine was muddy as hell sometimes, even back when I was a kid.

“Here, I’ll take one,” I said as the kid, opening the pack of matches, struck one. He applied it to the cigarette he held posed between his lips. Drawing a deep breath he choked on the thing, nearly falling from the tree while simultaneously holding the pack of matches out to me.

“No! I’ll show you how to do it,” said the other kid, the one who had first spoken up about smoking to begin with. He was the one who had stolen some from his father; him and his friends had set me up on the dare; I had been the one to plan a night advance (when the canteen would presumably be at its emptiest, which it was not – it was in full gear when I came in!). He took the still smoking cigarette from his friend, and drawing on it a few times, got the coal red hot and glowing. Putting an unlit cigarette in his mouth, he touched it to the coal and lit up off of it. He handed the burning cigarette to a friend, then lit up another one. Taking mine from me, he lit that one up as well disappointing me – I had wanted to imitate what he was doing; he was saving matches, even I could see that.

As we all sat around – discussing smoking and how it should be done – I found myself growing dizzier and dizzier on the branch I was sitting on. My friends also complained about some vertigo.

“Maybe we should get down,” I said, wisely advising them in my best way. I didn’t want anyone falling and getting hurt out here. That would be sure to bring disaster down on our heads – beyond the fence, the fence would be mended, and we would all get our asses chewed for sure, beaten in some cases beyond a doubt. Mine was one of them for which I feared.

We all clambered down, still discussing this thing – whether to inhale them, or simply puff them away in spurts of smoke. At first we were just puffing on them, but as we grew stronger in our desire to try this thing – getting higher and higher all the time, we began inhaling on them, at first choking until we grew our brown wings and started getting the knack for holding them down. Then we smoked another – and by that time some of the boys were complaining about feeling like vomiting – and we headed towards the fence.

After that I never did give up smoking – at first sneaking a pack a week, sometimes getting them at the PX, but always with my own money. I usually stored them outdoors in some location – down in the community basement room system of supplies and locked doors, and maybe an old machine ‘laundromat’ of some kind – usually consisting of some old worn out machines scattered across a concrete floor in a cold damp room covered with slime from inadequate ventilation, and drain hoses snaking across the floor.

Later on I would go onto being a much more prodigious smoker, though I traded brands from time to time. For instance, I would smoke “Mores” later on during my high school days because cigarettes had gotten so much more expensive (I think they were about a dollar and a half by that time) – and I was always paying for them myself – working for my money and then some. I had an old bike for transportation – I got my first one when I was twelve (and often envy you ‘American kids’ who seem to get one every year or so, though I was an American child). We were just that poor sometimes. I only had three bikes as a ‘child’ – and I bought two of them with my own funds. I had to. My parents weren’t going to get them for me – and they said I would value them more if I worked for them, which I did.

I worked for everything in my life. Hard times – they do that to you. Instill in you a work ethic for life. And a good one, too, given my military background and training, though I don’t use it anymore, having become disabled due to my long stint in the Corps.

And smoking? I wish I had given it up; hadn’t even started back then. I’m still not quite up to a pack a day, though there have been times I exceeded that. I’ve been known to quit – two times. And then I gave up on the thing.

I shouldn’t have. I’ve got enough Nicorette – I worked for the company that makes them; hell, I even helped design the Commit factory – but oh well. We smokers would take breaks outside of that thing, that long tall brick building – smoking and discussing our commitment to this thing – both the building and the habit we would be breaking. Though none of us did it – not a single one.

They ended up hiring smokers for that thing (as much as possible, anyway) just in case someone got addicted to nicotine – which by the way, is an extremely poisonous drug to the system. It’s the plants way of keeping insects off of it. Think of it as a chemical insecticide – that’s what you all are smoking, and so am I. A chemical insecticide produced naturally by some plant, as is THC, by the way. Turns out bugs don’t like getting high any more than teetotalers do, especially when it comes at the risk of taking one’s own life. Which nicotine will do, especially when combined with the hundreds of other chemicals a cigarette is ‘providing’.

So . . . I urge you all NOT to take up smoking if you haven’t; and to give it up if you do (you will live a healthier and longer lifestyle), you will be happier, have more energy (due to lowered CO2 levels if nothing else); take more walks, have fresher breath, no more burn holes in clothes, no more stinking around the house . . .

While I go on smoking my own damn cigarette.

And think about giving up the habit, too.

(I am almost 53 years of age right now. I have been smoking continuously for at least forty of them. It’s really about time I did something for myself, if it isn’t too late by now. But even then I’m going to give up smoking sometime . . .

might be when I’m dying from ’em but I’m gonna have to put ’em up one day, maybe in my grave.

Speaking of which I left my lifelong friend and a guy who could’ve been my grandpa with five cigars – and a lighter – in his front pocket when he got buried.

One of the Boatman, one his well being, one for the Christ he believed in, and one for God the Being.

And one left over for me, when I come up there.

The End.