Today marks two pretty significant events in the last quarter of my time on the planet. Ten years ago on May 1 2002 I stopped smoking. Five years later on May 1, I returned to the Times-News as editor.
Both were life-altering moves on a seismic scale. One I had control 0ver — sort of. The other, not so much. One was definitely more difficult to do. The reason both fell on May 1 is one of those cosmic deals that defy rational explanation.
I try not to think about the why of it too much. It’s far too random for analysis, or perhaps the opposite.
You see, I never set out to stop smoking on May 1 — or any other date for that matter. For the longest time, I figured to smoke until. Sadly, it’s almost always “until.” No two ways about it, I was a hard case.
I started puffing away at age 16 and quickly became a degenerate about the habit. I zoomed — wheezing and coughing all the way I suppose – from one cigarette to a pack a day in about a week. Not long after, I smoked two packs a day.
Those were interesting times. Cigarettes were cheap — and adults didn’t give a hoot if kids smoked them. The surgeon general? He was just some dude out to spoil a good time and wreck the North Carolina economy.
Back then, high school kids could legally smoke on campus. You had to pay a fee for a smoking permit (parents of those under 18 had to sign it, and they did). The little card allowed students to indulge themselves on campus — but only in selected spots. The girls smoked behind the football stadium press box at my high school. The boys smokng area was near the shop classes behind the cafeteria.
Lawd knows what might happen if boys and girls smoked together on campus.
From that point, I smoked pretty much nonstop for the next 26 years. It was a stupid thing to do and I knew it. In those days, though, nearly everyone smoked. My dad worked for cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds. My mom was a smoker and all her friends were smokers. My great uncle, a physician, was never without a cigarette. He would arrive and put down two packs of cigarettes — one regular and one menthol. He would then alternate one after another, even through dinner, throat cancer, and heading the county health department.
Lighting up in New York's Central Park in 1981.
I didn’t emmulate my uncle but I gave my mother a run for her money when it came to sheer numbers of cigarettes enhaled. When I moved into newspapers, nearly everyone in the newsroom smoked and had an ashtray at their desks. All day long cigarettes smoldered in the dozen or so ashtrays in the Times-News newsroom. A blue haze hung over the area like a nuclear cloud. We called the sports department where I worked with smokers Bill Hunter and Craig Holt “Marlboro Country.”
Over time, newsrooms banned smoking — for the benefit of the dozens of people who never lit up one in their lives and deserved a break or the reformed sinners who then became the loudest critics of their former smoking cohorts. I remember a junior editor asking Jim Wicker once if he could still do his job and not smoke. “For another paper,” Wicker said.
But even he eventually came around.
So for years I joined my fellow tokers in outdoor smoking areas – sort of like returning to high school only now girls and boys were allowed to indulge together, without notable incident I might add.
Finally, though, I had enough. It was the cost more than health benefits that factored into the decision. As the price for a carton climbed to $20 and beyond, I remembered that it cost only 35 cents a pack when I first started.
It made no sense to continue.
I quit this way: For about a month I smoked Now, the lowest tar and nicotine cigarette made at that time. Sort of like sucking air through concrete. After a few weeks, I bought a carton and told my wife it would be the last. I worked my way through to the last pack, which I made last for a couple of days. When the pack ran out, I would never smoke again.
That was May 1, 2002. Just worked out that way.
No surprise, but I was discombobulated for a few days. Even my hair felt weird. I was dog tired. Who knew that slowing down my blood pressure and metabolism would have that kind of impact? Well, I sort of knew. In response, I would do 20 pushups every time I wanted a cigarette. This went on for about a month — until one day I didn’t even think about a cigarette even once. It took me a couple of days to notice it.
From that point, anytime I thought I might want a cigarette I just told myself to remember how hard it was to quit.
Didn’t want to go through that hell again.
The move back to Burlington five years later was a snap by comparison.
My longtime friend Lee Barnes had a hand in it and I remain grateful to him. He did so by leaving the executive editor’s post here to take a position with another newspaper. Lee recalled me telling him a few years prior that should anything become available I might be interested in moving back. My parents were getting older and I wanted to be closer. My dad’s health was in serious decline. A year later, he would be gone.
Lee let me know his plans and said he had recommended me to Steve Buckley — the publisher here at the time. Steve called and inquired about my possible interest. A week or so later, I was at the Times-News for an interview. Steve offered me the job almost immediately but wanted me to begin quickly. He was preparing to undergo surgery and wanted me in the job while he would be out of the office. I’ve very grateful to Steve, too. I owe him a great debt.
That’s how I landed back here on May 1.
So today I happily mark two of my favorite anniversaries. No other events have improved the quality of my life over the past decade more than the decisions in 2002 and 2007. My thanks to all who helped make both happen — most especially my spouse, who put up with my surly disposition in 2002 and packed up our Cape Carteret house in 2007 even though she wasn’t originally sold on the idea when it first developed.
I don’t think either of those things would’ve been possible without her help. Our marriage in 1997 tops the list of events that radically changed the course of my existence for the better over the past 20 years. Oddly enough, it didn’t happen on May 1.
Just didn’t work out that way.