In 9th or 10th grade, I bought a pack of cigarettes (it was Winston), rode my motorcycle out into the Arizona desert, and smoked 5 or 6 of them. I didn’t know how to smoke, and wanted to figure it out on my own, without anyone watching. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself.
I’ve (happily) never smoked since. But let me tell you the backstory.
Dick and Nora Lundy were a fabulous couple at my United Brethren church in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. They ran Lundy’s Diner. They also built a big lodge in the Hualapai Mountains, about 60 miles away. It would host church retreats.
Three of us from the youth group spent a couple weekends helping Dick with construction. Tom Wilson and Tim Armour were fairly new Christians. And me. It was a blast. We worked hard, and the Lundys fed us royally. Dick was a big, jovial guy, somewhere well above six feet. We held our breath every time he ventured onto the makeshift scaffolding he cobbled together from scrap pieces of 2x4s and plywood. It always held, but only by divine intervention.
On one perfectly calm star-lit night, the three of us sat outside the lodge just chillin’. out. That’s when Tom and Tim pulled out some “supplies” and began rolling their own cigarettes. They offered to make me one. I said no thanks. Are you sure? Yep, no thanks, but you go ahead.
It wasn’t a principled no. I said no because I’d never smoked before and feared making a fool of myself. I didn’t want to leave Tim and Tom and the Lundys with the burden of explaining to my parents how their firstborn son asphyxiated himself in the Hualapais.
I watched Tim and Tom sit back against large rocks and leisurely puff away, with tiny tendrils of smoke wafting skyward. The stars, the fresh mountain air, the pine trees all around–it was so tranquil, so peaceful. Nicotine addiction played no role. They were just young Christians relaxing after a very long day of servanthood.
I wished I had said yes. Even now, I do. I feel like I missed sharing a very special moment of community with my friends in the Lord. As I watched them sitting there smoking away, they were so at peace with the world. Me? I was thinking more about my ambivalence and discomfort, and felt a bit envious. I wanted to join them. I really did. Having a cup of coffee in my hands might have accomplished the same thing, but I was 7 years away from trying coffee. In that moment, a cigarette just seemed perfect.
After finishing one cigarette, my memory is that Tim and Tom smoked a regular cigarette. When it was done, they were done. And then we just sat there a while longer under the heavens.
Reflecting on that specific moment, in that specific context–yes, a cigarette would have been just right. Just one. I should have told Tim, “Sure, I’ll take a cigarette, if you’ll show me how it works.” Just one cigarette, nursing it slowly, while gazing into that vast sky with my friends in Christ.
In the 40 years since, I’ve never had a sense that God would have minded. As long as it went no farther than that. And that’s why, if this situation ever arose again (which it never did), I wanted to be prepared.