Clear The Smoke

“Smok’em If Ya Got’em! “

I was about 6 years old the first time I ever heard those words. Out in the tobacco fields of 1960s North Carolina, nearly everybody had cigarettes or chewing tobacco in their pockets. At six years old, of course I didn’t have either. But I had eyes and I watched the men all fire up or cut off a chunk to chew. Literally every man in the field had something made of tobacco and like all little boys, I wanted so much to be a man.

By the time I turned seven years old I had started stealing Old Golds from my granddaddy. He worked for the Lorillard company over in Greensboro. Every week he’d bring at least a carton of cigarettes home, a benefit of working for the ‘factory’. Every week I’d steal a pack and sneak around outside, pretending I was a man.

About a year later my grandmother Mama Lacie caught me. She gave me a choice of being whipped or having my mouth washed out with Lava soap. When I chose the belt, she firmly let me know that the smoke went into and out of my mouth and it was that end of me that was going to get worked on.

Lava soap has a taste I’ll never forget. I didn’t smoke for about a year after that. But during my 10th summer, working in the tobacco fields, the inevitable smoke break would come every morning. I don’t remember which day it was. I don’t remember which man it was. Still, one day that summer, one of the men in the field offered me a smoke and I took it. I’ve been smoking since that day with only a few brief interludes.


Thirty-nine years later my left lung partially collapsed. It is perhaps one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had to endure.

According to the online Mayo Clinic,

“Atelectasis may be due to compression of the lung tissue or obstruction of the air passages (bronchi). The collapse may affect only a small part of the lung or the whole lung. Pneumothorax and pleural effusion can cause the lung to partially collapse without closing off any of the airway. A partially collapsed lung may slowly re-expand without treatment. But a severe collapse of a whole lung can be life-threatening and requires emergency medical attention.

If you experience the signs and symptoms of atelectasis, including shortness of breath, chest pain and cough, seek emergency medical attention.”


So what actually causes something like this to happen? We can say: ‘Smoking causes it!’ but that tells us nothing, really. Again, the Mayo Clinic has a great series of pages on it:

“A lung can collapse for many reasons: a growing tumor blocking a major airway, an infection, even an inhaled foreign object. One type of lung collapse, known medically as a pneumothorax, occurs when air leaks into the area between your lungs and chest wall (pleural space). The pressure of the air against the lung causes it to give way, often leading to mild to severe chest pain and shortness of breath. A pneumothorax can be caused by a chest injury, certain medical treatments, lung disease or a break in an air blister on the lung’s surface.

A lung collapses in proportion to the amount of air that leaks into your chest cavity. Although the entire lung can collapse, a partial collapse is much more common. A small, uncomplicated pneumothorax may heal on its own in a week or two, but when the pneumothorax is more severe, the excess air is usually removed by inserting a tube or needle between your ribs into the pleural space.

If air continues to build up, the increasing pressure can push your heart and blood vessels toward the uncollapsed lung, compressing both your lung and heart. Called a tension pneumothorax, this condition is life-threatening and requires immediate medical care.”

Clear The Smoke

In my case it was caused by an underlying pneumonia making my lungs weak enough to become infected with a fungus. But I am certain that were it not for my heavy addiction to cigarettes the total damage would have been much less. As a smoker my lungs were already compromised and more susceptible to infection. And as a smoker I was inclined to attribute symptoms to the smoking, and not seek medical help in time to prevent so much damage. 

Let me make this clear. Smoking cigarettes will damage our bodies. Playing the odds is a guaranteed loss. Pretending that it doesn’t affect everybody is a child’s game. Laugh at the warnings from friends and family, and eventually even laughter will come with pain. If we ignore the warnings all around, then in ignorance we will reap the appropriate rewards.

If you smoke, you are probably already addicted. You’ve played with the idea of quitting, but the addiction is so hard to beat. You can’t imagine a stronger addiction.

Well, I can. It’s called Life.