The Master Sergeant smoked Marlboros from the time he woke up until he ground the last glowing butt of the day into the ashtray on his nightstand. I kept count. Two packs a day. Sometimes three. Even after emphysema. Even after a tumor. Even after malignant lung cancer. Even after the surgery.
It was the late Sixties. In elementary school my teacher taught us the scientific evidence about tobacco was overwhelming. Even the surgeon general, whoever he was, had an opinion. A guest speaker from the American Lung Association showed us a horrifying sliver of a smoker’s lung under glass. I barfed.
At home the Master Sergeant blew smoke at my arguments. “Those scientists don’t know everything.” Pop was smarter than my teacher and his doctors and the surgeon general and those egghead scientists. Had he lived, I’m pretty sure he would have admired a New York City real estate developer who told us he was smarter than all of President Obama’s generals.
When I was in junior high I read my school science report to him. “Cigarettes cause cancer, Dad. They’re killing you. Please, stop smoking.”
The Master Sergeant scoffed at my plea. “The tobacco company scientists say it’s all a big lie. Cigarette smoke is perfectly safe.” The corporation profiting from my dad’s addiction encouraged his refutation of science.
Science was a lie. And fluoride was a plot, the moon landing was faked, vaccines cripple, and UFOs are real. And in 2016, according to the aforementioned New York City real estate developer, we learned climate change was a hoax invented by the Chinese.
At the dinner table, the lit cigarette bobbed on his lower lip. “And one more thing, Mr. Smarty Pants, your scientists don’t know a thing about real life.”
I didn’t understand why someone would ignore science. Science cured polio and was going to put a man on the moon.
When I turned 12 the Air Force sent the Master Sergeant to a Texas hospital to cut the cancerous lower half of his right lung out of his body. He sneaked out of the hospital the morning after his surgery and hopped a Greyhound home. When mom and I met him at the bus station he was clutching what remained of his right side, his white shirt soaked with blood from the fresh sutures. Clenching a lit smoke between his teeth he said to my mother, “What do the doctors know? I’m fine. The cancer ward smelled awful. No ventilation. I had to get out of there. I needed fresh air.” He crushed the smoke under his foot, lit a replacement and smiled at me. I hugged him all the way to the car.
As tobacco corporations waged their war on science, my father’s denial grew more aggravating. He loved the contrarian arguments and his nicotine more than logic, more than reason, more than us, more than life itself; choosing to slowly die in front of us, one smoke at a time. By 1979 the gasping was over. The skeletal, emaciated man was 65.
In 1994, nearly half a century after the link between cigarettes and cancer had been established as irrefutable, a phalanx of soulless CEOs testified before Congress, under oath, with straight faces, that their cigarettes were not addictive or deadly.
Today the same species of corporate masters claim climate change is neither real, nor threatening.
Today we love our fossil fuels more than logic, more than reason, more than our grandchildren. We love our carbon, and our denial, more than we love our beautiful and miraculous home planet.
Ever since climate change was identified as a global threat, oil and coal, following the denial model of Big Tobacco, have waged a war on science with their mercenary army of spineless politicians, shameless lobbyists and feckless scientists.
Toward the end I saw my father ask the Magnavox, “Why don’t these know-it-alls shut up? Isn’t the surgeon general supposed to make our lives better instead of picking on people? ” Poor man. Persecuted by facts. Wronged by evidence. ”I’m telling you, son, there’s a conspiracy against tobacco companies.” Right. And Obama was born in Kenya. And javelina fly.
Last week when I saw a climate-change denier say, “The science is fake!” I saw a mirror image of my father, in his fog of smoke, inhaling and exhaling the lies he had been fed by the corporations that were killing him. I recalled that moment, alone in the dark funeral home, when, missing him terribly, I slipped a pack of menthols into his sports coat for his journey to Valhalla, and shut the lid on his coffin.
And the deniers ramble on, blowing smoke.