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Fitz's Opinion: The Master Sergeant and half a century of hustlers blowing smoke
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Fitz’s Opinion

Fitz's Opinion: The Master Sergeant and half a century of hustlers blowing smoke

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

‘Doctors say smoking’s good for you. Relaxes you.” The Master Sergeant was diagnosed with malignant lung cancer when I was 7. Told to quit or die, he scoffed. “The science isn’t in on cigarettes. Damned know-it-alls don’t know a damned thing.” The Master Sergeant was a master of denial.

And conspiracies.

I hid his Winstons in my toy box. “Listen, boy. The government pays scientists to say these things so the government can have their programs to save us all from ourselves.” Then he’d draw a deep puff, cough, spit up blood, pocket the soiled handkerchief and smile, proud of his out-of-the-box punditry. “The science? Nobody knows. For certain.”

The Surgeon General was on every pack warning us the science was certain, pop.

“What do you know? You’re only 7. When I was 7 I picked stubs out of the gutter and picked out the tobacco to roll my own — to fight off the hunger.”

Hand me my lighter, boy.

That year he sneaked out of Lackland Air Force Base Hospital, three days after surgeons removed one half of his right lung. “I’m coming home. I’ll be at the Greyhound bus station at 3:30. Come get me.”

When he stepped off the bus, mom gasped. From across the lot at Congress Street and Broadway it appeared a giant shark with a medical degree had taken a huge bite out of my father’s side. His sutures bled a crescent-shaped line of tiny red dots down the side of his crisp white shirt where half a lung had been.

He’s got to quit now. I ran to him, arms open. “Dad!”

“Whoa.” He gestured at me to stop and fished a fresh pack out of his shirt pocket, unwrapped it like he was undressing a lover, tapped the bottom, flipped the Kool into his mouth, struck a match, savored a deep draw, coughed and smiled. “I’m fine!”

Soon his doctor, the X-rays, Walter Cronkite, the Feds, an anti-smoking ad campaign and a persistent cancer were after him to quit. “What a crock. Smoking kept me healthy. I haven’t had a cold in 20 years. And now you can’t sell them on TV? The government has no right to tell me what to do. Neither do you. What does a 13-year-old know!”

We’re persecuted. The science is bad. We’re being singled out. Are you going to believe the government? Who are you going to believe? I believed the cancerous lung sample I saw in the 7th grade when Dr. McKay was our guest speaker. And the blood in dad’s handkerchief. And the Cancer Society.

Don’t die, pop. Proudly skeptical, he inhaled two packs a day and the bogus “evidence” peddled by the companies that sold him the lethal product killing him. “I don’t trust your almighty science. Your so-called experts don’t know. I just got a little asthma or emphysema. Smoking’s a harmless habit.”

His malignant, long-silenced dissonance reverberates today.

Climate change science is baloney.

Jan. 6? A middle school tour gone wrong.

Masks are stupid.

By the time I graduated from college he was a heartbreaking, hollow-eyed, gasping skeleton, dying and desperate for any alternative to giving up his addiction to nicotine and irrational beliefs, an ideal target for despicable grifters pushing miracle cure bracelets, empty elixirs and quick fix supplements as worthless as a Cyber Ninja audit. Or a Trump University degree.

Find my pack and lighter, son. There was no point in arguing with the frail, gasping man who showed me how to change a cooler pad, salute properly and where to get the best banana splits. At the funeral home, I slid an unwrapped pack of Kools into his sports coat, closed the lid, and saluted the “cheapest pine box you can find,” draped with the most beautiful American flag in the world.

A decade after that, you couldn’t smoke on a plane. Hollywood stopped glamorizing the lethal habit. By the turn of the century, Joe Camel was canceled for peddling poison to children, Big Tobacco had to fork over a punishing settlement of 200 billion bucks to 46 states and, as their phony institutes and propaganda mills fell as silent as the half-a-million American smokers buried every year, they expanded into the Third World market.

Took half a century to squeeze the hustlers.

I miss the old man. He never met my wife, my children, his great-grandchildren. He would have liked his great-granddaughter Emma’s spirit. Immuno-compromised and tough as a Master Sergeant, she just got over a hard bout with COVID-19. In spite of being masked, she caught it at a Phoenix area public school where the science was questioned by a mob who had inhaled the next big lie to come along.

David Fitzsimmons:

tooner@tucson.com


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