I’m sitting in the desert, staring at a red-crescent moon in a jet blue Arab sky…pecking at the laptop, smoking a $2 Arturo Fuente Curly Head, and glad just to have one… The drone of multiple gas generators humming and the continuous noise of helicopters taking off and landing is the soundtrack by which we live. Its night, the temperature has changed more than 30 degrees from mid-day, and its still 90o.
New Howitzer crews just arriving in country are practicing their night-fire exercises. Though the range is more than 20 miles away every time a shell hits, it’s like it’s inside your head. You can feel the pressure of the explosion in your chest, and ground shakes instantaneously. God, I hope I am never underneath one of those babies when it goes off.
I’m Navy; stationed with the Army ground forces…this war has made some strange bedfellows. I’m used to providing medical support to the no non-sense Marines on the tip of the spear, not used to having “comforts” like these soldiers around me playing their computer games in their tents and talking about what videos they are going to watch at night. I’ve been a Hospital Corpsman long enough to be much more comfortable on the deck of a carrier but for now I’m a “Sand Sailor.”
I have always liked Cigars. The first time I put one in my mouth I was 13…my Dad caught me smoking a cigarette. I thought it was so cool, he took me out and bought me a Cigar, like a real man…and it wasn’t till I was about 3 drags into it, I realized he wasn’t doing this ‘cause I was grown up and ready for adult pleasures. He made me smoke the whole damn thing, down to where I couldn’t even hold it. I was green, sick as a dog up for days.
Uncle Vic always had a Partagas in his mouth…he owned a SUNOCO gas station and garage in Erie, Pennsylvania. When Unka Vic was working on cars he chewed Cigars, and if he wasn’t he smoked ‘em. I’ll never forget my Mom going high and to the right because he was pumping gas into our car while smoking a cigar. And he tells her “Don’t worry Marge, I’m a professional.”
I started smoking cigars after a 5 year hiatus from tobacco. I’d smoked Marlboro “reds”, a pack a day for 17 years, and quit cold turkey when I came into the Navy during the run up to the first Gulf War in ‘91. I was older than both my Company Commanders in boot camp, and at least 10 years older then the next “oldest” recruit.
Upon hearing of my “advanced years” a lanky African-American kid from Cleveland named Jeff spouted ”Who do you think you are Rambo?,” and from then on I was Rambo. Jeff and I became fast friends and after graduating Recruit Training Command (RTC), Hospital Corpsman “A” School in San Diego and Marine, Field Medical Service School in Camp Pendleton together we happened to get stationed at the same duty stations for our first 2 tours. Our racks were always next to each other, we watched each others backs.
I was stationed at Balboa Naval Hospital San Diego a few years later; we had to go out to the smoke “deck” to make the Corpsmen put their cigarettes out so they could go teach the smoking cessation classes, ironic.
While there I discovered a tiny smoke shop, not quite as big as a closet near Horton Plaza in the Gas Lamp District... They sold individual cigarettes to street people, as well as $30 cigars. “What’s a good cigar?” I asked. He looked me over and says, “Kid, I could sell you the best cigar in the place and you couldn’t be able to tell the difference between it and a piece of shit.” “So you don’t want to sell me a cigar?” It was like a Mexican stand-off.
I guess he figured I wasn’t going to leave till I got something from him so he gives me some advice. “If I were you I’d go out to the grocery store and buy some Phillies or other cheap machine-mades, when you’re done smoking them, get a few that are a little more expensive. After you’ve smoked 8-10, if you still want to smoke Cigars, come in and I’ll start you on some inexpensive Dominicans or Hondurans.” I was back after 2 weeks. He taught me a lot. I really respected him for not taking my money. I buy cigars from him every time I’m in “Sand Dog”.
I smoked my first Cubano at my next duty station, Yokosuka, Japan, sitting on the dock out behind the old Naval Hospital. It was my first time in the Far East, a mid-western guy wandering the streets of a much too distant land taking in all the foreign sights, and sounds and smells for the first time. I was like a kid at Christmas finding Cuban Montecristo’s in a small shop beside the Japanese Mild Seven cigarettes. Walking thought he streets I felt like I was about to be initiated into a secret society.
Out on the pier I cut and gently put the flame under her, careful not to let the flame hit the tobacco, just letting the heat spontaneously combust the tip of the cigar. It was a satisfying experience, stronger and bolder than I usually liked my cigars to be at the time. The gulls were swooping over the water, the weather comfortable and all was well in the world.
Until I got up, my head was reeling, spinning out of control. I attempted to navigate my way back to my room at the Temporary Personal Unit (TPU) but I was blown away.
I must have been a site. 10 AM and here I am weaving and bobbing down the road like a drunken Sailor, how appropriate. I remember thinking “That’s why these things are so expensive and prized….they are like serious drugs, real ‘big guns’”. I did finally make it back to the barracks and I had to lie down on my rack for 45 minutes just to get my head straight.
Next I was stationed aboard the USS Belleau Wood (LHA-3) a light helicopter carrier out Sasebo, Japan. Its mission was to transport Marines to the fight. We had a thousand Ships Company aboard and when we took on the helicopter squadron and the Marine ground troops our numbers swelled to over 3,000. The whole back end of the ship opened up and we could deploy landing crafts and “duck” boats by flooding the well deck. For this reason this class of ship were nick named “gators”. I was the flight deck Corpsman during the Somalia fight. We ran flight ops from before sun up till after dark every day and Night Vision Goggles (NVG’s) and Special Ops at night. The flight deck of a carrier is the most dangerous quarter-acre on the planet, especially at night.
It wouldn’t happen too often but when the flight deck was secured and the “smoking lamp” lit , it was time for a cigar. It was an amazing walk850’ from stem to stern with water as far as the eye could see on all sides. With a cigar in my mouth, I felt like I owned the world.
There were times I’d sit at the bow and smoke, looking down 68’ to the waterline, watching the keel knifing through the waves, dolphins racing it, appearing out of the water, then diving, disappearing only to reappear seconds later. At other times watching the sun glint off flying fish, sailing 6-8” above the water cutting through the crests of successive waves and then dipping below them again. It was a tradition in the days of sail that old salts always had a pipe in their teeth, today the modern Navy Sailors (when we can) smoke cigars. I was mostly smoking AVO’s on board.
There was plenty of Cigar smoke after of the torment of WOG day, an ancient seafaring tradition dating back to the days of the great sailing ships. It is required to initiate Sailors who had never crossed the equator (pollywogs or wogs) by those who had made the crossing (shellbacks). The revelry was presided over by King Neptune, and his court including Davie Jones.
When I went through the ordeal, the entire day was filled with harassment, hazing and abuse. There were only men aboard then and there was always a wog queen competition where wogs were made to dress up as women (usually with mops heads substituting for long flowing hair. The most “ attractive” picked as the queen for King Neptune. Usually the biggest, hairiest most unladylike Bosen’s Mates were chosen
The day culminated with a kangaroo court where Davie Jones charged each individual with offenses and king Neptune levied his punishments. It was all in good fun though injuries were common. Everything is so politically correct today the initiations custom and ritual is so watered down its pointless.
A good friend of mine is the Commander of a nuclear sub. I remember with his crew who commented every few days, while they are under, everyone on board would smell cigar smoke and knew the Captain was down between the missile tubes near the air scrubbers having a cigar.
I was stationed in Chin Hae’ South Korea, an extremely small base. It was the kind of base where you saw everyone at least 5 times a day and each one said “Hi” to you every time you ran into them. It was like a really small town, only smaller. There was no place to get a way, no privacy, until I found a koi pond in a hidden, isolated corner of the base.
I used to sit alone quite often out by the secluded pond and smoke. Romeo Y Juliete Cuban Churchill tubos became my preferred addiction. It was so tranquil, so relaxing, watching those big orange, white, and dappled carp just gliding through the water, watching the reflection of the clouds float by on the pools surface. In the fall, leaves would fall around me, in the spring the birds would serenade. At all times it was an extraordinary place where I could get away from all the bull5#!T and the constant pressure of the Navies work.
I truly learned to love cigars in Korea. They make you sit, relax, and notice the beauty happening all around you everyday…make you aware of what was passing you by. You can’t stop just for a second and smell the roses; you need to stop for 45 minutes, smoke a cigar, unwind, and really admire the roses, or the angle of the sun, or your friends, or …life.
In Chin Hae’ was the first time I attended the Seabees Birthday ball. Since then I’ve had the pleasure to attend annual birthday celebrations, for the Navy, Marine Corps, and the Navy Hospital Corps. These affairs are always awash in Cigar smoke and a great opportunity to share time smoking and telling stories with some the most senior Officers as well as the very junior enlisted.
I also received my first humidor while in Korea. The Naval Medical Officer I worked for threw one at me for Christmas. He told me of his grandfather, a small town Doc in West Virginia. “He had a cigar in his mouth constantly…even while seeing patients.” The story goes the only time he removed it was when going into surgery. He’d take it out of his mouth and carefully place it on the top edge of the open door leading into the room where they scrubbed-up, gowned gloved for the operations. Upon completing the procedure he would take off his gloves reach up and return the cigar to its rightful place.
When I was stationed with the Commander Naval Forces Mediterranean on the Bay of Gaeta in Italy I smoked while picking olives. I had the pleasure of taking part in the carnival-like atmosphere at the presses where everyone brought their olives to have to release the rich golden-green liquid. I played bocce and the card game brisco with the fishermen and pensioners and was compelled to smoke their Toscanos the dry cured stogies everyone in southern Italy smokes and gave them mine, which they deemed tolerable.
I’ve smoked to celebrate the honor of being selected, initiated, and “pinned” a Chief Petty Officer in the finest Navy in the world. I’ve smoked to celebrate weddings and in memory of fallen friends after funerals, in honor of countless childbirths when the Mom and new baby were thousands of miles ocean away, to kill time in the military where “hurry-up and wait” is a way of life.
I’ve smoked in sidewalk cafés’ on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, in the red-light district in Amsterdam, and on the streets of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Guam, Saipan and Tinian, in Somalia, Japan, North Korea, Canton in China, Hong Kong, Italy, Germany, Mexico and in most of the 50 states including Alaska and Hawaii. Some Sailors can illustrate their life story by the ports they collect their tattoos in, with me it’s memories colored by cigar smoke.
When It’s my time to go and I close my eyes for the last time I’m sure my life will flash before my eyes and when it does unfold before me I’m sure for most of it I’ll remember having a cigar clenched between my teeth and a feeling of satisfaction in my heart.