There were cigarettes in the toilet bowl that spring. Green Bay, Wisconsin, 1976.
My father was trying to quit smoking. If he found his hand wrapped round a pack he tore the pack open, threw the paper in the garbage can, then twisted the cigarettes until they burst in the middle and dumped the whole mess into the toilet. Flakes of tobacco stuck to the bowl; the cigarettes’ white paper went gray and soggy in the swirl of the flush. And always one or two water-logged remnants would bob before us later when we lifted the toilet lid.
It was his battle, but he enlisted my brother and me to help him win. My brother was eight, I was seven, and together we were extensions of my father’s will power. Or to put it more accurately, we were the backstop for his own shakey will power – he trained us to stop him from smoking in those moments when he could not stop himself.
We were to check his coat pockets, his briefcase, the glove box in his car, his sock drawer, the bedside table. If we found packs there or anywhere else, it was our job to tear them apart and consign them to the toilet.
If one slipped through and made it to his mouth, we were to sound the alarm. “You see me with a cigarette, I want you to tell me ‘put that damn old cigarette out!’” Dad told us.
We practiced at the kitchen table. Dad picked up a pencil. “This is a cigarette,” he said. He moved the pencil toward his face; he stuck the eraser in his mouth. His other thumb flicked an invisible Bic lighter and held it to the lead. “I’m lighting up,” he said. He inhaled and looked at us down the length of the pencil. His eyebrows danced upward as a cue to our line.
“Put that damn old cigarette out,” we said in sloppy unison, looking at each other for reassurance as we tiptoed across the curse word.
“I’m still smoking,” Dad said. “Puff puff.”
“Put that damn old cigarette out,” we said again.
“Puff. What? Did I hear something? Puff puff.”
We stood up on our chairs then and we screamed it: “Put that damn old cigarette out!”
Dad jumped, fumbled the pencil in his hands then mimed tamping the cigarette onto the table top. “That’s the one!” he said. “Just like that.”
In the larger world, beyond my father’s personal battle with nicotine, 1976 was also a presidential election year.
This too became a personal fight for my father. Dad was a Georgia boy, born and raised in Savannah. And into the depressed political climate of 1976 — the country was limping out of Viet Nam, Watergate, economic slowdown and a general feeling that its best days were behind it — came surging a most unlikely front runner: another Georgia boy, a peanut farmer, a Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter. Fueled by rural, blue collar voters and voters longing for a return to morality in American politics, Carter was toppling better-known, establishment candidates and being hailed as a marvel of grassroots campaigning.
My father was a professor of political science at the University in Green Bay. A thoughtful, informed voter, but he was not above a little home-state pride as he watched Carter’s rise and his enthusiasm washed over onto me and my brother. We commandeered the back porch of our house and festooned it with red, white and blue flags we made from loose leaf notebook paper and crayons. We used crayons and markers to make signs declaring the porch the “Jimmy Carter Club”. Our friends, brimming with Ford fervor they had almost certainly absorbed from their own parents, clambered onto the porch to ridicule our loyalties. But we stood firm.
Then it happened that Jimmy Carter came to Green Bay. His campaign was rolling through the Midwest and he was scheduled to deliver a speech at a downtown Green Bay hotel. My father, of course, had to be there. But he saw the opportunity to show my brother and me something of the larger world close up, to teach us something about government, and citizenship and so on the day of the speech, he took us with him.
How it happened, I don’t know, but we got separated in the crowd. I was seven and I was three and half feet tall. I lost sight of my father and all I remember is belt buckles and suit pants and the sound of Jimmy Carter’s voice, though I never did see him. My brother and I wandered out of the ballroom, the forest of big bodies, to the balcony that overlooked the lobby of the old hotel. We sat down with our legs through the railing, our feet dangling above the heads of the people milling in the lobby below. The speech went on as a droning sound behind us interrupted now and then by applause. When it was finally over the ballroom emptied and the suit pants and the belt buckles shuffled past us and we waited for our father to come to us there on the balcony.
He didn’t come. We didn’t move. We sat and watched the scene play out below us.
The bulk of the crowd descended the curving staircase at the end of the balcony, crossed the lobby and walked out through the bank of heavy doors into the gray spring light. Then came a group of men with notepads and microphones: the press, crossing the lobby and encircling one man who began answering their questions. I know now that man was Jody Powell, campaign spokesman. He would go on to be Carter’s press secretary and political advisor in the White House. A member of what had been dubbed the “Georgia Mafia,” Powell was considered one of the most powerful press secretaries in American history up to that point. Of course at the time I had no idea who he was, I just knew these other men were interested in him, he was where the action was and so I watched.
My reverie on Powell was interrupted by the boat-horn blast of my brother’s voice echoing across the marble floors, the vaulted ceilings of the old hotel.
“Put that damn old cigarette out!”
My brother was standing beside me now, pointing like a body snatcher down and across the lobby at my father who stood watching Powell — the same scene I had been watching – and was lifting a lit cigarette to his lips.
Dad turned and looked up at us and a broad smile opened across his face. He nodded, approving, then stepped to the nearest ashtray and pressed his cigarette out.
And so did the two men sitting on the lobby couches.
And so did the man at the pay phone against the wall.
And so did campaign spokesman, member of the Georgia Mafia, advisor to the future president, Jody Powell.
My father would be 80 this year. But he only lived another 10 years after that day in the hotel lobby. He told this story many times. Always with a laugh, always with joy, always with pride.
I like to remember it now because it’s one place I can still find him after we have been separated for such a very long time.