A Couple of Vices
“Angels do find us in our hour of need.”
For many years I had one very bad habit and flirted with another. One was smoking and the other drinking and driving.
Most of us who smoke and drink do so at great risk. I asked my physician once whether a little smoking was OK. He answered that a little smoking was preferable to heavy smoking. However, though excessive smoking was worse than light smoking, no amount of smoking was safe.
I pressed him on the subject because I had been wrestling with smoking for a long time. I started when I was a young boy who tried to act tough in the presence of older fellows by doing what they did. Smoke.
By the time I was twenty I was fully hooked on tobacco. I partook of all the burning leaves I could handle.
The first time I quit smoking was at Helen’s request. I was driving home from Canada and listening to the only Boston station I could pull in along the way, WBZ. They were the Celtics flagship station at the time and Johnny Most, a five pack man (meaning the number of packs each day) was on air leading their “Big Coffin.”
One station personality after another pledged to quit. Politicians and other well known Bostonians did the same. The Lung Association provided guests with expertise in quitting smoking. The whole world was quitting. Finally, somewhere south of Burlington, Vermont, I opened the car window and tossed out the three or four packs of Camels I had. Next out was a very expensive lighter. That was it, I quit.
Forever lasted about a year because the following January I was in a hotel in Cowansville, Quebec. When I awoke in the morning I learned we had a huge snow storm during the night. Huge even by their standards in the snow belt. I was marooned in the hotel.
I strolled down to the restaurant and had a great country breakfast. A few other salesmen were also stuck there and we took up to talking shop and just about anything else which came to mind.
The morning hours rolled into the afternoon. The tavern opened and we drifted to the bar. After a couple of Molson Ales one of my new found friends offered me a cigarette. At first I refused. Another Molson and another offer of a cigarette. This time I thought I’d see what a smoke tasted like after a whole year.
Afternoon turned into night and we had dinner with a promise from hotel management the snow would be cleared enough to allow us to leave in the morning.
After dinner we had a few more Molson’s. And I had a few more cigarettes. Talk about stupid.
When I got up in the morning the first thing I sought out was a cigarette. Even before breakfast I had visited the cigarette machine. I was once again hopelessly hooked on smoking. Even after a whole year, the last six months of which I had no interest in even trying one, I was once again addicted.
Wow! What a hold nicotine had on me.
I tried to quit again and managed six months once and three or four months a few more times. Yet I still went back to my dirty habit.
Norman Knight, owner of Knight Quality Broadcasting, was among the early anti-smoking zealots. Smoking was not permitted in any of his stations. However Bob Nimms, his general manager at WSAR, among other things, was a heavy smoker. A lifelong radio man, Nimms had smoked since he came off the farm in central Massachusetts when he was a teen. We talked about smoking a lot. Most everyone Bob hired smoked.
We had a process of fumigating the station whenever old man Knight planned to visit. The building always smelled as though it was submerged in a bottle of Air Wick by the time he arrived.
Finally, in the winter of 1982, our daughter Carol-Anne, with Helen’s connivance, coaxed one of her younger sisters, Sarah, into pulling a very unfair stunt on me.
While I was reading the newspaper before supper, cigarette butt hanging from my lip, Sarah stood in the doorway holding a pack of my cigarettes in her hand. “Dad, who do you like more, me or these?”
Damned unfair, that was. And very effective.
My thoughts darted to, “I’ve got to quit these things and I’ve got to do this permanently this time.”
That night on air, sometimes toward the middle of the program I began to cough as only a smoker can. This time, however, I had all I can do to speak.
I tried to quit the next morning but was back to it by noon.
Shattered by the failure yet once again I remembered the Coffin a dozen years earlier.
By then it was early February. I began to think what would be a good date to quit. Finally I struck on an idea. Helen and I celebrate our birthdays in March. That did it. Quitting would be a birthday gift to both of us. I asked her about it and she thought it was a good idea since it would serve two purposes. No need to spend money on what is usually a needless gift. Add to that the ongoing savings of cigarette costs.
Suddenly, I felt as though I was zeroing in on a method of quitting which would work for the long term. I mentioned it to our WSAR audience and the feedback was outstanding. Go for it was the sentiment.
I arbitrarily selected March 1, 1982 as the magic date. I asked listeners who felt as I did to send in post cards to pledge along with me to dump the habit forever.
We received hundreds of post card pledges and almost an equal amount of mail wishing us success. Boy was I ever committed now.
The last program before the smoke out I suggested to our listeners who were planning to do it with me to wait until 8:30 for the final puffs after which we would all poke out our last butt. I told the audience I intended to have a can full of water to submerge my last pack of butts in a symbolic gesture. Ditto for my lighter.
When I arrived at the station I wasn’t sure how well I’d stand up to this sort of thing. Fall River is a small city and I was fairly well known. There was no way I could ever go back to smoking without being viewed as a phony or worse. It had to work this time.
My personal plan of action was to smoke my brains out for an hour or so before I went on the air. I sat on the back steps of the station, an area adjacent to the studio at about 6:30. I began what I hoped would be my final smoking binge.
I smoked one cigarette after another. At about 7:30 I began to have this all-over numb feeling. Even my vision was blurred and I was developing a headache. Suddenly I had to throw up. Sorry about the crude description but it came on me in a rush. I threw my cigarettes as far as I could. I actually hated them by then. From that moment the very thought of lighting up again made me feel ill. Very ill. It still does.
My plan to have my last cigarette with my listeners went out the window (or, in this case, the back door of the radio station). I simply couldn’t light up again. Merely writing about it brings back that queasy feeling.
I lied to the audience. I told them I was smoking during the last half hour right along with those who had pledged to quit with me.
At 8:30 I went through the on air motions of putting out my last cigarette. I even plunged my hand in the water to simulate drowning my cigarettes and then submerged my lighter.
I took call after call encouraging all of who were doing this with me to stick with their decision. Some callers were quitting too and we commiserated. A general surgeon named Sheehan called in to remind all of us who had quit and gone back to smoking to not look at our experience as a failure. Each time we quit and returned to smoking was a learning experience about how to eventually do it permanently. Good words from a person who understood the dangers of smoking.
Those of us who quit and started again in the past could usually identify what it was that brought us back to smoking. How do we avoid such things?
One caller, a fellow named Fred from Barrington, Rhode Island called to say he had been at St. Anne’s Shrine in Fall River where conservative Republicans were lighting vigil candles and praying for my success in quitting permanently. He said liberal Democrats followed them around blowing out the candles.
Nearly twenty-five years later I still encounter people who ask if I’m still off cigarettes. Some even pat the cigarette pocket on my shirt to check up on me.
I have been smoke free since then and no longer have urges to go back.
I became sold on the power of radio that night.
It was during the Christmas season in 1980 that a rash of drunk driving accidents occurred killing a large number of people in the greater Boston area. Headlines screamed out the outrage of people everywhere. It was the year Mothers Against Drunk Driving became a force in Massachusetts as it had been already in many other states. Governor Ed King created a task force to recommend ways we could get a handle on the scourge.
I was friendly with a Massachusetts State Trooper, Bob McCarthy from Westport, Massachusetts, who had seen too many dead and dismembered people as a result of drunk driving accidents.
Most of us seldom gave a second thought to the problem. Alcohol related incidents were covered over and drunk drivers often got gentle treatment from police and judges alike. It was a dirty little secret.
Was I guilty of driving impaired? Sure I was. For those old enough to remember the attitude toward drinking and much of the foolishness associated with drunk driving, it was not uncommon for someone to complain of a hangover and joke about it. Many of us laughed at the line “I got so drunk I can’t even remember how I drove home.” Stupid. Really stupid.
A lot has changed because of that Christmas’ carnage and death associated with driving under the influence. In most of the accidents it was drivers who had previous serious accidents and many who had multiple stops for DUI in the past.
I brought Trooper McCarthy on the program to describe what he had seen on Massachusetts roads in his fifteen years or so patrolling our highways.
He and a number of his colleagues were convinced (and have since been vindicated) we could gain the cooperation of the previously drinking drivers who were not problem drinkers. We needed to demonstrate in many ways how dangerous it was. Just how easily could we become impaired?
A few weeks later Trooper Bob called me and asked if I’d like to get drunk? I couldn’t believe my ears. That wasn’t the Bob McCarthy I knew and loved.
He told me he had worked traffic on Cape Cod that weekend. A driver approached him on where he could catch the ferry to get off Martha’s Vineyard. The man was so drunk he didn’t know he was on the mainland. Bob asked if he had been drinking and was informed “only a couple at lunch”. Bob thought to himself “only a couple of quarts of whiskey.”
Trooper Bob called for backup and took the keys away from the man. At the station he “blew” a 0.27 on the Breathalyzer. The man should have blacked out with that blood alcohol level.
The Trooper informed me he had been in touch with Captain Port at the Concord barracks of the State Police. The thought of the words Port, Concord (as in kosher wine) and the breathalyzer in the same sentence struck a funny nerve in me.
“Whatcha got in mind, Bob?”
“Captain Port and I will take you out to supper before your show and control the amount of beer you consume. With your boss’s permission we’ll take you to work and give you a limited amount of beer and later in the show we’ll give you a blood/alcohol test. OK with you?”
I agreed and our program director Ken McLain agreed to it as well. We set it up for the next day.
Before I began I asked why they chose beer since no one gets drunk on beer alone?
Bob didn’t answer. He only laughed. I guess the laughter was his answer.
At six promptly, Captain Port and Trooper McCarthy picked me up at home and took me to a small restaurant where I had a good meal and a couple of Buds to wash it down. I had one more beer before going on air and sipped beer regularly from then on as we often do in a bar or at a party.
I was administered the breathalyzer at about 10:30. I had nothing to drink since the ten news. I blew a 0.11 BAC (blood alcohol content). That was only slightly above the legal limit which has since been lowered to 0.08. It was not a terribly high figure but when I listened to a tape of the show the next morning. Starting before nine my speech was somewhat slurred. By nine-thirty or so I was having difficulty in the timing in controlling the operations board. In small stations on air people operate their own equipment and load up the machines that play the commercials you hear. I was starting commercials too soon, I failed to start them on time a few times. These were operations which were normally “automatic.” Instead they were strained.
Captain Port, who was a specialist on the machine and had been a trooper for decades, said my reaction to a limited amount of beer was enough to impair my ability to broadcast. The same would be true with my handling a car.
I’m sure I had driven in that condition because I didn’t feel impaired. The tape of the program proved that even a moderate amount of drinking was enough to cause a problem. The more we drink, the more dangerous it is.
I don’t know if the experiment changed anyone else’s mind. Maybe, just maybe, someone, some night, somewhere, might think twice about driving while under the influence, even if not stumbling drunk.
Maybe, there is one more person still alive because he didn’t drink and get behind the wheel.
I hope so. It worked with me.
A few weeks later I interviewed a longtime district court judge, Hugh Morton, to at the WSAR studio. He was a man whom my Dad and I had known for years.
Judge Morton was a patrician Yankee of the old school. A gentleman at all times.
He had just retired from the court and he joined us to discuss how the court operates. When the subject of DUI and the court’s general reluctance to put the squeeze on offenders, particularly repeat offenders, things got interesting.
I was rather surprised with his candor. He said he and most judges had historically taken the attitude “there but for the Grace of God go I.”
Frankly, it made sense. It is true the courts most often reflect the attitudes of the public in general. DUI was no different. That is until that awful rash of drunk killings that Christmas weekend in 1980.
After Judge Morton’s visit I paid attention to how the courts and the public reacted to DUI. In most cases the trend was to deal with it far more seriously.
I drive to work at WRKO on Saturdays leaving Fall River for Boston (about an hour’s drive) any time between two-thirty to three in the morning. In the early to mid eighties I saw many drivers who were obviously having difficulty behind the wheel. Starting in the late eighties and running well into the nineties I noted less and less frequency of drivers out of control. Today, I find very few in my travels to Boston.
There is still far too much drinking and driving, especially among young drivers. We have conducted many shows on teen driving habits and thousands on suggestions on dealing with youthful driving while impaired by alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and a host of other drugs. On the campuses of many of our colleges, drinking is so commonplace it frightens parents. Include Helen and me in that group.
Our children range in age from late teens to early forties. We have not observed the drinking problem getting any better. Ask anyone who lives near a campus, large or small. The problem may be getting worse.
I think I’ll do a talk show on that next week.