"You got a quarter?" he asked. My neighbor behind us had only recently moved to Charleston. His dad was in the navy and they had been everywhere.
"Why? Whatcha need a quarter for?" I'd just gotten my allowance on the weekend. I held onto my quarters. One quarter bought one arrow at Silver's, the five and dime on King Street. Maybe once amonth my mom would drive to town to shop. I went with a pocketful of quarters to add to my quiver. Sometimes, though, I'd keep one in my pocket to get a cocola and bag of peanuts, and a candy bar or two while riding my bike in the Terrace. It just so happened I did have one in my pocket.
"I thought we could get a pack of cigarettes," he said.
That sounded like a good idea. Recently they had stocked some new ones at the candy counter. They weren't the white sugar sticks with a red tip, they were chocolate sticks wrapped in cigarette papers with a filter tip.
"Yeah, I'd like to try a pack of those. Let's ride up to the drugstore. I know they have them there."
"I'm already on my way," he said pedaling up the drive. He turned onto the street as I got my bike turned. I ran along side to pick up momentum, then hopped into the seat like I'd seen Roy Rogers do with Trigger in so many shows. I stood on the pedals pumping hard to catch up with my friend. The wind blew past me. The spokes in my wheels thrummed the playing cards attached to the frame with clothes pins. The "engine" noise grew in volume as I sped up. The faster I pedalled the greater the roar. Everyone knew I was on the road. I smiled as women tending their gardens looked up to see what powerful machine was passing them by. I would smile and wave.
The back roads of the Terrace were a playground to all of us kids. A whole school full of baby boomers were enjoying their childhood there and I was one of them. We flew passed the houses of all my old friends. It was summer and they were with family on their summer vacation trips. My new friend, who raced with me on his bike, had only just moved to the house behind me. We'd become pals over the first few weeks of summer. His bike was really faster than mine but mine had the roar of a motorcycle.
The drugstore was on Maybank which, back then, was a two lane blacktop leading to Johns Island. It was more a country lane than the highway it has become. We weaved from one side to the other depending on which lane was occupied by a car. The traffic was so light that whichever lane we road in was clear without danger to us.
Reaching the drugstore, we jumped off, running beside our bikes, til we were clear of the large picture window. At that point we leaned the handle bars against the clapboards. I started in.
"Where are you going?" my frined asked.
"Inside to buy our cigarettes." My face questioned him. "Why?"
"No. I thought we'd get a pack from the machine."
The cigarette machine was everywhere. Need a pack? Drop a quarter in the slot, pull the rod below your brand, down drops a pack and change clinked into the opening beneath the slot. Anyone could use them. Kids weren't supposed to have access but it was easy to work it while the adults weren't watching.
"Huh?" My shock was quite eveident.
He laughed at me.
"Wow! You are a baby, aren't you?" He said amidst laughter.
'I'm too young to smoke," I said thinking back a few years to a cigar my dad made me finish. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"Oh, come on, ya big baby. Gimme the quarter."
"Why don't we just go get the chocolate ones? They have real cigarette paper around them."
"I don't want no baby's chocolate cigarettes. I want the real thing. It's about time you started breaking some rules, baby."
"I don't want any cigarettes," I said. I went into the story about the cigar years ago.
"Cigarettes ain't cigars, ya dope. Cigars are all tobacco. It's no wonder you got sick.
You gotta try these. It's different."
I looked toward the door thinking about tearing the cigarette paper from the chocolate sticks and munching away. He held out his hand. Reluctantly, I handed over the quarter.
"Got a special brand?" he asked dropping the coin in. "Go ahead and pull the rod. Pick the brand above it and pull it straight toward you."
I looked. My dad smoked Luckies. I tried that one but it was out. I liked the red package labeled Pall Mall and, besides, Lee Marvin on M Squad smoked them. I pulled the rod. the pack dropped into the tray built into the machine. I reached in and pulled out my first pack of real cigarettes. I owned them. I popped the pack into my shirt pocket. I stood a little taller. I wasn't a kid anymore.
We ran to our bikes. The man inside looked out at the clatter.
"Hey! You kids! Don't lean your bikes against the wall like that!" He yelled at us inside the door.
"Yeah! Yeah!" I yelled back in my new found rebellion. It was heady this new feeling. I'd done a grownup thing. I had a pack of real cigarettes in my pocket. I couldn't wait to get home. My bike roared up the highway as I leaned over the handlebars pumping the pedals for all I was worth. My buddy was left in the dust.
When he finally got to the house I was walking out, slamming the screen behind me, holding a book of matches in my hand.
"I found some matches," I said as he lay his bike on the ground.
It was a ceremony now. We walked to the back of the house as I pulled the plastic strip around the top of the pack. A rectangle of plastic slipped off trailing behind us. I tore the corner just like I'd seen my dad do, exposing the circles of brown tobacco outlined in thin paper.
"You gonna smoke 'em or look at 'em?"
I would have savored the moment a bit longer but he was impatient.
I tapped the end of the pack against my hand. Three cigarettes offered themselves. He took one, I took one, dropping the pack into my pocket. He placed his into his mouth being careful not to wet the paper with spit.
I placed mine carefully between my lips. Opening the matchbook I bent one forward and ripped it out. After several attempts my friend took it away. I stood with a blackened unlit stem in my hand. He removed one, held it against the rough strip with his thumb and pulled. Flame burst forth.
"How'd you do that?"
He smiled touching the flame to his cigarette. "Easy," he said in a cloud of blue smoke.
He showed me then lit mine. I pulled smoke into my mouth and blew it out. I pulled the cigarette from my mouth leaving a small patch of paper on my bottom lip.
"You sissy," he said. "You gotta inhale. You ain't really smokin' like that. You gotta breathe it into your lungs."
"Here, watch." He demonstrated pulling the smoke deep into his lungs. He kept his mouth closed breathing a heavy cloud from his nose. I could tell, this guy had smoked before.
"OK. Lemme try it." I pulled a little into my mouth blowing it out.
He started laughing. "You still ain't doin' it right."
I tried again. This time I breathed in through my mouth and into my lungs. The coughing burst out of me like cannons going off. When the fit died down, I tried again taking in a little more.
The air was split with another coughing jag.
He laughed and laughed while I was dying.
Once more I inhaled three times the smoke from before. Now coughing was the least of my worries as the world began to spin. My heart began to race. My stomach began to ripple upward. I did cough again, violently, followed by my breakfast and anything else that had once been in my stomach. I was on my knees now, arms stretched in front palms in the slippery mess in the grass.
Laughter entered my ears as more yellow liquid exited my mouth. The world wouldn't quit spinning either. I stayed in that position for a while. My friend tiring of this, decided to go home. Now I was by myself under a blue sky and over a huge patch of yellow coated green grass.
When my system settled, I sat back. The feel of the mostly full pack of Pall Mall weighed my shirt down. I took the pack out to look at it. Red like the devil, I thought. Slowly and methodically I began to tear the pack and the cigarettes to bits. I got up with a woozy head. When I reached the house I leaned against the wall for a while. AS my legs gained strength I opened the door. With a screen slam behind me I wandered to my room and collapsed onto the bed. I'd had my adventure for the day.