My first smoke was enjoyed by inhaling burning tobacco through a grass halm stuck into a hollowed out acorn. This pipe was handmade by me and the beginning of a promising artistic career. It was a primitive implement but it did work. That first draw was probably coughed out but I was hardened in persisting by the daily cod liver oil unguent given by my mum at earlier years. I was immensely proud of my resourcefulness even though the idea most likely came from other sources. I might have been about twelve or thirteen. A good age to explore. One can never be too young. A burning need the mother of all inventions.
From memory, my parents bought me the first real cigarettes in a packet of ten. It came after the pipe period. I am not sure what the occasion was. Perhaps a birthday or pure generosity of my parents wanting me to feel they thought I had reached a level of maturity cusping into an adulthood. We could question the wisdom but not the love of my parents. Smoking was almost obligatory and even doctors were quoted as promoting smoking in advertisement. Smoking was healthy. All movies showed smoking. I remember tapping the cigarette on the packet first before lighting up, with the élan of an Eva Gardner or even Humphrey Bogart.
It all happened while our family of eight lived here in a typical Dutch street in The Hague; We lived on the top storey and it had three bedrooms. Look closely at the steps going up! There were four entrances at the top of those stairs.
In those days milk would be delivered daily by a horse and carriage and the milkman. He would shout ‘milk’, not unreasonable because bread was delivered as well. He, the baker would shout ‘baker’. We also had a scrap- man coming around taking peelings and other food scraps away to be re-sold for animal feed. Most likely for contented pigs. He would make a living too. The scrap-man’s cart was pulled by a large ferocious looking dog that was tied underneath. I stayed well clear off his cart…
After the milkman shouted his presence my mum would shout back the number of litres she needed for that day. At the bottom of our internal stairs a bucket had been placed the previous night by dad. The bucket was enamel green in colour and covered by a cotton cloth. The same bucket used during the war to get soup from the communal soup kitchen! The milkman would then scoop the milk into the bucket and would do the same to all the occupants of the building at the top of those slated stairs leading to four apartments.
As the smoking got hold of me and not being able to fund the habit as readily as I would like, I had taken to buying single cigarettes with coins secreted away from out of the churches collection scoop. This scoop was connected to a long pole that would do the rows on Sunday church. I would put buttons in and take coins out. Many schoolboys would drop into the tobacco shop that smelt deliciously of rich cigars and pipes. We would light up in secret underneath stairs. There must have been some concern though, why did we try and hide it? It was a normal practise to do it in secret. It could be that this secretness added spice to this ritual of schoolboy smoking.
But let me get back to the milkman. One morning on my way to school going down those slated steps, I noticed an open cigarette paper holding some tobacco resting near the bottom of those stairs. Next to it was the almost full and bulging packet of Douwe Egbert’s tobacco. Was I finally being rewarded for having been so good? I did the washing up and laid the table for dinner. “Gerard is the best boy”, mum used to blackmail my brothers and sister with. Of course stealing money from the churches collection scoop was on a different level of ‘goodness’.
Without hesitation I pocketed in one swoop both the ready to roll cigarette paper and the whole packet of tobacco. What a find and how glorious a moment. I haven’t forgotten. However, and here comes the confession, the milkman who was a great aficionado and lover of tobacco, was scooping milk to the owners of the apartment on the right-hand side of those stairs and on the street. ( have a look ) He had just put his tobacco goodies to rest on the slates, ready for a nice reward afterwards. He was out of sight on those stairs going down. I instantly knew and understood the situation but also kept on walking! My heart was pounding. A significant event edged in my conscience. What should I have done? Confess my tobacco habit and dishonesty to the milkman, return sheepishly the tobacco? It wasn’t in me then.
I have always wondered since if the milkman had actually taken notice of me walking past. In any case, he would have been astounded discovering his tobacco had disappeared. If he did know who done it; would he confront me, or worse my father? We were a large family with great milk needs, a good customer! Did he chose to just let it go? I avoided eye contact with the milkman since.
A year later or so we migrated to Australia.
Ps. haven’t smoked for decades.