Crayons and Cigarettes (Chapter 1)
I typically write creative nonfiction; essays and stories about real people and experiences crafted from my point of view. Sometimes, I get the urge to write fiction which is, admittedly, a humbling and a unique animal compared to what I usually write.
Yet, I’ve always wanted to craft fictional pieces. I like novels, and I grew up watching fictional TV and movies. It’s much more complicated than what I write, and it takes patience and a ton of organizational skills (two things that generally escape me).
That said, sometimes I get an idea for a piece of fiction. Sometimes, it’s an event or a piece of dialogue. Recently, it was a scene, what I believe could be the first couple pages of a novel … about what, I’m still not sure. (Remember, I’m not the patient or organized member of the writing community.) So, I just started writing, based on the idea of a family road trip taking place in the mid-1970s, the same timeframe I was in my formative years.
It's not based on my life, but it germinated from an accumulation of scenes, ideas and tidbits of information I’ve gathered throughout my life. It doesn’t “go anywhere,” and it’s rough, but I thought I’d share it as a seed for something that could grow into something bigger, maybe a short story, or if I get ambitious, a novel.
Here’s that scene.
Crayons and Cigarettes
We were heading north out of Easton, Pennsylvania, fresh off the Crayola factory tour, which Dad assured us was going to be “fun and fascinating.” Instead, we endured a three-hour walking documentary that took us through every step of the crayon-making process, which we came to find out, is just as boring, complicated, dirty and loud as any other manufacturing process.
Armed with a complimentary 16-pack of crayons (our parting gift for surviving this ordeal, we were tired and hungry, not so much from the tour, but from the sheer pace of our schedule.
Every summer, my parents took us on a vacation, a hot, sweaty road trip which for us seemed more like a pilgrimage – or a death march – covering 2,000 miles (give or take) over two weeks in July.
Originating from our home base in the Upper Midwest, my dad chose a different “spoke” each year, and this year, 1974, it was New England by way of the Iron Belt. As usual, Dad had packed each day with activities. If we weren’t driving, we were touring something, learning a new activity, or exploring the local geography, with only brief respites for food and bathroom breaks.
And he never lost his energy during these trips. We couldn’t say the same about his temper, which he lost often, usually not at us, but at things like the car, the map, the traffic or the fact that the diner where we ate lunch was out of the blue plate special (meat loaf and potatoes). “Who runs out of the special?” he asked loudly and rhetorically as we walked back to the car, Dad working at a stuck piece of food with a toothpick as Mom freshened her lipstick.
My dad and mom both smoked … a lot. And everywhere. Back then, it was common, as the surgeon’s general’s warning – which had been released just a few years back – hadn’t quite taken hold yet. For my folks, it was more of a “guideline” than a warning, which led to both occasionally saying, “I should really cut down” before lighting up another.
I was too young to remember when tobacco companies solicited comments from physicians about the “health benefits” of smoking, but it didn’t take a genius – or even an adult – to figure out it was bad for one’s health. Yet there were my folks, puffing away; in the car, on the street, in restaurants and hotels, at home, even in bed, getting in one or two last puffs before calling it a day.
It was so common, so ubiquitous, that my sisters and I didn’t give it a second thought. Nor did we, at that time anyway, understand the harm it could be doing us growing up as “secondhand smokers.”
Easton, in addition to being the home of Crayola, was also – as my father so confidently asserted --- “Where the Delaware and Lehigh rivers meet.”
He was, of course, correct, but it’s not something he pulled off the top of his head. He liked to quietly observe things as he went through his day – reading signs, remembering facts he learned from the newspaper and overhearing conversations -- and then spring his wisdom on us as though he were a respected, worldly scholar, someone with knowledge teeming out of his large brain.
What he didn’t know is that both my eldest sister and I had seen the same sign as we pulled into town. Yet, he was proud to share this factoid with us, so we let him own it, positioning ourselves so he could see us in the rearview mirror, nodding and smiling in appreciation. Maybe it would lead to an evening of ice cream and miniature golf, but we both knew if those things weren’t on Dad’s schedule, they probably weren’t meant to be.
Satisfied with both himself and his newfound intelligence, he popped the car’s cigarette lighter and heated up another Winston, thus extracting five to 10 more seconds off his life and maybe ours as well. Mom wasn’t far behind, embargoing the lighter as soon as Dad’s was lit.
For her part, Mom like something more feminine, opting for Carlton 100s. They were all white (even the filter), and were longer than a typical cigarette which, Mom said, made them look more sophisticated.
The next stop would be Nazareth, home to the Andretti family. My dad wasn’t much of a sports fan, but he did like cars, and as such, he liked auto racing. And when it came to racing, Mario Andretti was the king. (He told us so several weeks prior as he planned the trip at the kitchen table; no doubt a phrase he’d picked up from a sports magazine or one of the travel brochures he’d accumulated to help him strategize our every move during the trip.)
And because my dad loved cars, he wanted me to love cars too. (The girls got a reprieve because like so many men of that generation, he didn’t think females should be into things like cars.) Thing is, I had no interest. None. In fact, if there was a chance to have less than no interest in cars, I would. I liked rock music, baseball and collecting coins. I liked movies and comics books. But cars, they just didn’t do much for me.
But being a good and dutiful son (at least on the outside), I pretended to love what Dad loved because that made him happy, or at least helped me fulfill his expectations for me. And sometimes, that was all one could ask for. More on that later.
Like I said, it’s rough, and truly, what came off the top of my head, a scene that popped into my mind and I documented it. I don’t know if I’ll develop it, or if it’s even worth developing, but I hope you found it interesting. Thanks for indulging me.
© 2023 David R. Haznaw