She is bent over a small Mercury outboard, hoisting the little motor in and out of the water. Her hair is wrapped in a kerchief, much as it had been when she wired mine sweepers at the Bremerton shipyards during the war. Ailene has a cigarette in her pressed lips, Humphrey Bogart style. Her black and white knit shirt has a small pocket on the left sleeve, over her bicep, and tucked inside is a pack of cigarettes–her brand, Kent. At the end of her day on the lake, my grandmother regularly downed a couple of high balls of Canadian Club, on the rocks.
My life with my grandmother has aided tremendously with the writing of River of January. and the sequel, The Figure Eight. She, like Helen and Chum held lifetime memberships in the “Greatest Generation,” so her attitudes, word choices, and music preferences shape my thinking while I write. Sadly she died in January, 1990, of lung cancer no less, taking a piece of me with her.
As for smoking and drinking, Chum appears as one of the few alum from that era who tended to nurse a beer, rather than chug, and chewed his cigar more than drawing a lung full. Helen, however, much like my grandmother, relished her bourbon every evening, garnished by a lit Chesterfield, and proceeded to enjoy a whale of a good evening.
Smoking and drinking blended into American culture in the 20th Century, unlike the prior or later era’s that demonized the practices. As I researched River, sifting through voluminous piles of documents, I encountered alcohol and tobacco ads placed next to those for baby formula and Ivory Soap, among other consumer goods. Liquor ads filled theater playbills on both sides of the Atlantic, nearly always featuring a shiny, sleek bottle bearing some stylish label. The message rang clear, drinking and smoking represented the height of sophistication, glamor, and sex appeal. Both my grandmother and Helen’s mementos, verified the truth that the party never stopped.
Casablanca, the celebrated 1942 film has struck me as the epitome of romantic culture in the late 30’s on into the war years. The gowns, the cosmopolitan style of understated and clipped dialog, and a perennial sense of righteous duty embraces that era. Americans lived hard and played hard, performing extraordinary feats while hungover at the least, or still intoxicated. These remarkable Americans handled drill presses, explosives, welding equipment, and other heavy industrial machinery, not to forget the operating end of an M1 rifle in a fox hole.
Out dancing, working a graveyard shift, partying, or fighting–all done with a cigarette resting, smoldering on virtuous, patriotic lips.