I sat behind the wheel of my metallic brown Chrysler Newport, parked and tilted at that angle so familiar with the outdoor movie theaters of that time period. Of course, the passenger window on my side of the car had to be open just a little in order to hang the speaker to provide sound for the movie.
If this evening had been a date, I’d not have minded the open window’s cool air for this last movie of the season; it’d give me a good excuse to cuddle close to the driver. However, since my movie companion was Sandy*, she sat on the front seat passenger side and I began to get chilled from the open window.
“Hey, you want a smoke? It’ll help keep you warm.”
“No, thanks. I’ll be fine. The icy Coke I just inhaled with the salty popcorn didn’t help. I’ll be fine, once that stops chilling my innards.”
Sandy harrumphed. “I told you we should have brought along a little R and R. That would have kept your innards from getting chilled; I can guarantee you that.”
“Well, maybe, but it’s not legal to have an open liquor container in the car, and who can guarantee we’d not have been stopped by the cops, as long as you are throwing out those guarantees? Sandy, I’m one of those people who gets caught, whenever I’m doing something wrong. It’s like some kind of radar goes out or something, you know? I’d rather be cold than take a chance on getting stopped by the cops for a DUI or open-container violation.”
At least, I still had the fear of a police record, because my fear of God being the One to see me drinking everyone under the table had long since ceased to move me to do the right thing—or to abstain from doing the wrong thing. I no longer felt a twinge of guilt when I reached for the alcohol.
“Well, there’s no law that says you can’t smoke and drive. Here.” Sandy waved the pack of cigarettes before my eyes, which were still looking straight ahead at the huge movie screen. “Or, do you want me to light one for you?”
My thoughts raced back to my mother’s tale of her first, and last, session smoking. She’d been caught by her father, who was furious. Her punishment was to smoke an entire cigar. Mom had been so sick, she’d never even thought of taking a drag without remembering the feeling of needing to throw up. Would that happen to me?
When I’d told friends Mom’s story, they all said it was because she didn’t inhale. That wouldn’t happen to me, if I just breathed the smoke into my lungs and not swallowed it. Fearing being humiliated if Mom’s experience ended up being mine, I always refused the cigarette.
However, Sandy wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I reached for the pack and shook out a thin, filtered cigarette. As soon as the thing slid between my lips, Sandy’s lighter snapped into action.
Startled, I coughed a little and then took a slow, deep pull on the filter. Remember to breathe out, I told myself, attempting to act like I’d smoked all my life.
I could feel Sandy’s eyes on me, and I waited for her hearty laugh. Instead, she just said, “See? Isn’t that better now; it’ll keep you warm for the rest of the movie.”
Too busy trying to remember not to swallow, but to breathe in and breathe out, I only nodded. I reckon my serious concentration on what should have been a natural part of life, served to keep me as warm as the thin stream of smoke could have, but I didn’t want to lose my focus by forming a verbal answer. I vowed that night that it just took too much effort to smoke and I’d not be doing it again. I’d order hot chocolate the next time this theater opened in the spring, and maybe even bring a blanket.
Weeks later, I’d forgotten all about the vow. Someone had just knocked on the front door, and here I stood--lit cigarette in my right hand, a slippery glass of R and R Coke in the other. I set the drink down on the kitchen table and reached for the doorknob.
As I twisted the knob, I recognized the sound of the pick-up engine. No time to find an ash tray to smash the cigarette. I pulled my right hand behind my back, hoping I’d not catch myself on fire.
“Hi Dad!” I coughed as I spoke, wearing that cat-who-ate-the-canary-smile. “Uh, what brings you out here?”
My thoughts were racing, willing Dad not to ask to come in for a minute. How would I hide the drink just to my left, and could he see smoke rising behind my back yet? Could I back up and dump the cig in the kitchen sink, without being noticed?
“I’m on my way home from work, but one of the guys told me about these silk roses, so I stopped by the shop.”
That’s when I noticed he held a vase with a bouquet of three beautiful pink, silk roses. “Oh, Daddy, they’re lovely. Mom’s gonna love them.”
“Do you think so? I hope so, ‘cuz I’ve got some for her, too, These are for you.”
Smiling, he held out the gift that ripped my heart with guilt. I just couldn’t ask him to come in; his heart would break if he saw what his daughter had become.
“Well, I need to get going; I just wanted to drop these by. I’m glad you like them, Punkin.”
“Oh, Daddy, I love them! Thank you so much.”
Did I run down those three steps and hug my caring, tender-hearted father? No, I didn’t. I died a thousand deaths as I watched him walk away. No hug, no kiss—only a smoke-scented breath of thanks. He never mentioned it, but I’m sure he had to have smelled it.
By the end of that evening, I’d consumed my usual fifth of whiskey and six-pack of beer, as well as finished off two packs of cigarettes. As usual, I never felt drunk, and never woke up with a hang-over. Something genetic permitted me to by-pass the unpleasant, physical effects of consuming so much alcohol. The taste of nicotine so saturated the lining of my mouth that I no longer tasted it. In fact, I felt pretty dead to the disgusting parts of these vices.
Or, I had until Dad came calling with his beautiful bouquet. Now, my guilt over hiding what I’d become from him gnawed at me like some kind of wild animal. I just couldn’t get over it, or let it go. His smiling face holding out the vase of roses to me filled my days and nights.
Finally, I gave up and cried out to God for help. I didn’t ask for help to stop smoking. I didn’t ask God to make the taste of alcohol repugnant to me. I never gave these things a thought, actually. (The beer? Oh, yeah, I don’t remember when that started either, but it had to do with the price of whiskey. Beer was cheaper; when I had to buy it myself that mattered. In the bar, I only drank the expensive stuff some guy bought for me. Yeah, I know; that’s disgusting.)
I didn’t ask God to help me break the bad habits. I asked God to help me find my way back to Him. I’d repulsed myself with the way I’d treated my father that day—not asking him in or giving him a hug. That’s what I wanted to change; not my habits, but me.
I didn’t want to be the person I’d become. However, I knew it was my own weakness and failing that had put me in the place I now lived, so how could I get myself out? I knew better; I needed God’s help.
God heard my prayers; the Bible says He stored up the many bottles of tears I cried over my failings. When I asked God for help with a heart ready to surrender my will to Him, God moved in a mighty way in my life.
One day a couple of weeks after Dad’s almost-visit, I received a phone call. I’d been offered the job of Hospital Administrator 192 miles from my hometown, and present location. No doubt, God had engineered this change for me, and I purposed in my heart not to blow my second chance.
The day I filled my Chrysler with all of my worldly goods, I left the ugly me behind. I plugged Christian music into my eight-track and sang as I drove away—headed for Jordan, the place of my new beginning. My seven months of rebellion had ended, and I’d never return to that awful, ugly and extremely lonely place. Without God, there will always be an emptiness in the human heart.
Now, I’d returned to the Lord, and His joy filled me to overflowing. It’s been forty years since I turned my back on my rebellion. I never did smoke or drink again. My filthy language became a bad memory, too. I surrounded myself with people who loved God, and music that honored Him.
Those months of living on the wild side only served to confirm that the world has nothing to offer us in terms of happiness and peace. Without God, neither peace nor happiness are possible. Seeing my failings exposed to me that day ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me.
***Surrender to God is the path to real happiness!