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By the Dawn's Early Light, '79

Slow burn

The minister’s daughter was thirteen years old when she smoked her first cigarette. She had pinched two cigs from a half-empty box of Newports lying on a friend’s kitchen counter and later tucked them into a plastic bread bag. She buried the package deep in the prickly stems of the evergreen shrubs that lined the broadside of her father’s white clapboard Congregational Church.

She chose a shrub that was naturally manicured because it was more relatable to her than the others, and because one could only see the buried treasure if one knew where to look. Besides, even if someone had spotted a glimpse of the contraband, the barbed reception of the unforgiving pine stems only made the endeavor worthwhile for the small-scaled hand that selected the location in the first place.

Across the street from the shrub was a lonely fire station, manned by preoccupied volunteer firefighters who arrived to perform maintenance or when the horn called them to service. The house of worship itself could certainly be a busy place, but the churchgoers were predictable and measured in their time, and the backside of the building was an afterthought compared to all that went on inside. The minister’s daughter had that advantage over the congregation – having a house of worship for a playground instead of a sanctuary. The faith-focused flock and surrounding community could not ever imagine that the building and its grounds could be used for nefarious concealment. Certainly, if discovered, nobody would ever suspect that the young minister’s daughter was the concealer.

She hid the stash of cigarettes in her own backyard, under the congregation's collective nose, and carried a dead black BIC lighter in her purse. A lighter sitting buried at the bottom of a purse among the scattered sticks of gum, a brush and loose hair accessories was far less damning evidence and easier to explain to a snooping parent than cigarettes. I was just holding it for Michael…we used it to burn sparklers…we lit candles. Having just the lighter on her person gave the daughter plausible deniability if discovered, and it also gave her a means to an end should she come across cigarettes from another supplier.

The minister’s daughter did not prepare to smoke her first cigarette alone. Her partner was a sister from a different home – a house that was not of the same purified air as her own, and a house that provided the two girls with the easy access to tobacco. The girls’ draw to smoking did not come from the magazine advertisement that declared their Newport cigarettes to be, "Alive with Pleasure!" The two girls were from different upbringings, but the lure to their first cigarette was drawn from a common curiosity and desire to fill a void. They were too young to recognize or give the void a name, but the void was their struggle to break free from the limitless trappings of their small New England town. Smoking their first cigarette, together, was their joint declaration of independence.

They selected the backside of the Congregational Church as their hiding place because of its familiarity and relative seclusion, but more importantly, because it was also their designated bus stop. They slipped the contraband in its place on the very last day of school vacation, on an afternoon where the strength and comfort of the summer sun was tempered by the feeling that everything would be different when they woke up in the morning. Their vacation was in the books and new corridors with the boys and bigger spaces and places were waiting for them. The two girls were ready to make their way towards something new. The minister’s daughter and her best friend were ready to seek the independence they sought.

On a Tuesday morning in September, 1979, in the dawn’s early light, while parents and passers-by were consumed with getting their daily act together, the two teens met at their bus stop. They huddled together and reached into the evergreen shrub on the back side of the church. Then the teenage minister’s daughter and her best friend each pulled a cigarette out of the bread bag, cupped a hand around an open flame...and lit it up.

As they drew in their breath, the tip of the cigarette glowed a pulsating orange in the dullness of the morning gray, and as they transferred the energy of the burn into their lungs the cigarette’s glow faded into layers of dead ash. After a pause and an awkward suppressed cough, they exhaled the chemical residue into the morning air. Exchanging a silent glance, the minister’s daughter and her best friend absorbed both the satisfaction and the toxins of their independence.

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