Updated: Feb 21, 2022
I shuffled down the gravel alley, the cuffs of my faded jeans picking up the putty-colored dust of decades on them. My Red Ball Jets tennis shoes crunched the stones, and the sound made me feel grounded to the earth. The morning summer sun, low in the sky, forced my eyes downward as I studied the backyard gates to my good friend’s house. Going there was a regular ritual for me, imparting a sense of independent freedom to go where I wanted, even if it was less than a block away from home. I don’t know why I bothered with such things as watching garages or gates. Those old garages were almost all white with grey shingled roofs, and the rusting aluminum fences were almost all faded metallic grey with dingy orange splotches. But if you showed me twenty gates, I could pick Tom’s out of a line up.
Twenty paces behind me, my little brothers tagged along, their company unwanted, their presence representing a frustrating example of my mother’s orders, “Let them go along. They just want to be with you.” She may have been right, but I wouldn't recognize it for decades to come.
I entered Tom’s backyard through the gate and counted, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and I could hear the gate squeak again as Dave and Jim came through it. Rather than walk up the steps to the back entrance, I walked alongside the house to the front, climbing the wooden stairs and onto the solid wood porch. Tom’s sister answered the door when I rapped on it, and she glanced over my shoulder.
“I see you brought your little brothers with you,” she said. I didn’t know if she was merely being observant and conversational, or if she was intentionally reminding me of how young I was, as evidenced by the fact that I had to bring my baby brothers with me wherever I went. Before I could figure out her intent, I blushed. It wasn’t easy, being twelve years old and having a crush on your buddy’s sister, especially when she was a few years older than you. I couldn’t tell if her smile was merely a polite greeting or an acknowledgement of the power she had over my emotions. I glanced away, not wanting her to catch me staring at her in awe.
“Hey,” Tom greeted from behind her. I entered the living room and his sister disappeared into what I guessed might have been her bedroom. I never had the courage to look down that short hall to find out. The front door opened and closed again as Dave and Jim entered. Tom looked past me to my brothers without greeting him, and I got the distinct impression that he was more disappointed in me for not losing my brothers along the way, than he was with them actually being there. Besides, it might complicate “the plan.”
Here was the plan … Any time we could, we’d snatch a couple Kent cigarettes and a pack of matches from his mom’s stash, which she kept in the top drawer of their dining room chest. The Kent television jingle and commercial at the time went something like, “Mild and kind to your taste buds.” Then they’d show happy people exhaling pleasantly. Pretty cool, I thought. Then with our deadly booty carefully hidden, we’d head off to smoke in private, like the older, tougher kids did in the open.
From a back room, we heard Tom’s sister call out, “I know what you guys are doing, and I’m telling mom.”
“You better not,” Tom weakly threatened back. I felt a little twinge in my stomach at the thought of Tom’s mom telling my mom that we stole her cigarettes and that we were smoking. But it was a small twinge and it didn’t last long, so I ignored it, and off we went on our great daily adventure.
Tom lived a few houses off the corner from a large, flat expanse of land called Maheras Park. It was owned by the City of Detroit and managed by the Parks and Recreation Department into a series of baseball and football fields and playground sets. The Detroit River was at its farthest boundary. As we crossed the street and entered the park, we walked through un-mowed thistle weeds that stuck in our gym socks. We brushed aside clumps of Queen Anne’s Lace, covered with tiny ants, and as we walked I kept a sharp lookout for garter snakes. While not deadly, they could nip you pretty good if you riled them up, or so I had heard. I wasn’t about to find out. As the sun continued to rise, grasshoppers skipped happily from leaf to leaf in front of us, guiding us to our our destination, The Smoking Tree!
Perhaps the only tree at this end of the park, it stood two houses high, or so we thought at the time. Turns out, it was barely one house tall. Its low branches made climbing into it easy, even for us little guys. Reluctantly, I boosted Dave and Jim into it as well. Nestled within the leaves, we felt like we had donned an invisibility cloak, making it safe to light up. The Smoking Tree’s branches were such that we could straddle them, lean back and be supported comfortably as we hid within its leafy boughs.
We surely didn’t know what we were doing, lighting one cigarette, passing it around for each to puff, and keeping the ember glowing angrily all the time. I recall drawing deeply and coughing hard the first few times, until I learned to ease my way into it. Today, some would say I never even inhaled. But I’m sure I could get a mouthful and exhale, just like the men with the perfect complexions and groomed hair and straight white teeth, surrounded by the pretty girls in the commercials. Yes, I was an adult after all.
We’d repeat the process until both of the two cigs we stole were consumed. God we were cool. The fact that we could see Tom’s house, or the fact that people spoke to us as they passed, did nothing to dissuade us from our belief that we were invisible from those who mattered.
Heading back to Tom’s, smelling of cigarettes, we swore the oath of denial. Ultimately and predictably, we were confronted anyway. And of course, to each of our mom’s, we stuck to our denials as promised. Didn’t do any good. Somehow, they had us figured out. Was it the smoke on our clothes and in our hair, or was Tom’s beautiful sister a more believable personality? I guess I’ll never know.
The Smoking Tree has been gone for decades, but the memory, like the smell of smoke on a young boy’s t-shirt, lingers on.