Mr Rankin smoked filterless cigarettes. I know that, but there are a lot of things I don’t know about Mr Rankin. Like: His first name, how old he was when I knew him, whether he and his wife had had children, and what he did for a living ( although I believe he worked at the Chicago Board of Trade where he might have been a trader, but just as easily he could have been a janitor). Those didn’t matter to me when I was a child. He was Mr Rankin the old man two doors down who held court with the neighborhood kids on the concrete steps of his front stoop in neatly pressed pants which rode high enough above black sox to show a little shin and always in a white silk, or at least silky, shirt which evidently I liked to touch when I was really small. Sometimes there would be five or six of us. Sometimes just me. Occasionally he would call out to his wife Meg ( I remember her name because he spoke it often) and ask her to make us all a glass of chocolate milk, but mostly it was just talk…and smoke.
Mr Rankin was a big smoker and an even bigger talker. He told us Johnny Weismuller ( the original movie Tarzan) had taught him how to swim…by throwing him in the deep end of the pool. He owned a pair of wooden false teeth worn by none other than George Washington. He had a rock collection which glowed under black light and a German Shepherd named J. Edgar Hoover Rankin who leapt the hedge in a single bound on command. He had an old Plymouth with push button transmission. He even let me push the button once and we reversed to the end of the driveway. So in that short frame of time in which the very young can still believe the very old, I looked up to Mr Rankin.
Does that mean I took up smoking later because of Mr Rankin? I don’t think so. Cigarettes were just there. Were a fixture as commonplace and accepted as chocolate milk. Just like at home. My Dad smoked too. On vacation we would drive from Illinois up to Hayward and later to Snowbank Lake with as many as five kids and the dog and Dad puffing away and our biggest complaint was lack of space. That’s just the way it was. So when I was old enough I did the most natural thing in the world. I smoked. And after smoking took my dad and my wife’s dad and mom and we had children and they started bugging us to quit because of what they learned in school, we still puffed away invincibly, until finally we put up a poster of a bare-chested Fabio in the garage where we were self exiled to smoke. A poster which said “Lips are for kissing, not for smoking.” And that’s what did it. So, yeah, Fabio helped me quit smoking. Not quite as romantic as Johnny Weissmuller teaching you how to swim, but there you have it.
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