In our family Gary, Phillip and me, were three male cousins born in 1943. Gary passed of a heart attack when he was in his fifties. Phillip and I live about thirty-five miles apart although we do not have any relationship. Even growing up the three of us were not close. We did fight almost everyday over trivial matters, mostly who was going to tell the others what to do. There were some conspiratorial moments when we actually worked together. One such adventure was our conquest of a prize in granny’s pantry.
Gary lived in Shreveport, Louisiana, with his brother Randy, his mother Aunt Alta, and his father ,my mother’s brother, Uncle Charlie. As with Gary all of them have died of heart attacks. Phillip and I saw Gary on holidays and a week or so during the summer when school was out. I do not recall the exact age however it seemed we were seven or eight years old when we devised a plan to sample granny’s Garrett snuff.
During this period of time women who smoked cigarettes were considered cheap. Men smoked or chewed tobacco while women dipped snuff. I never quite understood the reasoning but that is the way it was. Snuff is dried tobacco leaf milled into a fine powder. Dipping entailed taking a pinch or two of the snuff between the thumb and forefinger then placing it in the mouth between the lower lip and gum. None of my aunts or my mother dipped or smoked. Most of my uncles including my father smoked cigarettes or cigars. I never saw grandpa smoke, chew or dip.
The plan was to wait until granny was outside hanging up her wash on the clothes line. Then we would sneak into the pantry and dip some of her snuff. None of us had ever smoked a cigarette or dipped snuff so this was a very big thing for we three cousins to do. Phillip and I stayed on the front porch swing while Gary went in the house to wait for granny to head out to the clothes line. When she had gone outside Gary waved us into the house.
At the time the pantry seemed big. Each shelf was packed with caning goods in Mason jars or store-bought items. On a shelf just barely within reach was the prize. A can of Garrett’s Snuff. In the pantry a single light bulb hung from a socket suspend on a twisted pair of wires. A cotton string was attached to the pull chain to turn the light on or off but we were too short to reach it. So, for light we left the door ajar about a half-inch.
Our plan was to immolate granny’s use of the snuff. Each of us was to take a pinch and put it in our mouth. Then we would put the can back as we had found it and run out the front door to enjoy our prize. There was only one hitch that none of us realized. At our age of seven or eight years little boys have a tendency to quarrel and to get louder as the do it. Given our play together nature we were doomed before we hatched the plan. An argument ensued as to who was going to be the first to try the snuff. Granny settled that for us.
As we were removing the lid of the snuff can the door flew open and there stood granny. We froze, we were done, we had our hand in the cookie jar and there was no way out. Granny had come to the pantry for her morning dip. Her apron and dress were wet from hanging up the clothes. Sweat was on her face and some of her hair had come loose to hang in wet strands. But she smiled at us and said, “Well boys I see you got down my snuff can for me. Come on out of there and let’s have a dip together.”
Phillip opened his mouth first, a big mistake. “Granny we were just looking at it we weren’t going to try it.”
“Oh but you have too. I know you’ll like it and then we can dip together every day. You know right where the snuff is so you can help yourself when ever you want it,” she said.
Granny took the can then administered to our mouths a healthy teaspoon of snuff. She told us to go out back and enjoy it. I cannot speak for Phillip and Gary but to this day I remember the experience as if it was yesterday. As the snuff was place in my mouth the fine powder was also inhaled up my nose. My eyes began to water, my nasal passages felt as if they were on fire. My gums, tongue and mouth became a hot bed of stinging coals. A fit of sneezing began with a saliva-snuff mixture in my mouth entering my lungs and stomach. All of us were now in the backyard trying to spit out the mixture that coated our nasal passages, mouth, esophagus and stomach. Add to that our bawling the scene must have been a picture of supreme misery.
There was a moment when I really thought I might die. I was extremely dizzy with my ears ringing like church bells. Then the nausea hit. It happened so fast that together we got down on all fours and retched up every particle of eaten, half digested, or digested food that our innards contained. But it didn’t stop there. Our stomachs kept right on retching even though they were empty. With dry heaves I felt that any minute I was going to see my gut come flying out of my mouth to lay pulsating on the ground.
When we finally stopped throwing up each of us had streaks of snuff on our faces which had now turned ashen white. We had on shorts, white tee shirts, and bare feet covered with brown vomit. It was not a pleasant sight with snot running out of our noses and drool dripping out of our mouths. Granny was nowhere to be seen. So we got a garden hose and doused ourselves off as best we could and stumbled to a barn hay loft to recuperate.
That night at the supper table the adults were in an unusually good mood with intermittent bursts of laughter. Not a word was ever said about the ordeal and none of us ever spoke of it or tried to dip snuff again. In our family our kin believed in object lessons. As Friedrich Nietzsche said; That which does not kill us makes us stronger. To this day I still shudder at the thought of snuff.