Just the Other Day: Marlboro Reds

It wasn’t one of the smartest things I ever did. As a matter of fact, today, I would label it as one of the dumbest things I ever did.


I had recently graduated high school and got my first “real job” at Plywood Minnesota, in Ottumwa, Iowa. In junior high school, I had worked at my parent’s restaurant, the Runway Café. In high school I worked at the China Restaurant, then Mr. Munchee’s – a burger joint across the street from the movie theater. I thought I had hit it big time when, as a junior in high school, I got on with Pizza Hut. But, to get hired at Plywood Minnesota, my first job outside the world of food service? That was really something.


At all my restaurant jobs, I lectured any co-workers who smoked. I told them about the health dangers, the high cost of cigarettes and how smoking made them smell badly. But. Now that I was in the big league of employment, I didn’t want to come across as being a smart aleck; a know it all, or self-righteous. In reality, I was eager to fit in with my new colleagues and most of them smoked.  So, even though it was one of the dumbest things I ever did, I started to smoke.


In less than a year, most of the guys quit smoking but I continued. They would tell me how bad smoking was. I knew they were right, but I wasn’t going to admit that, so I told them I enjoyed smoking; it was relaxing. I told them those health problems wouldn’t happen to me because I was different. Besides, I would quit before the smoking ever became a problem. The truth is, I have a very addictive personality. I was hooked and to keep smoking was easier than quitting. I eventually did quit smoking – thirty years later.


I’ve always believed anything worth doing is worth doing well. Smoking was no exception. I didn’t want to be one of those people who only smoked two or three cigarettes a day. Why smoke at all? So, I smoked a pack a day for the first ten years. Well, a pack a day until the Marlboro Man started putting those “Marlboro Miles” on the side of each package, then I kicked it up to about two packs a day. I had to have those miles – each one was worth five points! You could redeem the points for some pretty cool stuff. I was especially interested in the camping gear.


I liked camping in the mountains – and winter camping when it gets really cold. Marlboro offered a Zero Degree Sleeping bag. A similar item retailed for over $100. I saved enough miles to get one. It was a “mummy bag,” with bright red nylon on the top, black on the bottom and bright yellow inside. When it arrived, I took a motorcycle trip to the mountains to try it out. I was so impressed with the quality I wanted to get three more; one bag for each person in my family. But that would have required a lot of smoking. Two packs a day was already too much for me, so I solicitated the help of other smokers.


I tapered back to a pack and a half per day, and friends who weren’t going to use their miles, collected them for me. Pretty soon I had all the sleeping bags I wanted. Because it wasn’t cool for the kids to have a cigarette logo on their sleeping bags, I carefully remove the Marlboro patch with a seam ripper. I still had enough points to get the red duffle bag I wanted.


It was really cool and durable. Made of bright red canvas, it had a large space for clothes on top, a separate shoe compartment on the bottom and a pocket for toiletries on the front. The bag had handles on top and a large shoulder strap that made it super easy to carry. The duffle bag had a retail value over $100. It was a well-made piece of luggage – even the zippers were high quality. I’ve had the bag for many years. (decades) It’s traveled with me through all fifty states and Canada!


On one trip to Alaska, visiting my aunt and uncle in Fairbanks, the shoulder strap broke. The bag was heavy when fully loaded and frankly, it wasn’t easy to carry without that strap. Besides, it was over thirteen years old. I told my aunt Di about the damage and said I was going to throw the bag away.


“I can fix that for you.” She said. I explained it was very heavy canvas and I didn’t want her to damage her sewing machine trying to repair it.  She laughed at me, “Give me the bag.” That’s when I learned Di had commercial sewing machines that could stich several layers of canvas together at one time. After she repaired it, the bag was better than ever and continued traveling with me for years.


It was on that trip to Alaska when Uncle John and I were way out in the wilderness staying at his cabin, that I ran out of cigarettes. I lasted three days without smoking and when we returned to Fairbanks, I decided to stay off the cigarettes. Just a few days after returning home from that trip, I started smoking again. Sigh. In all, I smoked for thirty years before quitting in 2009.


One day, about two and a half years after I quit, one of the girls at work came in from outside; she had been on a cigarette break. When she walked up to the front desk, I told her. “You really stink.” She returned the sentiment. “No, I mean it. You really stink like cigarettes.” She walked away a bit offended.


I asked another girl who was there (a non-smoker) if I smelled that bad when I was still smoking. She smiled, “Yes. You did.” It surprised me that it took so long after I quit before I became sensitive to the smell. It was awful, but years later I discovered something that smells even worse!


Just the other day, I was working in Ottumwa. I was cutting down trees with the chainsaw while my helpers hauled the branches to a trailer. When we were finished, I loaded my chainsaws, gas, oil and tools into the van and started to head out of town. I was going to my daughter’s house in Waterloo. Before I got out of town, I started to small gasoline – it was strong. Is there anything that smells worse than gasoline?  I stopped the van to investigate.


It seems the cap on my gas can had split. The can tipped over and leaked gasoline all over the floor of my van. My red bag was back there. The gasoline soaked into the bag; mostly into the bottom compartment, but it didn’t seem to get to my clothes in the top section. I rushed into a grocery store to buy a package of paper towels and some Windex.


I removed my clothes from the duffle bag, placing them in plastic grocery sacks. The red bag itself was soaked with gasoline dripping from it. I put it inside a separate plastic sack, setting it outside, then began cleaning up the gas with paper towels. I cleaned the floor the best I could with Windex. It seemed to have removed the gas from the rubber floor mat – but, the smell was still strong!


Outside the van, I picked up my red bag. It was really a mess. It broke my heart to admit it, but after thirty years together – it was time. I threw my red bag away. It was a long drive back to Waterloo. I reminisced about all the places we had been together – me and that red bag. I kept the windows open, hoping to air out the van.


It was 10:30 p.m., when I arrived. Before going in the house, I smelled my clothes in the sacks. They didn’t smell like gas so I went inside. My daughter walked over toward the front door to greet me. About ten feet away, she wrinkled her nose, then pointed to the front door with a stiff arm. “Out! Now!” Apparently, I had become immune to the stench of gasoline.


I took my clothes to the laundromat. Before washing my clothes, I told a lady they were clean and asked if they smelled. “They smell like gasoline.” She said, “You better wash them in hot water.”


“You’re the first women who ever told me to wash colors in hot water.” I told her and we shared a good laugh about that.


When the washer was done, I put my clothes in a roller basket and started wheeling them to the dryer. The same lady approached me. Taking a damp T-shirt from my basket, she sniffed it. “Did you use hot water like I told you?” I assured her I did. “Did you use soap?” Again, I said I did. “You’re going to have to wash them again and make sure you set the machine for hot water.” I did as I was told.


As the lady was folding her clothes, a friend of hers walked in with a few baskets of clothing. The two started chatting. Before the first lady left, she brought her friend to me. “Brenda, this man got gasoline on his clothes and the smell was still there after he washed them, so I made him wash them again. Before he puts them in the dryer, will you make sure he got the smell out?”


Brenda assured her, “I’ll keep an eye on him.” Then she looked at me, asking, “Did you wash them in hot water?”


The first lady left and about ten minutes later my machine was done. I put my clothes in a basket and started wheeling them toward the dryer.  Brenda walked up and took a damp shirt from my basket giving it the sniff test. “Did you use hot water?” I assured her I did. “And did you use soap?” Again, I assured her I did. “Honey, you’re going to have to wash them again.”


She led me to the soap vending machine, pointing to a particular box, “Use this Gain with bleach and a box of this Oxy Clean. That’ll take the smell away.” I bought the products she recommended and returned to the washing machine. She followed me, looking over my shoulder, “Now make sure you use hot water or you’ll never get that gas smell out of your clothes.”


When the load was done, she smelled another of my T-shirts. She smiled, extending the damp garment toward me, “Now doesn’t that smell clean and fresh?” I agreed it did and proceeded to the dryer. “Now you dry those on medium, not high heat. You don’t want to shrink your cotton shirts.”


I was grateful to both ladies for their help.  Thirty-seven dollars and almost four hours later, I left the laundromat with clean clothes. It was just after 2 a.m. when I got to Sydney’s house.


The next day, after doing a little online research, I spent a couple hours cleaning the inside of the van with a solution of vinegar, baking soda and water.  It worked. The gasoline smell is gone. Fortunately, the van came along many years after I quit smoking, so that’s a stench I didn’t have to deal with.


I smoked for thirty years and I had that red duffle bag for thirty years. I still have two of the sleeping bags, thirty years later. It almost seemed like a fair trade off until I considered, the four sleeping bags and the duffle bag would have cost me $500. I can’t even fathom the real cost of getting those items “FREE.”


I thought about the demise of my Marlboro duffle bag and chuckled out loud, “I guess cigarettes and gasoline never have mixed well.”