In Honor of Father’s Day: June 19, 2022
The Marlboro Man is dead. Long live the Marlboro Man! In our dreams he remains the hero of a thousand billboards. The ultimate salesman. (opening lyrics to the song “Marlboro Man, Jr” by the American funk rock band World Entertainment War)
Where there’s a man…there’s a Marlboro. (Philip Morris advertising slogan)
Death and Some Blueberry Pie, 1970s
Mr. Ziegler was lost. Not something a driver of a hearse was supposed to be. Lost children and dogs, certainly; lost fortunes; lost virginity. But not lost undertakers. It became his excuse to stop at a diner advertising fresh pies.
“I’ll have apple . . . a la mode,” the dapper, little man told our waitress who looked like a walrus.
“I’ll have blueberry,” I said, looking out the picture window.
“Naked?” the walrus honked at me.
I took my eyes off the hearse in plain view of the restaurant patrons and employees, and looked at her, wondering what she meant.
“You want a scoop or not?” Her tone of voice showed more than frustration at my lack of understanding. She did not look at me, but her Bic was poised over her note pad, ready to write down my answer to her life-altering question.
“Oh,” I said, thinking of my father fully dressed, lying in this parking lot somewhere in rural Maryland. “No,” I answered. “Thank you, though.”
The left corner of the woman’s upper lip rose ever so slightly and began to tremble. I could tell she was pissed. She knew that the clown man hiding behind a mortician’s mask and I had been the ones to bring death into her parking lot.
It was ironic. Dad, the traveling salesman, never got lost. But there he was – or what was left of him – waiting to continue on his way while we had dessert. At least he wasn’t struggling now. The tubes and machines that had become part of his body for the seven weeks it took him to die from a stroke were gone.
He just couldn’t give up smoking five packs a day. Marlboro cigarettes.
Mr. Ziegler brought me back to the present. “You know, it’s my birthday,” he said jubilantly. “I’m 67 today!”
How strange, I thought. Dad had turned 67 only 12 days before he died. And here was this odd little man the same age, but so healthy. I felt a great unfairness sweeping over me. Still, I liked the man’s optimism. Especially so, considering what he did for a living.
“Dad was 67,” I said. “The Marlboros killed him.”
“You don’t say,” Mr. Ziegler replied, getting out a map and adding, “I never smoked.”
I wondered what it would have been like to have had a happy mortician for a father. But I thought about this until the blueberry pie came. I gobbled it up, realizing that, after all, life must go on. The pie was so good that I ordered another one from the Walrus and asked if I could have it clothed this time.
She looked at me as if I were crazy, and then started to laugh. “You mean dressed?”
I looked at her as if she were crazy. Then I began to laugh. The first time I had laughed in many weeks. It was healing.
Sometimes, getting lost can be a very good thing.
A Hollywood Funeral, 1990s
He had been one of the original Marlboro Men, appearing in those old cigarette ads in magazines and on billboards. You know, tough guys dressed like cowboys, lassoing wild horses, and stuff like that.
And always with a dangling cigarette.
But that’s not all he had lassoed, for he was quite a ladies man.
The reality is that “Fred” (not his real name) had not been a real cowboy. He had been a professional model and actor. And when I encountered him, a deceased one.
It was my ministerial duty to officiate at his funeral service, complete with his body on display, a body that had smoked too many Marlboros and had succumbed to lung cancer.
There is something about a “Hollywood funeral”—and I did a number of them—that is quite different from other funerals or memorial services. Briefly put, it is like an audition for a big part rather than a celebration of a life.
The service was held in a mortuary, but it could have been on the set of a Hollywood movie studio. Instead of quiet, meditative music, tranquil lighting effects, and paintings of bucolic and celestial scenes, Fred’s place of “slumber” had the theme from the television show “Bonanza” playing and bright lights that were purposely directed onto the countless 8½-by-11- inch glossy publicity shots of Fred that adorned the entire front wall where Fred in his casket was dressed up like a Marlboro Man about to giddy up and go to his last roundup.
I do not remember any of his family members who were present. But I do remember the many women who were there. All of them were blonde. All in deep distress at the loss of their Marlboro Man.
Cecile B. DeMille would have been proud of this production.
Anyhow, I hope that the Marlboro Man is now in a fire- and smoke-free environment – with lots and lots of flaming blondes!
A Goodbye Lunch, 1990s
It was an announcement about my 25th year college reunion, saying something about a beer blast on the football field, being with the guys, and sweatshirts with our school mascot on them. Hardly an exciting prospect for me way back then or now, so I decided to return to my alma mater three weeks before the reunion. It was my way of coming to terms with the reality that a quarter of a century had passed.
I went with a single purpose in mind: to reunite with my favorite professor.
What style this English professor had had! What wit! What a lover of the English language! As a college student, I had admired and feared him, the latter because I had felt so intellectually inadequate whenever he was around. Also, I sometimes felt discounted by him. This for me was illustrated by his choosing to call me Bill. Even though William is my first name, I have always gone by my middle name Donald, or Don.
I wrote him with some trepidation, telling him of my desire to take him to lunch. I feared that he would grade my letter, or at least blue-pencil in corrections. When I got a letter back with a witticism here, a witticism there, I figured he hadn’t changed much.
He called me Bill when we met.
His mind was still sharp, and ever-ready with the next quip. What was different about him was that he kept telling me secrets. Things about the faculty twenty-five years ago; stories about past college episodes that a professor in 1967 would never had shared with a student. Although he was treating me like a peer, I couldn’t quite think of myself as one, nor could I believe myself to be a college student anymore.
I also was surprised that he smoked. Marlboro cigarettes. Perhaps he had been a long-time smoker, but I didn’t remember seeing him do this before.
The two-hour lunch turned into a four-hour one, with lots of beer for both of us, and countless well-turned phrases from him. He even talked about some personal things concerning his deceased wife and children.
And then he told me that he had been diagnosed with a fatal blood disease. And then he quoted some Shakespearian line about the brevity of life. And then he laughed.
When it was time for us to say goodbye, he seemed quite reserved, as if he were back in time playing his former role as the distant professor. I wanted to hug him, but decided I’d better not. I guess I was back in time, too. So I didn’t make the motion toward him, except to extend my hand and mumble something inane like “See you later.”
He closed our reunion by saying, “See you around, Don,” which was far better for me than a hug.
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