Published on March 9, 2021

Memories are made of this

Why Grandpa Ruffo stopped smoking

By Roy Edwards
The Bulletin

For this story, we need to go back to the late 1880s.

When Grandpa Ruffo was 13, he took a job as a teamster driving a freight wagon across East Texas. The job of a “mule skinner” was a hard and lonely life, working from dawn to dusk in all kinds of weather.

Being bored on the job, Ruffo took up smoking. His tobacco of choice was Bull Durham. Premade cigarettes were rare and expensive. Zippo lighters had not been invented. So, Ruffo rolled his own.

Ruffo got to where he could hold the reins in his left hand and pull a cigarette paper out of his shirt pocket and form it into a “V” shape with his right hand. Then he would pull out a pouch of Bull Durham loosely shredded tobacco. Holding the cigarette paper, he would sprinkle the tobacco into the paper. Then he would lick the edge of the paper and roll it into a cigarette shape, twisting both ends of the paper to keep the tobacco from falling out. He did all this with his right hand sitting on the seat of the wagon with the wind blowing. Then, he had a cigarette.

All he had left to do was light it.

Ruffo kept a supply of “sulphur” matches in a waterproof box on the wagon seat.

Even with the wind blowing, he lit the “strike anywhere” match and lit his cigarette while the phosphorus and sulphur head of the match were still burning. That was a pretty good trick when you were only using your right hand while your left hand was controlling a team of mules.

Ruffo was soon smoking over two pouches of Bull Durham a day, which is probably the equivalent of four or five packs of unfiltered store-bought cigarettes today.

Phosphorus, sulphur, and tobacco were very hard on the lungs. He was 17 when he came down with a severe condition. He could not breathe, was constantly coughing and spitting up blood. He thought he had TB.

After unloading his wagon at the freight depot, he went to see the town doctor. The doctor was reminiscent of Milburn Stone as grouchy old Doc Adams in “Gunsmoke.”

The old doctor had him get on the exam table and take his shirt off.

Ruffo hung his shirt on a chair next to the table, and the doctor started poking, prodding, and listening through his stethoscope.

“Son,” the doctor said, “You don’t have TB, but your lungs are in a bad way. You have to stop smoking NOW. The next time you light up could be the last thing you do on this earth.”

Ruffo, like most teenagers, thought he was 18-foot-tall and bulletproof. He thought that the old doctor didn’t know what he was talking about.

While the old doctor was giving his diagnosis, Ruffo was already reaching across to his shirt to roll a cigarette. Then he got a match and struck it.

Before the match could get to the end of the cigarette, the old doctor picked up the edge of the sheet and dropped it over Ruffo’s face.

Back then, when the doctor covered your face, you were ready for the undertaker.

Ruffo never lit that cigarette.

In fact, he never lit another cigarette, cigar or pipe. He did dip snuff, and sometimes chewed a plug.

Ruffo lived another 60 plus years, but he never smoked again.

(Write Roy in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)