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Singer Patti Page's decades-long addiction to cigarettes was threatening her career, so she prayed about it.
Every smoker remembers her first cigarette. I took my first puff in 1942 back in high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was 14, on the chubby side and wore glasses. Though people were already talking about what a good voice I had, I wasn't exactly one of the popular girls. But I'd made up my mind. I was going to hang out with the cool kids. The kids who looked so grown-up leaning against their cars in the school parking lot, lighting one another's cigarettes, blowing tendrils of smoke in the air.
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During lunch one day I sauntered across the parking lot to them. "Wanna smoke?" one of the guys asked, holding out a pack. I pulled out a cigarette and put it to my lips. I looked into his eyes as he flipped open his Zippo and lit me up. I felt so sophisticated. Then the smoke hit my lungs and I couldn't help it. I coughed. A lot.
"First time?" he asked.
"No, of course not," I said, trying to regain my composure. Before lunch was over I'd worked my way through that cigarette and started on another.
I didn't dare light up at home—my mother would have killed me. I was only sneaking cigarettes at school. Then I got an after-school job singing for KTUL radio. Everyone at the station smoked. They were all older, and I felt even more out of place than I had in school. One day a DJ offered me a cigarette. I grabbed it like it was a lifeline. Just a few drags and I felt different. Worldly, experienced. There was no going back after that.
I wasn't the kid with the great pipes anymore. I'd become a grown-up, a real professional singer. And a real smoker too. How many people are in the audience? I'd worry backstage. What if I forget the lyrics? Then I'd light up, inhale and my fears would drift away. Nothing eased my anxieties like a cigarette.
My singing career took off in my twenties. "Tennessee Waltz" and "Doggie in the Window" shot up the charts. My smoking habit rocketed, too, to three packs a day. I couldn't leave the house without a fresh pack and a book of matches in my purse. I'd walk out of church after services and be puffing away before I got to my car. Touring in Europe? No problem—there, smoking was a way of life. Instead of the usual souvenirs, I came home with an exquisite French porcelain demitasse cup that had been turned into a cigarette holder and an antique silver filigree lighter. (Now I wonder if I collected those lovely things to cover up a habit that deep down I knew was ugly.)
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Nothing could get me to stop. Not the nagging cough I developed. Not my husband's worrying. Not even my two children. The thought of it makes me shudder now, but back then, no one understood the effects of secondhand smoke on a child. At one annual physical, my doctor warned me, "Sooner or later, Patti, smoking is going to take its toll on your body. You've just been lucky so far." But I didn't listen. I lit up as soon as I left his office. If my health gets really bad, I can always stop, I told myself. I sailed through my physicals, so I never seriously considered quitting.
Until one day in the summer of 1974. The kids and I were going grocery shopping. I got into our station wagon and stuck a cigarette in my mouth before I even turned the key.
"Oh, Mom, those things stink!" my 12-year-old, Kathleen, said. Her little brother, Danny, chimed in, "Yeah, Mom, cigarettes are bad for you."
I knew he was right—people I loved, like Nat King Cole and Betty Grable, smokers all, had died of lung cancer. But I couldn't admit it—especially not to my kids.
"Fine," I said, and stubbed out my cigarette. "I don't need to smoke." I hardly got out of the driveway before the urge set in. I can't go two blocks without a cigarette! It was the longest drive to the supermarket. By the time we walked inside, sweat beaded on my brow.
When Patti Page is not touring, she and her husband split their time between Solana Beach, California, and Hilltop Farm, their New Hampshire maple sugar farm.