Remembering Dad, who rolled his own

In my mind’s eye I can see it all so vividly, a ritual I witnessed hundreds of times when I was growing up.

Dad would reach in his shirt pocket and take out a small cotton pouch with a yellow drawstring. He would select one of the small, oblong pieces of tissue-thin paper attached to the pouch and distribute a small amount of its contents on to the paper. Then Dad would roll the paper as tightly as he could, lick the seam to seal it, strike a match and light his cigarette.

Dad always smoked Bull Durham tobacco. Many times, as a small child, I would enter a store with a nickel clutched tightly in my hand, purchase a package of Bull Durham, wrap it and, depending upon whether it was his birthday or Christmas, proudly present my gift to Dad.

Thinking back, gifting Dad with Bull Durham and accepting his cigarette-making was so natural because it was something Dad always did; but now I realize I never saw any other men, or women, roll a cigarette. Dad was unique.

So easily did I accept Dad’s habit as the norm, I never thought to ask him how or when he learned this “art” of cigarette-making. Now I wish I knew. But remembering the popular 1988 baseball movie “Bull Durham” may give me a clue

In his younger years, Dad was an accomplished baseball player and was a member of several semi-professional teams in this area. Shortly after Dad died I met a man who told me how much he liked to watch Dad play ball. “He could throw like a bullet and run like the wind,” the man said, adding, “If there had been major league scouts around I’m sure he would have been chosen.”

It left me wondering, “Did Dad start smoking and rolling his own during his baseball years?”

Doing a little research, I discovered the manufacture of Bull Durham tobacco dates back to the middle 1800s in Durham (where else?), N.C., where the painting of a large bull highlighted the façade of the American Tobacco Co. factory building. I also learned that rolling cigarettes was very popular with soldiers in both the Civil War and World War One.

Somehow, I think more of cowboys rolling their cigarettes, something common in the “wild west.” Sure enough, a friend has told me he had seen cowboys doing just that, many years ago in Arizona.

As ready-mades increased in popularity, the aforementioned tobacco company morphed into the home of Lucky Strike cigarettes. More brands emerged. Anyone who lived during that era will remember the slogan about “Walking a Mile for a Camel” (cigarette), or the bellhop wearing a bright red uniform and strolling through the hotel lobby shouting out, “Call for Phillip Morris.”

Think of all the old movies from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s when smoking was so common and the actors made it look so classy, so normal.

I watched an old Bette Davis film recently as the actress continually was either lighting up, blowing smoke or putting out the cigarette with the usual Davis flair.

Dad was not a heavy smoker; perhaps the time and effort it took to create a cigarette was somewhat of a deterrent, but I have a lasting image of him sitting in his favorite living room chair after dinner and rolling a cigarette. Just to make the scene complete, Dad often changed into what was called a smoking jacket after work. I still remember it as navy blue with maroon piping around the collar and cuffs.

It never occurred to anyone in the family that smoking might be bad for Dad’s health or the second-hand smoke harmful to any of us. The warning would come several decades later when the surgeon general served notice on the dangers of smoking.

But Dad did create this hazard.

Because it was all but impossible to wrap the tobacco tightly enough, a piece from a lighted cigarette would sometimes fall on Dad’s shirt and burn a hole in it. Mother, who would make a brave attempt to hide her annoyance, was an expert at patching clothes and darning socks, but she never did find a good solution for mending those holes.

It was during World War II when Dad became quite popular with some of my older sister’s friends who smoked. Desperate for a ready-made that was so scarce at the time, they would gather around as Dad rolled cigarettes for them. But as I recall their comments, Dad’s creations were a far cry from what they were used to.

In later years, I saw Dad smoke a ready-made cigarette on occasion, but old habits are hard to break. He never did give up rolling his own.

To comment, send an e-mail message to Ellen Beveridge at