Saturday, January 21, 2006

Smoke ’Em If Ya Got ’Em

You remember the picture: the dazed and sweaty Marine with the Marlboro hanging off his lip, trying to settle his mind or steady his nerves after the fighting in Fallujah in 2004. It was the kind of photo that can lift newsroom editors from their late-night torpor and cause them to issue breathy exhalations of wonder, and it summarily appeared on the front pages of papers across the nation, including the one in Houston.

We were struck by the picture, taken by a Los Angeles Times photographer, but what really took us aback were two letters the Houston Chronicle subsequently printed from apparently real people who accused the Marine of setting a bad example for the nation’s youth. One, from a Dr. Daniel Maloney of The Woodlands, deserves repeating:
I was shocked to see the large photograph on Nov. 10. A tired, dirty and brave Marine rests after a battle--- but with a cigarette dangling from his mouth! Lots of children, particularly boys, play "army" and like to imitate this young man. The clear message of the photo is that the way to relax after a battle is with a cigarette. The truth is very different from that message. Most of our troops don't smoke. And most importantly, this young man is far more likely to die a horrible death from his tobacco addiction than from his tour of duty in Iraq.
Yes, the picture did indeed make both combat and cigarette smoking seem sooooo appealing. (When it comes to handling stress we prefer yoga to cigarettes these days, although we realize that in some places [Fallujah being one] it’s probably not convenient to unfurl a sticky mat and throw down an Adho Mukha Svanasana.)

The Lexington Herald-Tribune recently updated the whereabouts of the Marine, 21-year-old Blake Miller of Pike Country, Ky., who survived both the war and the cigarette and is back home after receiving an early but honorable discharge. At the time Miller was caught in his Willie-and-Joe Kodak moment, he was smoking about five packs a day, according to the paper---a level of consumption more commonly associated with Bangkok cab drivers or coronary-bound New York ad executives of the 1950s. He still carries shrapnel scars from the war and
began having problems soon after returning from Iraq early last year: sleeplessness, nightmares, times when he would "blank out," not knowing what he was doing. Then, just after Hurricane Katrina last fall, Miller was sent to New Orleans, where he and other Marines waded through flooded neighborhoods, recovering bodies. Somewhere along the way, all the stresses piled up, and they boiled over a few days later while Miller was on board the USS Iwo Jima, a Navy ship on hurricane duty off the Gulf Coast.

"I was coming out of the galley, when this sailor made a whistling noise that resembled the sound of a rocket-propelled grenade," Miller said. " ... They said that I grabbed him, threw him against the bulkhead and put him down on the deck, with me on top of him. But I have no recollection of it whatsoever."
Jesus. If anybody deserves to be left alone to smoke in peace, it’s Blake Miller.

The good news, though, is that he’s down to one pack a day.

He’s also had second thoughts about the war.

Pike County, by the way, is in the Kentucky coal country that is the setting for the Frontline special Country Boys that PBS aired over three nights earlier this month. We stumbled into the middle of the first installment of this documentary and couldn’t stop watching. See it, if you get the chance.

Slampo’s English-As-A-Second-Language Weekend Special: Spotted on a hand-scrawled sign near the corner of Kirkwood and Bechnut in Southwest Houston: “Big Garage Sale Frayday.” We figured this was a mere typo, the result of the kind of mental glitch that afflicts us about every 30 seconds. But farther down the street we saw a similar sign, same handwriting: “Big Garage Sale Frayday.” It kind of works, phonetically.

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