The tobacco test for level-headed people

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 27, 2000

Baseball is back.

Not that I'm really thrilled.

I used to really look forward to the first sound of horsehide meeting Louisville Slugger, red mud on the seat of my pants, strawberries the size of your fist on your legs and the cheers of the crowd, all punctuated by a chorus of "patooey" as each of us fertilized the ground with our spray of tobacco juice.

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I'm not writing this as a proponent of chewing tobacco and the various other products; there's been enough literature about how they make your face rot off or your great-great-grandchildren have three arms and twelve toes;

we're just visiting about how baseball, that eternal sport of summer, used to be liberally lubricated with the chaw and cud of Beechnut, Red Man and Bull of the Woods.

I used to chew; still would, if I could find some that wouldn't make me sick.

But when I was twelve years old, there was nothing more glorious than to stand behind the bleachers, glove strap threaded through bat handle, hat brim bent just right and pulled down so low that your ears looked like wings ready to take flight and load up a prime chew.

You had to remember to put it on the right side if you batted right handed so it wouldn't make your eye squinch up and hinder your vision (the fact that the stuff made us dizzy as a goose on ice never entered our minds).

Then, properly accoutmented, we would take to the field in a blaze of glory with a squish of chaw.

If you got to play right field, at least a cud of Red Man gave you something to do other than draw circles with your cleats and pick off the ends of bahia.

I became fascinated with the art of chewing at an early age.

On the corner next to McGill Chevrolet in downtown metropolitan Georgiana, there used to be a group of men who would sit on the wall next to the used cars and chew and spit and talk and laugh and it really seemed like they were having a great time.

Those days were pre-surgeon general reports, so a great many conversations were constantly interrupted by the cuspidorial art of ridding yourself of your dregs while not spraying your neighbor or your white shirt.

What really got me fixated on the art of chewing tobacco was Uncle Oscian.

Uncle Oscian (I promise I haven't made this name up) used to have the uncanny ability to load a chew of Beechnut in such a manner that it made you think that it must be made of ambrosia.

He would slowly remove the leaves from the red and white starburst pouch; fold it gently into a manageable cud, all the while surveying for sticks or twigs; then, with a deft twist of the wrist, would nestle the wad into just the perfect position in his jowl.

Then, with a look of pure delight, he would move and adjust and masticate and readjust and then, with the practiced air of a knife thrower, would place two fingers around his lips and let loose a stream that would ring his spittoon with nary a stray spray.

This was too much for me to handle.

I just had to get hold of something that looked that good, so I slipped into my Aunt Lyn's little store, around behind the counter, and started surveying the selection in the chewing tobacco aisle.

I had already decided that snuff was out of the question, but that plug of Bull of the Woods surely held my curiosity.

I slipped the plug into my jeans pocket and made my way out the front door to find me a place to sit and chew.

Pretty slick for a five year old, heh?

So I found me a set of steps on the side of her store to perch and peruse my find.

I gingerly unwrapped the plug, and noticed my eyes watered at the aroma that it emitted.

I also noticed that the gnats that had been bothering me disappeared.

I reached down into the side pocket of my Tuff-Nut boots (remember them, they came with a pocketknife in a little holder on the side?), unfolded my blade, and cut me a fine little chew.

With great anticipation, I began my journey into the world of manly habits by placing that molasses-soaked gob of tobacco into my mouth and working it around like Uncle Oscian.

Uncle Oscian never gagged whenever he began to chew.

I never saw his eyes begin to pour water, and he sure didn't act like the whole world was spinning round and round.

I figured I had just taken too much to start, but everytime I tried to spit it out, a little more trickled down my throat.

Strange noises began to emanate from my stomach, and if I could have hollered I'd have called for help.

My mother said later that she never knew that a child could turn the exact shade of grass and still answer "there's nothing wrong with me".

I never was punished for taking the plug from Aunt Lyn's:

mother said that one look at me, a bilious green and yellow mix, with little brown spray marks down the front of my T-shirt, made her sure I had done more to myself than any belt ever would.

Mother also said that she discovered that day that I was truly levelheaded.

Because the tobacco juice ran out of both corners of my mouth at the same rate…the sign of a level head.

And a warped mind.