Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt asked me to get outside my own head and see the world in a new way. This inspired me to write a poem about my friend Tony. I met Tony when I was in the US Navy and our friendship did not start right away. It took an epic event before we learned to become friends.
His Last Smokes
Tony was very out of shape.
Obese would be more like it.
His belly hung over his belt.
And it had caused him to be assigned to Remedial PT,
a program that I ran as an up-and-coming 2nd Class Petty Officer.
A self-inflicted punishment affectionately referred to by other sailors as The Fat Boy Program.
Tony was a 1st Class, a higher rank, and made sure I knew it.
His rank made him a poor student.
His health made him an even worse sailor.
Every morning, at the end of each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday exercise session, he would lite up a smoke and remind me why he didn’t think he needed to be here.
Always puffing away and grinning at me like a randy sailor who just got away with getting out of having to wax the P-way floors.
He had been ordered to attend my class every week.
Tony never missed a day.
He also never missed a post-workout smoke either.
Half-assing his workouts in order to check a box,
and biding his time until the next bi-Annual PT test.
A test, mind you, that Tony liked to brag to everyone about how he had ceremoniously failed twice, like a boat going to sea with a hole in its side.
Tony knew that a third failure would get him kicked out of the US Navy.
Only his removal would be considered: Medical.
The new designation for sailors whose health was no longer fit for duty.
It was a new way for the brass to weed out those sailors it didn’t want anymore while providing Tony with a handy-dandy honorable discharge, complete with an $8,000 severance check.
It was the prize at the bottom of the Cracker-Jack box for those unfit sailors that could not maintain their physical readiness.
It was a sad loop-hole that Tony hoped to exploit.
Come test day he was more than ready to do the minimum.
Which is exactly what he did.
However, in doing the minimum, a strange thing happened as he finished the 1.5-mile run, a thing that he did not expect.
Oblivious to what he had just done, he crossed the finish line of the run with a smug grin on his face, pulling out a pack of cigarettes.
His large frame shuffled across the finish line with a lite smoke in his mouth.
Then I told him the good news.
He had just passed the run with only seconds to spare!
Tony had not failed for the third time but had, instead, turned his 6-months of sloppy arrogance into a barely satisfactory PT test completion.
As I told him, he laughed at me in disbelief, blowing smoke at me like an old, coal-powered ship as he approached.
He was out of breath but smiling.
Smiling as if to say his smoking was harmless and that I was a liar.
Then I showed him my stopwatch.
He saw it, then immediately stopped smiling.
Then he struggled to catch his breath, and with heavy gasps between smokey puffs, he dived face-first into the pavement.
Tony was having a heart attack.
Just feet after crossing the finish line.
My Navy Corpsman jumped to his aid.
In a fit of brutally honest CPR, they tried to save him.
They struggled to breathe life back into his sails as his tiny little smoke, still smoldering nearby, rolled away with its fading cinder of life, lost in the fog of confusion.
Tony looked pale and dead.
His eyes were open but vacant.
Each pump of his chest making him wheeze
When the ambulance finally arrived, they loaded him into the bus and whisked him away, leaving us to fear the worst.
I was alone among a sea of fellow sailors, quietly gathered around in silence as I put a heal to Tony’s cigarette, extinguishing it forever.
But Tony didn’t die that day.
He started eating a heart-healthy diet, started exercising for real this time, and found himself losing 50 lbs. in 6-months.
The US Navy didn’t kick him out either, because he showed up at my next command as a new man, born again.
This new man apologized to me for his hubris.
He thanked me for trying to help him back then.
He even became my friend.
But his last pack of smokes, the pack that had included the very cigarette he had lit moments before his heart attack, was something he had kept from his former life.
Even though he never smoked another cigarette after that fateful day, he kept that last pack as a reminder of how close he came to being put into Davy Jones’ Locker.
He still has that last pack of smokes.
They still look just like they did twenty-five years ago.
They rest in an ornate wooden box on his mantle in his home.
A home he made after his retirement, with his new wife, and his new lease on life.
His last smokes are an artifact, a warning, and a reminder of a life that tried to drown him at the bottom of that dark sea, long before he started swimming towards a better shore.
#napowrimo #napowrimo21 #napowrimo2021