For People Who Like to Smoke

Jim McCormick smokes. He’s 69 and he’s smoked for 55 years. He says he likes to smoke. He says, “I actually believe I can outrace a doctor. I think I’m in very good health.”

He eats well–that is, prudently. And he takes vitamins. “I’ve been taking them for 32 years,” said McCormick. “Vitamin E, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin B complex, zinc, calcium, magnesium, selenium, and B12. And B6. Plus lecithin.”

Every day? we asked him.

“Well, I’m not a religious man,” said McCormick. “But I make it a point to take them.”

Nine years ago, we reviewed a novel by McCormick called Last Seen Alive. It was a gloomy thriller set in Berlin and we liked it a lot. We admired sentences like this one: “In the formal coldness of the morning the thought of himself squatting over her was both sad and comic, yet their passion had been very real.”

Doubleday was the publisher. How’d that book do? we asked.

“Very badly,” said McCormick. “They printed 5,000 and remaindered it.” He made about $2,700.

Work on it long? we asked. For some reason, the details of the publishing game fascinate us, probably because they so often turn out to be tragic.

“I started it in Ireland in 1961,” McCormick told us.

A bombardier in World War II, McCormick knocked around Europe for a couple of years after the war, then turned up in Chicago. He became a copy editor, an occupation favored by intellectual loners, traveled and wrote in his free time, and retired from the Tribune in 1985. He’s published short stories in fine little magazines like the Kenyon Review, but he’s had no luck with the last two novels he sent around. “I have an agent–I won’t tell you her name. She said, ‘Jim, why can’t you be happy?’ I left her.

“I think,” said McCormick, “when I write I’m a lot soberer than I ought to be.”

Jim McCormick has a new book out. It’s sober. It’s cranky. It’s not one of those novels, which he is too proud to publish on his own. This is a book on nutrition–Light Up and Live: An Intelligent Guide to Safer Smoking–and it appears under the imprint of Brighton Press, which McCormick established for the occasion. Stuart Brent, Unabridged, and the downtown Kroch’s stores carry it.

Light Up and Live is an angry book. It’s angry at society for picking on smokers, flyspecks on the face of urban pollution. It’s angry at government for lacking the guts to order the tobacco industry to produce a less lethal cigarette.

“I’m claiming there’s 97 poisonous chemicals in one cigarette,” McCormick told us. He’s not sure he’s right; he says the number comes from nutritionists, who don’t list them all. But McCormick says there are 37 poisons he knows by name.

“They include aluminum. They include arsenic. They include radioactive polonium. There’s hydrogen cyanide, nickel, ammonia, benzene, something called acrolein–it’s used in tear gas. There’s nitrogen dioxide–a gas that’s proven to damage lungs.”

The health hazards in a cigarette could be reduced to two, said McCormick–nicotine and carbon monoxide. But he concedes it’s not just craven government that stands in the way. “When I was a boy the cigarette kept going out. So they put phosphorous in the paper, and we’ve become so accustomed to it. . . . And when I was a boy they had cigarettes that grew stale after three or four days. The tobacco would pulverize in your hand. Then they came up with a chemical that kept cigarettes fresh forever.

“Those would be very hard things to get rid of, because smokers demand them. So it’s a two-way street, isn’t it?”

Light Up and Live is only incidentally a polemic on behalf of a safer cigarette. Primarily it’s a guide to pharmaceutical countermeasures against the smokes we’ve got. It’s a paean to all those vitamins McCormick has been taking for the past 32 years.

“I think supplements are our buddy,” said McCormick. “They’re easy, they’re accessible, and the FDA is on the manufacturers so the stuff is pure. We know when we eat a tablet what’s there; we don’t know when we eat food.

“A lot of people don’t like to take tablets so I offer them food alternatives,” McCormick went on. “But the problem is, our soil is so depleted the vitamins aren’t there that they think are there.”

What about broccoli? we said with some concern. We like to think we atone for a thousand sins by eating broccoli. Broccoli appears time and again in McCormick’s book.

“Oh, Jesus! That’s good stuff! I think broccoli is wonderful!” said McCormick. “I eat a lot myself.” But he refuses to trust the American soil it grows in.

So if pills are the way to go, we said, should they be popped under a doctor’s supervision?

“I don’t think medicine knows anything about supplements,” said McCormick. “In my book I’m offering a guide that nutritionists understand. I don’t think 85 percent of the doctors know what’s in food. They’re still saying, eat a square American meal. The square American meal is empty.”

At least one prominent Chicago nutritionist fails to “understand” McCormick’s guide. This is Mary Hess, who told us, “The term ‘nutritionist’ is not a regulated term. Most of us who study nutrition and have no vested interest in vitamin or mineral sales will not agree that this is safe or more effective or desirable.”

She said, “The argument that the soil is depleted is nonsense.”

Hess cracked open the latest edition of what she calls the “big daddy document,” the National Research Council Recommended Dietary Allowances, and looked up vitamin C. The council suggests 60 milligrams a day for adults, 100 milligrams for smokers, who don’t hold the vitamin in their systems quite as long.

“My God!” said McCormick. “People are taking a thousand today!” (That’s what his book recommends.) “The consensus in this nutritional field I am discussing–they say you use up 15 milligrams of vitamin C minimum with every cigarette you take!

“It’s so in default,” insisted McCormick, meaning the NRC guide. “They’re so niggardly, their recommendations. They’re rock-bottom minimum. I think everybody needs more than they recommend.”

“My guess is,” said Hess, speaking of McCormick’s regimen, “he’s doing more harm than good–at great expense.”

“I’ve got 12 tablets I’m urging people to take,” McCormick told us. “The whole [daily] package I’m sure doesn’t cost 60 cents.”

So, take his advice and take your chances. Smokers are used to those terms.

Mastery of War

Who do soldiers at war hate? The folks back home, writes historian Paul Fussell, and even the troops in the rear who don’t see combat.

In his extraordinary cultural study of World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory, Fussell observed that “the visiting of violent and if possible painful death upon the complacent, patriotic, uncomprehending, fatuous civilians at home was a favorite fantasy indulged in by the troops.”

Fussell cited a poem by Siegfried Sassoon, “Fight to a Finish,” in which the British army turns its bayonets on the cheering throng that came out for the victory march, then on the “yellow-pressmen,” and finally on Parliament itself, which made the war. “At last the boys had found a cushy job,” wrote Sassoon.

Fussell’s new book, Wartime, examines World War II, in which the author was seriously wounded. “What drove the troops to fury,” he writes, “was the complacent, unimaginative innocence of their home fronts and rear echelons,” in particular “this public innocence about the bizarre damage suffered by the human body.”

Troops start out fully innocent themselves, but combat swiftly disabuses them. The continued naivete of their families has been viewed as a strategic asset. The heavily censored “yellow-pressmen” of World War I couched the war in the language of Victorian pieties. None other than the publisher of the Times of London headed up government propaganda. Fussell seems in a rage even now about the way the press tidied up his war, photographers turning their lenses away from the eviscerated corpses that were everywhere, and shooting only the photogenic dead.

But delusion visited everywhere, even the front. A common notion among combat troops, writes Fussell, was that one’s unit had done its bit and would soon be sent home. “No one could believe the unbelievable–that the destiny of an infantryman was to stay on the line until wounded, captured, or dead.”

Is there no getting war right? Vietnam was handled differently. Troops were rotated home after a year to offer them some prospect other than death, dismemberment, or bondage. Today, critics of the American strategy say this policy promoted discontinuity by stripping units of their most experienced men. And because what Fussell calls a “vigorous uncensored moral journalism”–much of it televised–was finally brought to bear on war, the troops came home in mid-war to a public that was neither complacent nor uncomprehending. Instead of ignorant approval, they ran into informed, raucous hostility.

This conduct has come to be remembered as insensitive and vaguely shameful. We don’t know why. If Fussell is right, there is no easy way for soldiers to go home and fit in. Our Vietnam vets had the curious fortune to return to a public that was not empty-headed and sentimental about the war waged over there. Millions of Americans knew enough to hate it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.