Memoir Contest Winner: He’d Walk a Mile for a Camel by Sara Etgen-Baker

by Matilda Butler on August 9, 2012

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #188 – Women’s Memoirs, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Memoir Contest – Honorable Mention, Gratitude for Family Category

Today Women’s Memoirs is pleased to publish the Sara Etgen-Baker’s Honorable Mention winning story in our November 2011 Memoir Writing Contest

Congratulations to Sara on her award-winning story. Expressing gratitude is an important function in our lives and we appreciate you sharing your story with us.


By Sara Etgen-Baker

Like so many men of his generation, my father was a smoker who began the habit in his early teens. His father often had a cigarette in his mouth so learning to smoke was a given—a sort of rite of passage—as teenage males throughout America ventured into manhood. Certainly, during the 40s and 50s none of us were aware of either the correlation of smoking to cancer or the inherent dangers of second-hand smoke, a phrase that had not yet been coined.

We were, therefore, oblivious to the danger surrounding us, for our entire family frequently gathered in the living room after dinner while my father relaxed with a burning cigarette in his right hand and a cup of coffee in his left. As a matter of fact, I spent countless evenings sitting on my father’s lap, sharing his coffee, and watching him blow smoke rings toward the living room ceiling.

Although he was not a chain smoker, my father was a two-pack-a-day man. As he drove to work every Monday morning, he stopped at our neighborhood convenience store in Garland, Texas, and purchased his weekly supply of cigarettes—a cartoon of Camel Straights. In fact, my father was a loyal Camel smoker and often echoed the Camel slogan: “I’d walk a mile for a Camel.”

2011-November-CamelsEven now, I remember the unique Camel package—a single dromedary camel standing on desert sand, with pyramids and palm trees in the background. I believe my father chose Camels because their unique tobacco blend made smoking a Camel more pleasant than smoking other cigarettes. Simply, he unquestioningly accepted the Camel advertisement that stated: “You simply can’t buy a cigarette more delightful than Camels at any price. There is no tongue sting or unpleasant cigaretty after-taste.”

2011-November-John-WayneOf course, his favorite Hollywood actor, John Wayne, endorsed Camels: “The roles I play in movies are far from easy on my voice—I can’t risk throat irritation. So I smoke Camels—they are mild.” So for $1.25 plus tax, my father—like John Wayne—had a non-irritating and pleasant smoking experience. I suppose spending the $1.25 plus $.08 per pack was a reasonable, manly expense even for a non-actor. However, a recession struck in 1960, and the amount of work my father had was substantially reduced.

Indeed, times were tough as we approached the 1960 holiday season. During that time, I overheard one of my parents’ quiet conversations about money. Desperately, mother said, “I don’t know how we can afford Christmas this year. I’ve scrimped and saved as much as I could. I just don’t know what we’ll do.”

Edwin Richard Etgen, my father

Edwin Richard Etgen, my father

She began to weep as my father responded, “You need not worry….we’ll have enough for Christmas. Just wait and see.”

“But HOW?” she whimpered.

“Just wait and see….wait and see.”

Thanksgiving came and passed, and we entered the month of December. Respectfully, my brothers and I spoke little about Christmas presents and the holidays, for we knew that times were tough at our house. I recall, though, that throughout December my father uncharacteristically and cheerfully whistled Christmas tunes around the house. In bewilderment and dismay my brothers and I just shook our heads; I saw the panic on my mother’s face and sensed her irritation with my father’s happiness—seemingly unaware that we had no Christmas tree and certainly no presents.

Late Christmas Eve afternoon, I heard my father pull into the driveway loudly honking the horn on his truck. My brothers and I looked out the window and saw a Christmas tree lying in the bed of his pickup truck. So, we scurried outside screaming and greeted him with hugs and kisses. He threw the tree across his back and carried it inside.

My brother Eddie

My brother Eddie

We joyfully decorated the tree never once thinking about Christmas presents or wondering how father afforded a Christmas tree. Once the tree was decorated, he asked us to go outside, look behind the seat of his truck, and bring in what was there. When we did, we found several carefully wrapped Christmas presents with our names and our mother’s name on them. We ran inside with the gifts, practically knocking our poor mother off her feet.

I'm holding my new doll.

I'm holding my new doll.

After unwrapping the gifts, our excitement subsided. Then, I noticed my mother lean toward my father and ask, “How? How? How were you able to buy a Christmas tree and presents?”

He reached over, softly kissed my mother’s cheek, and said, “For four months, I’ve taken the money I would’ve spent on my Camels and tossed it in a coffee can under the seat of my truck. I took that money and bought the tree and gifts. I quit smoking so you and the children could have Christmas.”

In looking back, I realize that the gift my father gave me that Christmas wasn’t the wrapped one he had hidden behind the seat of his truck. Rather, his enduring gift—wrapped in his devotion and commitment—was his sacrificial love, and it left me feeling secure well beyond the 1960 Christmas season. He demonstrated that love might require sacrificing something you enjoy for someone you love. So, even though he’d walk a mile for a Camel, he’d walk across the desert sands to provide love in the form of Christmas for his wife and children.

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