Almost without exception the homes on the prairies were provided with sod cellars. Even the few modern dwellings in the community in which John's uncle lived were not without these old-fashioned cellars, which served as a protection in times of storms and tornadoes. The cellars served also as places in which to store the fruits and vegetables for winter use. And very often, too, a large quantity of tobacco leaves that had been dried and kept back when the summer's crop was sold could be discovered in one of these places.
The home of John's uncle was provided with just such a cellar -- a deep hole dug in the ground and covered over with a dense roofing of brush, mud, and sod. Within this cellar a large supply of tobacco leaves had been stored. John had been in the cellar many times. He knew the tobacco was there, and he knew to what use his uncle put the tobacco. He knew also that his cousin Will both chewed and smoked the leaves, but it had not occurred to him that he himself could do so.
The reason why he had not thought of using it was perhaps that his father had once told him that the using of tobacco was a bad habit and urged him to let it alone. But the fact that he had not been tempted did not guarantee that he would not be; the fact that he had no appetite for tobacco did not conclusively prove that he would never acquire one; nor did the fact that he had been told to let tobacco alone warrant that he would need no further watching -- for an unforeseen temptation was lurking near.
One day when John went into the cellar with his cousin Will, his cousin filled a pipe with the leaves and offered it to him, bidding him smoke. John shook his head, and said that he did not want to smoke, for his father had said that using tobacco was a bad habit and that it would ruin his health.
|Then, why does he use it himself?| Will reasoned. |Do you suppose that he would use it if he thought that it was going to hurt him? Now, John, look here; you said that you wanted to become a man. Here's your chance. If you get to where you can smoke a pipe, chew tobacco, and spit, in the way that your father and my dad do, you will be a man. Just some folks' saying that it is a bad habit doesn't need to make any difference with you.|
As John thought over his cousin's words, they did seem reasonable, and he remembered that all the men he had ever seen used tobacco. So he decided that, if he expected to be a man himself, he must soon begin to use it, too. He therefore accepted the pipe and began to puff vigorously at the stem. But try as he would, he couldn't make the pretty little curls of smoke mount up into the air as he had watched his father and other men do. Very soon, however, a deathly sickness began to steal over him. His head and stomach hurt, and he could scarcely help falling down on the floor of the cellar.
|O Will,| he said, as he gave the pipe to his cousin, |I am so sick! Let's get out of here. I feel as though I was going to die!| And John started in an attempt to find the opening through which he had entered the cellar, but to his surprise and terror he could not find it.
|O Will,| he said, |this is all your fault! You know I didn't want to smoke. I wish now that I hadn't listened to you. Father said tobacco would make me sick, but I didn't know it would be so bad as this. Tell me, does it always make people sick? and do they ever die?|
|Yes, it usually makes them pretty sick,| Will answered. |But they always get over it; and each time they smoke, they get more used to it, or something, and after a while they don't get sick at all. Look at me. It never makes me sick, but it did at first. Surely you can stand a little sickness when you know that it is going to make a man of you!|
John concluded that under those circumstances he could endure his suffering. But he did not try to smoke any more that morning. With Will's assistance he found the doorway of the cellar and went out where the air was more pure. Gradually, he began to feel better. When dinner time came, however, he did not care to eat; but he kept repeating to himself, |It won't be this way long, and I can afford to suffer if it will make a man of me.| How sad to think that one so young should be so deceived!
Could someone have taught him then that the sick feeling that had so distressed him was caused by the strong poison contained in the tobacco, it might have encouraged him never to touch it again. Had his father explained that every pound of tobacco contains three hundred and twenty grains of this poison, one grain of which will kill a large dog in about three minutes; or told him the story of how a man once ran a needle and thread that had been dipped in the poison through the skin of a frog and of how the frog in a few moments began to act like a drunken person, vomited, and hopped about as fast as possible, and then laid down, twitched for a moment in agony, and died; or informed him that many people become insane just through the use of tobacco, John might have yet been influenced to leave the poisonous stuff alone -- but perhaps his father did not know. Anyway, John was left without this much-needed information.
Boys who are not properly warned of the danger of tobacco-using are to be pitied more than blamed if they indulge; but their ignorance does not lessen the harm and the evils wrought. When the poison gets into the system, it affects the most vital organs; it undermines that strength and destroys that beauty which ornament true manhood and which assure an individual of success. Besides, the continued using causes the indulger to form a habit that cannot be easily overcome.
John, being not fully warned of the dreadful consequences of using tobacco, and yet determined to become a man, kept on smoking until he so accustomed his system to the shock that he felt satisfied he was becoming a conqueror and would soon be able to show his father that he was now a man.
During the time that John was undergoing such severe temptation, his father was very busy. He realized that his child needed more instruction than he was receiving and that Will's influence over John was not good; but just what advice to give, he hardly knew. Once he thought that he could smell tobacco smoke on his boy's clothing so calling John to his side, he said:
|John, I feel that I must tell you something more about certain bad habits that so many boys form while they are young. You remember I told you that smoking and chewing tobacco ruin many a life. Now, I am not going to say that you cannot use tobacco; but I wish that for my sake, as well as for your own, you would let it alone, for it is indeed a very bad habit.|
To this advice John made no reply; for an appetite was being formed, and in his heart he decided to keep right on. It would have been better could his father have remembered the temptations of his own boyhood days. He might then have more fully realized how next to impossible it is for a parent to availingly teach his child to do something without first setting before the child an example that is worthy of imitation. Could he have helped his little son to understand the true meaning of manhood and the necessity of building up within himself in youth a noble, honest, and always-to-be-depended-upon character, as well as the need of developing a strong body, he might have laid a foundation upon which John could have later safely builded.
John dearly loved his father and wanted to please him. And to his mind he could best please his father by as quickly as possible becoming a man. So, with the thought of early manhood ever before him, he felt that, in using tobacco, he was doing right. And then, too, Charley had learned to smoke and chew, and it would be very hard indeed to be near the boys and not to join in with them.
By the time that John had passed his seventh birthday, the small amount of tobacco that was kept in the cellar was not sufficient to fill the demand of the three boys without too rapidly diminishing the uncle's supply, and the boys decided to look elsewhere.
Now, John's aunt had at one time explained to the boys that lying and stealing are wrong; but she had not made it clear that deceiving is lying and that taking little things that did not belong to them, even though they took the things from some member of the family, is stealing, and that just such thefts lead to the greater crimes that send men and women to prison. Instead, she gave the advice in such a way that, though they were impressed with a horror of stealing, the boys could only in part comprehend her meaning. But because she had warned them, she felt that she had done her duty and that they ought to know right from wrong in regard to that matter without further explanation.
She did not realize that it was her duty to watch, encourage, and advise, and also to find out when mischief was being planned. In fact, this aunt and mother, busy with her own cares, knew nothing of the possibilities for a child whose confidence and love had been won, and who, through loving counsel, had gained a knowledge of evils and their effects before he had formed ruinous habits or his mind had been polluted with false ideas. Being thus left to themselves to discern as best they could the difference between right and wrong, the boys nearly always chose the wrong; and as a result, constantly went deeper and deeper into sinful things.