I was probably eight years old when I saw a demonstration in Sunday School I never forgot. Why the pastor and church leaders thought this would be a good idea is difficult to understand. But, considering that smoking was fourth on the higherarchy of sins after murder, dancing, and buying on Sunday, I guess it makes sense.
It was normal for everyone to meet in the sanctuary before going to our individual Sunday School classes. Each week we heard a greeting from the Sunday School Superintendent, learned who got to have the award banner in their classroom for the highest attendance, and listened to Mrs. Guy play “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
That Sunday was different. There was a man standing near the communion table, in front of the engraved words, “This Do In Remembrance of Me”. I spent many Sundays trying to figure out what that meant. It was a little bit like trying to figure out how God got the money from the offering. I thought it probably disappeared from the safe during the week.
The man standing at the front had a small machine with a cigarette attached to it. He lit the cigarette and made the smoke go through the machine. He explained the evil of smoking and showed how nicotine and tar collected in the tubes of the machine. I was amazed.
The man disconnected one of the tubes clogged with evil, and used a small tool to collect it. He then proved smoking is not only evil, but deadly. He lifted a small white mouse from a cage. He touched the mouth of the squirming rodent with the black goo and the mouse died instantly. He held the dead animal high so everyone could see the cigarette had killed it. I’m sure folks in the room repented of ever having thought of putting a cigarette in their mouth. I know I did.
Mr. Miller was my tenth grade Biology teacher. I really liked him. He seemed friendly and he was funny. He had a full-size skeleton in his class room. A student once put a lighted cigarette in the mouth of the skeleton while Mr. Miller was out of the room. When he walked in, he saw the cigarette and the smoke rolling to the ceiling. He stopped, looked at the skeleton, looked at the class, and smiled.
He told us of a class project we each had to complete. He left the purpose and design of the project totally to us. I immediately thought of the mouse that died from the cigarette.
I don’t remember any of the other students’ projects except for the beautiful cross section of a tree trunk. It was about four inches thick and twenty inches wide. The labelled rings were clearly visible. The wood was covered with polyurethane, leaving a surface as clear as glass.
I didn’t know anything about the contraption I saw seven years earlier. I just knew I had to somehow trap cigarette smoke and collect tar and nicotine.
I asked my mother to take me to the store to buy cigarettes. She didn’t hesitate after I explained my project to her. I bought Camels, Winstons, and L&Ms.
What I built looked like a Rube Goldberg invention. I used a glass capillary tube to connect the cigarette. The glass tube was attached to small rubber hose. A baby nose suction bulb pulled smoke in, which rolled past the bulb into a clear plastic bottle.
I used the fireplace in our basement to conduct my experiments. I hoped the cigarette smoke would go up the chimney and some of it did. My machine puffed on a few cigarettes and the clear bottle turned brown. By the time I used all three packs, the tubes were clogged with tar. I knew my experiment was a success.
Mr. Miller said that if we demonstrated our projects in front of the class our grade would be higher. I was determined to do what I saw in Sunday School.
I talked my mother into buying some white mice for me. I’m still surprised she did it. I took my contraption and the mice to school.
I stood in front of the class and explained how my pile of tubes and bottles worked. I put a cigarette on the capillary and puffed it. I then told the class I would prove nicotine is deadly. I collected some of the tar, picked up a mouse, and touched the black gob to its mouth. Nothing happened. I put more in its mouth. Nothing.
Not only did the white mouse survive, it became the class mascot. It roamed the tables in class at will. Mr. Miller gave me a B-. He said I didn’t use a control, and my hypothesis was wrong.
I thought about the guy in Sunday School. Maybe he squished the mouse when he fed it the nicotine.