Exercising their rights (from left to right): Helen Robb, Jeanie Karklin, Dave Pickrell and John Cummings at Denny's.
Exercising their rights (from left to right): Helen Robb, Jeanie Karklin, Dave Pickrell and John Cummings at Denny's.

Live Free and Die

The Rockets were creaming the Denver Nuggets. At halftime Dave Pickrell walked into the hall and lit up a cigarette; five men joined him. It was the day after Christmas 1992, and the first game Pickrell had gone to since the Summit banned smoking. When no one told them to stop, Pickrell figured the new law must not matter.

After the game, he lit a celebratory cigarette on the escalator. As he stepped off, two Houston police officers told him to stop smoking. Ten feet from the door, Pickrell told the officers, "I'm on my way out. No big deal."

Put it out, Pickrell remembers one officer saying. "She took out her nightstick and had every intention of beating the shit out of me," Pickrell says. Reluctantly, he dropped his cigarette and crushed it.

He hasn't been to a game since.

"I've never been so mad," Pickrell says. "I was a raving madman." That night he decided he had to do something to defend his rights: He founded Smokers Fighting Discrimination Inc. Manager of a Kwik Kopy, Pickrell printed personal business cards calling himself the president.

Pickrell's group is composed mainly of older men who don't have the eyesight or energy to do much. And his members are dying from smoking-related diseases. He has lost one to lung cancer, and another had a heart attack. The remaining six meet at Denny's the first Thursday of every month. Pickrell hands out photocopies of newspaper articles and interesting pro-smoking sites he finds on the Web. They talk about the letters they're going to write. It's like an Amnesty International meeting.

Smoking sections are getting smaller, and Pickrell's world is shrinking; there are fewer and fewer places where he as a smoker can go. He can't go to Rockets games. And he's outraged that both Baytown and Bellaire passed ordinances forbidding people to smoke in city parks. Things are so bad for Baytown smokers that they can't even smoke in bowling alleys, bingo halls and some bars. Pickrell's group members write endless letters to the editor and to state representatives. They have solicited signatures at tobacco-sponsored drag races, picketed TV stations demanding unbiased coverage of smokers and spoken at city council meetings. Pickrell has even been arrested fighting for his cause.

"This isn't about smoking," Pickrell says. "It's about me and my rights."

Pickrell believes that people are choking on secondhand smoke. But it's not coming from his beloved cigarettes. Smoke clouds the air, he says, because smoking bans have caused the Bill of Rights to burst into flames. Pickrell votes across-the-board Republican, loves George W. and got his picture in the paper with a group of protesters carrying signs saying Clinton is a rapist. He has smoked a pack and a half a day for as long as he can remember. Some days he smokes more.

He keeps his Doral menthol cigarettes in the front pocket of his shirt. They taste as cool as the green pack they come in. Inhaling feels like pouring minty-fresh Listerine into his lungs. He's sitting in the smoking section at the Denny's on the corner of Loop 610 and T.C. Jester. "Not many smokers here tonight," he says, looking around. He lights his fifth cigarette trying to compensate for the dearth. He sucks the smoke into his lungs and blows it out his nostrils like a tired dragon.

He leans across the table as he talks, blowing waves of smoke at an interviewer, who has already told him that as much as she has always wanted to be a smoker, she's deathly allergic to cigarettes. Still, he holds his cigarette in front of his face at all times and exhales straight at her. He's not what you'd call a considerate smoker.

Every time he lights up, he is exercising the freedom to make his own choices and take risks. This country was founded on people being able to do what they want and have other people leave them alone, Pickrell says. "They want to make freedom illegal," he says about nonsmoking lawmakers. Pickrell feels that his freedom is being stubbed out cigarette by cigarette.

"One thing you hear a lot about is disease prevention," he says. "What they mean is to prevent people from making a free choice." The power to choose is what sets people apart from animals. In the Bible, God told man Timshel, thou mayest: Free will was God's gift. And that freedom was cemented by the Constitution. Pickrell would rather save his freedom than the lives of the 430,700 people who die from smoking each year.

"They prevent smoking-related diseases, but what about America, land of the free?" Pickrell says. "You're not free if everything the government does short-circuits your freedom."

Pickrell knows that smoking can cause lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and a score of other diseases.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he says. "Who doesn't?" The surgeon general's warning is embossed in gold on his smokes. He has read the warning hundreds of times. Smoking is a risk, an adventure. He knows what can happen, but he doesn't know what will happen. Everything that makes living more pleasurable comes with some kind of price, Pickrell says.

"Some things," he says, "are worth living for and dying for."

Pickrell is an almost anorexically thin man with leathery skin and a receding hairline. "Looking at me, you wouldn't know that I eat like a horse," he says, ordering Denny's fried chicken salad. Pickrell has the hacking, insistent cough of a man who has smoked for 35 years.

He exhales, stubs out his cigarette. "That's good stuff," he says. Coughing, he orders another tall glass of water.

The oldest of seven children, Pickrell was born and raised in Noblesville, Indiana, just outside Indianapolis. Pickrell's father was an accountant for a phone company who smoked endless packs of Kents. Emulating his dad, Pickrell bought his first pack of Salems when he was 13. Sitting alone in his room, he lit them one by one taking guppy breaths, never swallowing the smoke into his lungs. The first time he inhaled was by accident. It wasn't a Harlequin romance first-time-their-lips-met magical moment; it was miserable. "I coughed and coughed and coughed and I almost fell off my bike," he says. "After that, I got used to it."

Three weeks later he lit up in front of his parents. They told him to put it out; instead he took another drag. "I'm a smoker now," he said. That was the first time he exercised his smoking rights. He was 13, he was a man, he was old enough to make his own decisions. His father told him to quit, "but he'd come and bum cigarettes off me whenever he ran out," Pickrell says. "He was sending mixed messages."

Pickrell's uncle blames his asthma on the smoking of Pickrell's father and grandfather. "It's not medically possible," Pickrell says. "Passive smoking is a scam."

He says this knowing the Environmental Protection Agency has classified secondhand smoke as a carcinogen; of the 4,000 chemicals in secondhand smoke, 43 cause cancer. Passive smoking causes about 3,000 lung cancer deaths and 37,000 heart disease deaths in nonsmokers each year, according to the American Lung Association. His grandmother lived with a smoker for 60 years, and she died at 103. "So much for secondhand smoke," he says.

After high school, Pickrell climbed into his '67 Cougar and drove to Tulsa. He spotted Laurie Lynn at an apartment complex across the street from his. She was doing her laundry, he was looking for a phone; they started talking, then dating and were married a year later. Laurie doesn't smoke. She had bad childhood asthma, and she didn't like his smoking from the beginning. But he was really nice, and she soon realized that smoking was a part of him; if she wanted to be with him, she was going to have to put up with it. Marriages are made of compromises.

But 20 years later she still wants him to quit. "Like any woman who really loves you and is looking out for your best interest, she's gonna want that," Pickrell says. They don't have kids, they don't have a dog -- he's all she's got; she'd like to keep him around. "I don't want to be a widow at 55," she says. "Eddie Rabbit died of lung cancer, and so did that guy who did the Ernest movies -- they were both in their early fifties, and he's 48."

She holds up his cigarettes and argues that she doesn't want him to die of cancer; she doesn't want to watch him die if he can prevent it. He ignores her. "Living somebody else's idea of my life would be misery," he says. "If there's a price to pay, I'll pay it."

She makes him get chest X-rays every year because she's afraid he'll get emphysema. But so far Pickrell's doctor hasn't seen any damage, and Pickrell has never considered quitting. "Never," his wife says with a sigh. "He'll never quit." She says that when he's buried in his coffin he'll have a cigarette in his hand.

When cigarettes were first banned on airplanes in the late '80s, Pickrell was one of the smokers who sneaked into the lavatory and lit up. The person after him ratted him out to a flight attendant who told Pickrell smoking wasn't allowed. He said he didn't care.

His biggest one-person protest was on a Friday night at West Oaks Mall. Pickrell was having an after-work cigarette and cup of coffee, passing out a few flyers and getting some more signatures. It was July 23, 1994. An officer told Pickrell to put out his cigarette; when he refused, Pickrell claims, the officer tackled him, cuffed him and took him downtown. After that his wife said he had to start protesting more peacefully and legally. The charges were dropped, but she didn't want to bring him bail money again. "No more macho crap," she told him.

That left him with letter-writing and sitting in the smoking section talking to smokers about how much he likes smoking. His first smokers' rights group, started by R.J. Reynolds, floundered and failed. The group divided among itself into cliques. Pickrell can't remember what they argued about; he just remembers that they never agreed.

No one wanted to do anything, and personal business cards get you only so far. He printed flyers and got signatures, but nothing really happened. Then he bought a computer. It was October 1997, and he couldn't afford long-distance phone calls to faraway towns for causes he cared about. In nine months he sent out 25,000 messages and got the e-mail addresses of 700 newspaper editors. His rants, editorials and letters have been published on the op-ed pages of papers such as USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News.

His Web site, the Smoker's Network and Civil Liberties Alliance, has flashing red alerts mapping out where smokers are being persecuted as smoking bans are implemented. There are two mass mailing lists: one to chat, the other to discuss their oppression and people attacking Big Tobacco. For instance, health-conscious hippies in California banned smoking in almost all public places in Los Angeles. All those sandal-wearing, tofu-eating tree huggers took away tobacco. Pickrell has crossed that state off his map of America. "I would avoid it like the plague," he says.

He may lose another state soon. His e-mail is abuzz because people in New York City are trying to adopt Los Angeles laws. This isn't about smoking, Pickrell reiterates. "They want the power to dictate," he says.

Pickrell holds press conferences, but no one ever shows up. Aside from difficulty getting media attention, Pickrell's having trouble getting his followers to unite and work. There are hundreds of letters to write and lobbyists to call. He needs more members, he says. People call and send e-mails asking about joining the group, but they rarely make it to meetings. A zealous leader, Pickrell spends at least three hours a night sitting at his computer, chain-smoking and fighting for his rights. He gets up before the sun both Saturday and Sunday mornings working for his cause. Usually he stops at lunch to exercise (he spends weekend afternoons skating backward and dancing at the roller rink), but sometimes he works all day.

Like the earlier group, each member in this one has his own agenda. John Cummings mourns the world 40 years ago when he could smoke whenever he wanted, wherever he wanted. "In my day, everybody smoked," he says. "Eisenhower was a smoker and Churchill was a smoker; the only nonsmoker was Adolf Hitler." Smoking showed that a man was civilized, strong and sane. It was the time of John Wayne and the Marlboro Man. (But the Duke died of both lung and gastric cancer. And two of the original Marlboro men both got lung cancer and became avid antismoking crusaders before their deaths.) Cummings says his lungs are in fine shape, but his main concern is that smokers are charged more for health insurance.

Another member, Helen Robb, 70, joined with her brother, who has since died of lung cancer. She doesn't believe that smoking caused his death. She thinks the fact that he was overweight, didn't exercise and didn't take vitamins killed him. "I used to worry about him," she says. She doesn't think smoking caused his lung cancer; maybe working in his wood shop without a mask did. She was most outraged when officials banned smoking in shopping malls.

Then there's Kathie Ware, 50, whose father smoked unfiltered Camels and died of lung cancer when he was 48. Ware, director of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, says she didn't mind when smokers were asked to sit on the left side of movie theaters, and she didn't mind when they were shoved into a corner in the back. "When they took my corner away, that upset me," she says. Now she's not supposed to smoke in football stadia, restaurants and many hotels. "I'm scared," she says. Soon there won't be anyplace left to smoke.

In much of Europe, it's still like the old days; smokers light up in planes, trains and rented automobiles. (With the exception of Air France. The airline banned smoking on domestic flights ten years ago; as of November, smoking will be stamped out on North American and Caribbean flights. On transatlantic flights, attendants will hand out nicotine substitutes to distraught smokers.) Europe is the way it used to be, the way it should still be, if you ask Pickrell. Most restaurants don't have smoking sections because the whole place is a smoking section. On-line, Pickrell chats with overseas smokers. But he's not packing his bags. Those countrymen may have the freedom to smoke, but that's where their freedom ends.

"I'll stand and fight for the America I love," he says. "I won't turn my back. Whatever that entails, whatever that means. I'm very much a patriot. I'm very much in love with freedom -- to watch it just evaporate just kills me."

Three weeks ago Pickrell visited his family in Indiana. He has a brother who smokes a pipe, but all the cigarette smokers in his family have died. Their survivors don't own ashtrays. Still, his family didn't make Pickrell smoke outside.

"They know who I am," Pickrell says. He stubbed out his cigarettes on their dinner plates.

For more information, visit www.geocities.com/sfd-usa.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >