Category Archives: St. Louis


A package of unfiltered Luckies

The Lucky Strike package design when Dave started smoking in 1957

It hadn’t occurred to me to smoke when I was in high school; both parents smoked unfiltered cigarettes, but among kids my age, only the thugs, greasers and delinquents did. None of the college bound kids smoked.

It all changed when I got there myself. I was 18 and devoid of social skills when I arrived at Middlebury College in the fall of 1957. Unable to make friends, I sought refuge in the college radio station, WRMC, where I hoped to sharpen my electronics skills and gain some degree of social acceptance. Maybe, I thought, the shared activity might generate some companionship. Besides, there were a couple of girls who worked at the station and maybe I could gather the courage to ask one of them out.

Most people on the radio station smoked. In fact, the American Tobacco Company paid for our United Press teletype service; all we had to do was play their Lucky Strike® commercials on the air. And it gave out little sample packs of five cigarettes each on campuses nationwide, including Middlebury.

In the dorm and at the radio station, the people who smoked seemed relaxed and at ease with each other. They didn’t have problems making friends or asking girls out. I picked up a sample pack of Lucky Strikes and smoked one. Of course, it tasted terrible, but I knew I had to stick with it if I wanted the social benefit that I saw in smoking. After I few days I got used to the taste and told my mother on the phone that I had started. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, “but of course Joe and I have smoked for years. I guess everyone does.”

Later that fall Middlebury’s fraternities held their annual “rush,” in which they looked over the male members of the freshmen class for potential members. Each of the ten fraternities hosted events called smokers on Friday and Saturday evenings which we attended in groups over a period of several weeks. I felt no less awkward and embarrassed at these gatherings than I had before, even with a cigarette in my hand or sticking out of my mouth. And none of the fraternities selected me; instead I wound up in an independent mens club.

I kept smoking unfiltered Luckies throughout college and succeeded in making a few friends; some smoked and some didn’t. Two of them had pipes which required constant reaming and scraping with a special tool they carried. When I tried one it tasted terrible in spite of the pleasant aroma.

Lucky Strike Ad

An ad for Lucky Strikes from the early 1940s

In my first year of graduate school at the University of Vermont in 1961, I met a young woman, a non-smoker, who became my fiancé. Her name was Helene and after our engagement two years later she produced a very funny hand-drawn cartoon showing what I looked like as a smoker. There were spikes of fur coming out of my eyeballs and mouth, ugly spots on my face and hair sticking out in all directions. The inspiration for her sketch had come from the Surgeon General’s first report on the health hazards of smoking issued in January, 1964.

By that time, I had transferred to Princeton to complete my doctorate and very few of the people in the lab where I worked smoked. After six years of what I called real cigarettes—those without filters, I quit cold turkey. I had no trouble, but I joked that if I ever had another cigarette, I would inhale so deeply and with such satisfaction that the smoke would pour out the eyelets where I laced up my shoes.

Helene and I married in 1965 and moved back to Middlebury where I had a teaching job. Our daughter Hanna was born three years later. A year after that, in 1969, we moved to St. Louis, where I took a research appointment, but Helene was not happy. We separated in August 1970 and divorced in May 1971.

Filtered Kents

Kent Golden Lights – Dave’s last cigarettes when he quit on February 28, 1986

The stress was too much; I powered myself through the initial months with Librium and attempted to cover my anxiety and grief with a return to cigarettes. This time I chose filters as less risky than what I had consumed before. I smoked Kent Golden Lights® for 16 years.

In 1985 I took two smoking cessation classes, and in the second one acquired some samples of Nicorette®, the nicotine chewing gum. I worked then for McDonnell Douglas and carried the Nicorette in my brief case every day until February 28, 1986 when the boss decreed that smokers would have to move to a separate part of the office. I dropped my cigarettes into the wastebasket and took out the nicotine gum. I haven’t smoked since. It wasn’t until 1996, 38 years after I started smoking and 10 years after I quit, that second hand smoke began to irritate my eyes.


A lethal mixture

A tempting Christmas punch!

The large punchbowl looked so inviting on the table in the woman’s apartment at the Town and Country Apartments in St. Louis where I had recently moved in 1970 when I was 31. I had separated from my wife at the end of August and had chosen the Town and Country for its proximity to my work at Washington University Medical School just around the corner. I had met a few of the other inhabitants, mostly med school employees and physicians around my age. One of them, a librarian who worked on the main campus, had invited me to a small Christmas party in her apartment.

I was planning to stop by on my way a larger gathering that Saturday, to be held on the top floor of the Olin Residence, a dorm for medical students not far from my apartment. The party in Olin was put on every year by the residents in the Department of Otolaryngology (Ear, Nose and Throat) in which I held a teaching appointment. Everyone from the department was there: faculty, staff and, of course, the residents, who produced a video skit each year.

The punch at the little party in my apartment building had maraschino cherries, pineapple chucks, tangerine wedges and orange slices floating on the top, along with ice cubes. There were other refreshments, too: Christmas cookies and fudge. I hadn’t eaten supper because I knew there’d be lots to eat.

I’m very nervous in social settings where I don’t know most of the people, and in those years I smoked to cover my unease. Besides, I’m no good at small talk, and at parties I head to the food table when my conversational gambits fall flat.

I didn’t really know what was in the Christmas drink. If I had to guess, I’d say canned Hawaiian Punch with ginger ale, pineapple juice and a little sugar mixed in—nothing more. After failing to start up sustainable conversations with the only two people I knew, I went back for a few more cups. I saw no harm; it just tasted sweet. A little while later, I thanked the hostess and headed to the big party at Olin.

Dave Crowley & Don Sessions

Dave Crowley, Ph.D. and Don Sessions, MD, from faculty photos taken in the early 1970s

When I got off the elevator on the top floor, I needed the restroom—no surprise with all that fluid on board. Inside I heard retching sounds from one of the stalls, and one of the residents I had taught staggered out, shaking his head. “Wow, that’s strong stuff in there,” he said, and bent over the sink to rinse his mouth.

I found the bar, and after what I had witnessed in the mens room, decided on a gin and tonic. “Just a little gin,” I said. I took a sip and turned around. On my left was a row of chairs aligned against the windows, and sitting in them were a few resident’s wives, and several faculty couples. Most of my colleagues were a decade or so older than I was, but one, Don Sessions, was about my age. He and his wife Jan had recently moved to St. Louis from Alaska, where he had fulfilled his military obligation at an Air Force Hospital. They were a relaxed young couple, and before separating, my wife and I had enjoyed chatting with them.

To my right, opposite the chairs was the food table with a large punch bowl, but unlike the one at the party in my apartment building, this bowl didn’t contain punch. Instead it was filled with a special dipping sauce prepared by one of our residents, Dr. Frank Lucente, who had boasted of his culinary skills and had promised a special treat for the annual party. Containing unique ingredients, the sauce was intended to complement various crackers, breads, celery sticks and other crudités that he supplied. It was his pièce de résistance and with artful garnishing around the rim, it seemed so attractive that no one dared take the first scoop, lest an ugly divot mar the glistening surface.

I was debating whether to be first to sample Frank’s work of art when the room began to spin around me. I lurched back and forth a couple times and forced my feet with deliberate effort to convey me back to the mens room where I dove into a stall. Like the resident before me, I staggered to the sink afterward to rinse my mouth and wash my face. Then I felt OK.

Back at the bar, I asked for a ginger ale and took a couple of wary sips. No one had yet sullied the surface of Lucente’s dipping sauce. As I walked past it, the room spun again, this time with greater violence than before. My feet gave way and I stuck out my hand to steady myself, plunging it nearly to the elbow in the bowl of Frank’s culinary creation. I looked with horror and lurched in the opposite direction, landing in Don Session’s lap. Thank God it was Don and not one of the senior guys.

How I made it back to the mens room I don’t remember, but when I got there, there was another resident passed out on the floor. I jumped back into the stall and rinsed my mouth afterwards.   The guy on the floor was groaning. Beside me at the next sink was a young Brazilian physician who worked in my lab. He grinned at me and laughed. I looked at him and said, “Erol, I think I’ve had enough. I’ll see you Monday.”

I stumbled back to my apartment, grateful that I didn’t needed to drive. When I saw my hostess from the small party, I didn’t have to ask her what else had been in her wonderful Christmas punch. I already knew.


Woody Allen's imagination a work in Hanna and Her Sisters (1986)

Woody Allen’s imagination at work in Hanna and Her Sisters (1986)

In 2006 I went to an ear specialist to check out the mild deafness and stuffiness in my right ear that had persisted for two months. She looked in my ear and at my hearing test. “Let’s get an MRI,” she said. “With the MRI, we can check out muscles of the Eustachian tube and also see if there might be a small benign tumor on the hearing nerve. Why don’t you come back in two weeks.”

I was scared. I knew about acoustic tumors, to which she was referring. Hadn’t I spent five year researching diagnostics tools for them in the 1970s at Washington University Medical School? These rare tumors are benign, but they grow close to your brain and threaten vital functions like breathing. Surgery to remove them involves a long recovery and can destroy your hearing and balance. Few surgeons, I feared, had enough experience with this delicate surgery to minimize complications.

Now I was frightened. What would happen to the class I had just committed to teach in the evening? Could the university cover for me and let me resume after my convalescence , or would they just find someone else? How could my wife and I handle a lengthy disability? My anxiety deepened and the knot in the pit of my stomach grew tighter. I remembered Hanna and her Sisters in which Woody Allen’s hypochondriac Mickey Sachs undergoes in 1986 the tests I was given in twenty years later, for the same type of tumor. My anxious imaginings were no match for the fictional Mickey’s maniacal forebodings, but I could see myself in a wheel chair condemned to life of poverty, pain and immobility.    I prayed that my scans would be clean just as his were.

Woody Allen's Mickey Sachs undergoes a brain scan.

Woody Allen’s Mickey Sachs undergoes a brain scan.

There was hope: Derald Brackmann in Los Angeles specializes in this surgery and has done almost three thousand cases. I knew Derald from my years in research and, I remembered, he trained at Washington University. I even had a group photo showing both of us in our white lab coats in 1972. Perhaps, I thought, the photo would help me persuade my doctor to refer me to Brackmann rather than to someone in St. Louis with less experience.

My fear rose and fell. I kept busy, but stopped for prayer at least every half-hour: “Please God, don’t let this be a brain tumor,” I implored. As an agnostic, I sounded like a hypocrite to myself, praying, but I had to do something to ward off the tumor. Then I thought of death. Why should I die, or not die, at sixty-eight?

Washington University Otolaryngology faculty in 1972. Wally Berkowitz is second from left in the back row. Dave is send from right int he front row

Washington University Otolaryngology faculty in 1972. Wally Berkowitz is second from left in the back row. Dave is second from right in the front row. (Photo courtesy of Barbara Bohne, Ph.D)

One morning in the shower, the name Wally Berkowitz came into my mind, from nowhere. Derald Brackmann didn’t train in St. Louis. The young physician in the 1972 photo was Berkowitz, not Brackmann. My link to the perfect surgeon for my tumor evaporated

On my return appointment, I waited in the examination room. From next door, I heard muffled conversation. Was my doctor reviewing my MRI with a colleague, trying to figure out how to break the bad news to me? As the conversation continued, the words became clearer. She was advising another patient about a sinus condition.  At last she knocked on the door and came in. “How has your hearing been?” she asked. “About the same,” I said, “and my right ear still feels full.” “We’ll she said, your MRI was normal, with just a few insignificant age-related vascular changes. There’s no tumor.”

Next week: The Robot