William F. Buckley
I was back home after three days at the Mayo Clinic, and I sat with my wife, having decided on an evening of television. To this end we looked in the morning paper and saw the listing for the story of Bette Davis, coming on at 9 p.m. This was appealing, inasmuch as when I was about 15, I fancied my future as Mr. Bette Davis -- though that was a contingent romance, if Betty Hutton would not have me. And it was especially embittering given that Bette married just about everybody else. So I wound up with the mother of the author of "Thank You for Smoking."

In any case, we were seated, and after a flurry of investigations to discover on what TV channel Turner Classic Movies appears in New York (answer: 82) we were staring at her. That lovely head, lips all but closed, smoke filtering out of her mouth, and when the smoke was finally gone, she began to speak in her special way, contemptuous of everybody and everything. What followed (for as long as we stayed with her) were shots dating back to 1930. She was always with a cigarette in her hand, calling to mind the recent movie about Edward R. Murrow, which is one long shot of smoke-filled rooms in which characters occasionally say things -- grim things, mostly -- in between puffs on cigarettes.

The Mayo Clinic is in what I think of as Middle America, though the term has to be used with care. It's easiest to visualize: Get yourself to Minneapolis and then head south for 90 miles, whereafter ... Rochester. There are 100,000 people there; a third of them work for IBM and a third for Mayo. Most people have a story about that remarkable place, myself included. Mine I got from the late David Niven. He was suffering from an odd affliction that seized his voice from time to time. Living in France and Switzerland, he had consulted with a broad band of specialists, but none had come up with a diagnosis. My wife said to him, Why don't you go to Mayo's? He did, and in two days they told him he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, popularly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. That's what it was, and he died of it 18 months later.

I was there in search of a diagnosis for my shortness of breath, and a dozen tests and examinations confirmed that the problem is emphysema and, oh yes, the cause of it was smoking. How long had I smoked? One deals with Mayo as with a confessional, zero temporizing. I smoked cigarettes for 10 years, age 15 to 25. And then cigars, off and on, but steadily for about 10 years, beginning about age 68.

William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr. is editor-at-large of National Review, the prolific author of Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography.

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