Back To Skoal: A Tribute

 
Before cigarettes, there was chew, or “chaw,” as it is known in some parts of the Deep South.

Most of us got our start with chew. It was our archway to the great kingdom of tobacco. In our early pubescence we came to know the wild ecstasies the leaves of North Carolina and Virginia could provide, contained within the perfect circle of a little tin can.

Back then, we all had the same supplier, in the form of Billy Whittaker. Every Monday, Billy walked into the Big B Drug Store on Old Shell Road and stuffed a whole galaxy of chewing tobacco into the front pouch of his red L.L. Bean anorak. He only swiped certain brands. He knew what his customers wanted: Beech Nut Original, Levi-Garrett, Red Man Original, Red Man Golden Blend, and Beech Nut Wintergreen. If you knew the man with the plan he would take care of you. This was back in the early ’90s, mind you, during the glory days of Joe Camel, when stores left tobacco out on the floor so as to encourage stealing among the delinquent. Even so, Whittaker was a very talented thief and never so much as got questioned.

Levi Garrett was the most popular brand for seventh-graders. It was mild, large-leafed, boasted a good, salty flavor, and did not deliver so much nicotine as to make one sick. It also came in a handsome-looking pouch. You felt like a rugged individual when you chewed Levi.

Skoal bandits (either mint or wintergreen flavors) were also popular. They came in little brown pouches and sported the really cool bandit logo on the can. They delivered very little juice so you would really have to work the pouch around in your mouth if you wanted to get the full effect. The more rebellious among us stuffed four or five pouches in at once. It became something of a competition to see how many pouches one could hold. There was also a brand of snuff called Hawken which “tasted like candy” and registered low on the nicotine meter. The logo featured two interlocking pistols and looked pretty cool. But let’s face it, Hawken was for wimps.

As a baseball player, you were around smokeless tobacco constantly. One teammate from Little League (or Dixie Youth League, as it was known in Mobile) used to pack Skoal Wintergreen in a Bubbletape container and bring it to practice. He was the Dixie Youth version of Charlie Sheen’s “Wild Thing” character from the movie Major League. The boy could throw smoke from 46 feet. And everyone knows that a fresh dip on the mound adds roughly five extra mph to an eleven year old’s fastball.

Once you got to JV baseball, the abuse became widespread. Players could get ejected from a game if an ump caught you dipping, though outfielders were usually safe if they wanted to enjoy one in the late innings. And you often needed that dip to get you through a 13-inning game out in the wilds of Bayou La Batre, when it’s 10:30 at night on a Tuesday and the whole town smells like dead fish and you still had that problem set from Algebra 1 to finish.

* * * * *

During high school, a new locker room was built for the varsity teams. The new pad was nice, a shangri-la of a place that was a major upgrade from the old petri dish we used to dress in.  Bigger lockers, for one. And if a high-school bully wanted to lock a middle schooler into one of the lockers, well, at least the victim could breathe and had room to move around for the 47-minute class period.

The new locker room was so nice that it became a hang-out lounge for the hard-core dippers (not unlike the Hookah bars of the Middle Eastern sort). This band of hardballers indugled in Kodiak Wintergreen, the strongest stuff on the market and rumored to be cut with fiberglass and god knows what else. These rebels were so brazen that they quit using cups as repositories and began spitting on our bright-shining linoleum floor. Smokeless tobacco had obliterated their sense of judgment, as well as their gum-lines. They were soon discovered, and two of the trespassers got sentenced to fifteen years of detention. No word on whether they still dip.

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