Printer Friendly

Last gasps from a crusty old admiral.


I had a navy to run. I thoughtI didn't have time to work on my addiction. In fact, I never really realized what an addiction I had develped until it was too late and I was too busy.

We used to laugh when my dadwould smile and say, "Yes, I'd walk ten miles for a Camel,' and we knew he meant it. We grew up during the Great Depression, and we'd sit around the kitchen table watching him roll his cigarettes with tobacco from a large, round can of red Velveeta.

He had a smaller, rectangularcan to take to the field with him for pipe tobacco. But at the kitchen table he would seem to be especially relaxed and happy while preparing his next treat. He would lick tiny cigarette papers to moisten them so they would seal and not lose their lumpy contents. His large, burly fingers would look clumsy handling the flimsy cigarette papers. He would dance a jig to his own lyrics while mimicking dancers of the '30s, holding up the cigarette with its pinched ends as if it were a prized work of art. Later he would mimic President Roosevelt (whom he resembled a great deal) with his cigarette holder. When he went out on very special occasions, he would have a pack of Camels, and thus came his happy boast, "I'd walk a mile for a Camel.' Dad would vouch for that slogan.

During the Hoover and earlyRoosevelt years, rural electrification had not yet hit Iowa farm country. We depended on our squeaking windmill to pump water and on our own muscle power to distribute it to the ever-thirsty livestock and chickens. There wasn't time to smoke while "choring.' Can you imagine smoking while milking a cow? Dad milked by hand. Let me tell you about that. You may not know that when you milk cows, you milk from the right side. Cows don't like to get milked from the left side. I guess there are no left-handed cows. A cow always manages to sleep on the right side, so when you get up and go to milk, you stick your head in the side of a frosty cow. The cow normally manages to get its tail in the muck, and there are these clinkers of frozen mud in its tail, so you sit there with your head in the side of a frosty cow with these frozen clinkers flapping on the side of your face.

One can't roll cigarettes while guidinga plow, either.

The reason my dad and his neighborsweren't dying from lung cancer, heart disease, or emphysema was that even roll-your-own cigarette tobacco was in short supply. I remember when my older sister Dorothy saved up the money she got for cleaning our chicken house to buy dad a brightly decorated gift canister of Velveeta for Christmas and wrapped it proudly. This took many Saturday afternoons of staying home while our parents went to town for their weekly trading, taking the eggs to the grocer and trading them for food staples for the next week. Forfeiting the trip to town and spending the afternoon shoveling chicken manure from the chicken house could net a nickel or a dime for Dorothy's bank, which she kept on the piano in the parlor.

Dad couldn't afford to buyenough cigarettes to develop lung cancer, heart disease, or emphysema. My dad didn't live long enough to die from his addiction, so I was left with only the happiest memories of tobacco use. Dad would pipe dream with his favorite corncob pipe: "If I were suddenly a millionaire I wouldn't tell. I would just go to town in my new Chevrolet with lighted cigarettes and people would wonder how I could afford it,' he'd say. His idea of luxury was to show off with plenty of smokes.

My ideas of smoking prestige camelater when I became a plebe at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. My sister Cory, who had been working in Gov. Bourke Hickenlooper's office, had sent me one of the governor's forms for aspiring naval academy applicants.

I found myself in a newenvironment, and every morning was like Sunday morning on the farm. After the rigors of early-morning rising and unrelenting chores and livestock feeding, academy life was luxurious. The height of leisure was to sit with a cigarette in "Smoke Park,' where plebes (freshmen) couldn't go. You had to earn the right to sit and smoke with the big boys in Smoke Park.

Somewhere at that time smokingbecame such a status symbol to me that I was smoking in Smoke Park with the best of them. We didn't know about lung cancer then, must less about emphysema or heart disease from smoking. We didn't know then that nicotine is a severely addictive substance and that for some, it becomes impossible to drop this wicked lady.

Just about everyone who matteredin my world smoked. Navy's football coach smoked. Our professors smoked. Military heroes smoked. Uncle Sam made sure even the servicemen smoked. Cigarettes for the military during World War II, when they weren't free, were three cents a pack, seven cents a pack. When we were permitted to go on cruise with the real Navy, one of the prize perks was being allowed to buy all the cigarettes we wanted for a few cents a pack. It made going on cruise with the Navy a coverted privilege.

Later, we just graduallysmoked more as pressures mounted. In dangerous waters 30 fathoms deep, where rival Russian subs could be lurking, pressures mounted often. We smoked. When carbonmonoxide levels became too high in the submarines, everyone might have to quit smoking temporarily, but when the air cleared we lit up again.

If smoking on submarines was doublejeopardy, we didn't know it. If submariners would end up more often with lung disease than non-submarine smokers, we didn't know. And probably never would. Who would waste time with such an expensive long-range study? (Do airline stewardesses and pilots who smoke die or suffer more from lung cancer and emphysema? It will take about 20 years or more to learn the answer to that one.)

We were happy. Innocent of ourtime bomb. But the enemy was not the Russian surveillance sub watching us--the enemy was the deadly little white-and-brown weapon in our own hands. But we didn't know we were watching our good men commit suicide slowly--forsaking their posts. If we were forfeiting our country's proud warriors to the enemy, we didn't know it.

Promotion from sub duty to a deskjob at the Pentagon might seem dull. But not if you happen to have responsibility for 140 American submarines all over the world; not when a sub is almost always in trouble, somewhere; not when you are trying to figure out what President Richard Nixon means when he tells our military commanders to instruct our forces to "lean forward in the trenches' as a warning to the Russians, and our submarines are already cheek by jowl with the Russians' anyway. So the hours were long, and the tension levels high, and the cigarette smoke thicker.

I wasn't terribly concerned aboutmy own health. I really never was. We had a navy to run.

We celebrated ship launchings witha few glasses of champagne and many lighted cigarettes. Life was good. Our families were young and we were their heroes when we returned home.

We could beat ouryoung sons at all their sports. We could beat them until, well . . . the boys were the first to notice that I was a little short-winded.

They began to win atmore games. My nagging sister Cory would send packages of Nicoban she would buy in the drugstore. But "quality of life' was more important than having to listen to my sister's admonishments. To protect my quality of life I ignored my sister. I smoked happily and sent my orderlies out for more Marlboros.

When she begged me tocome to Indianapolis to be hypnotized to overcome my smoking habit. I scowled. "We have a navy to run, woman . . . I can't mess with your hypnotist.'

My wife knew shecouldn't nag me. I had a VIP complex. For some reason Admiral Rickover had always picked me for advanced posts, causing my friends and a few relatives to introduce me as "Admiral Rickover's heir apparent.'

The world was my oysterwhen on February 7, 1974, I was made rear admiral and on March 15, 1975, I was asked to take over all the subs in the Mediterranean fleet. We would need to live in Naples, Italy, for a two-year stint. It was the right career move for a man being described as Admiral Rickover's heir apparent. I had just had may yearly physical at Bethesda. The routine report came back just as it had done every year. "Good news, Admiral, you're in great shape. See you next year.' It further explained, "Normal Chest.'

But I wasn't in greatshape, and he wouldn't see me next year, and I wouldn't even be an active naval officer by next summer. A month after this clean bill of health, I turned myself in, so to speak. I went to the Navy physician and said, "If I'm going to be climbing stairs on the submarines, I may have a problem.' The crew always walks faster when an admiral is aboard, and I feared not being able to keep up. How does an officer stop to get his breath when an eager ship's crew is showing off a shipshape submarine?

The time is now early 1975. There'sthat annual physical, but the clean bill of health won't still the small voices. I was a little worried. While in Washington, we had to stay abreast of what was happening out in the field. I remember going up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to look at our submarines up there. It was wintertime, and I had a hard time climbing around those dry docks. You know, when an admiral's out in the field, they paint a spot just ahead of you, so you think the whole world smells like tacky paint. [Fumes of fresh paint bother persons with compromised lung function.] People also tend to walk fast when an admiral is on board, and so you tend to try to keep up. So instead of looking very military, I tended to be out of breath all the time.

Three flights on a sub were windingme, and I told the physician my concerns about going to Naples. Might I get sick during the two-year stint in Italy? Should he check me out further?

He did, and promptly he stampedmy chart UNFIT FOR ACTIVE DUTY. (This was only a few weeks after having passed my physical.)

Inch-high letters on my chart . . .UNFIT! He picked up the phone and called my boss, commanding officer Admiral R.L.J. Long, then and there, and told him that I should be retired from active duty that afternoon. I had serious chronic emphysema, for which there is no cure--just the promise of a slow, suffocating death.

I knew there was no way I couldleave my post that afternoon. "My boss will know that too,' I thought. I had the inflated idea that the Navy couldn't get along without me; you know, many of us have that problem. I went back that afternoon and talked it over with Admiral Long. There was some idea that I might just stay put, where I was. But I felt that was somehow wrong. A guy in what is considered one of the very good jobs in the Pentagon should be a guy who can aspire to going back to the fleet.

I called my wife, my mother, andmy sister, who by then had graduated from medical school and had given up sending me Nicoban.

I flew to Indianapolis to be hypnotizedand gave up smoking. Ninety-five to 98 percent of severe emphysema is caused by smoking 20 pack-years (a pack a day for 20 years), the pulmonary specialists told me. I wondered why this fact isn't impressed upon all young smokers before it is too late, preferably before the addiction begins.

When my wife, Elaine, developedbreast cancer soon thereafter, I was glad to be at home to take care of her. I spent more and more of my time helping her prepare to die, and I really felt it was a pretty worthwhile thing to do. Looking back at my life now, I'm not sure the world is better or worse off because it has nuclear submarines. But I feel I did a fairly good job of leading my wife out of the world in a meaningful way. I tried to make all those days as pleasant as possible.

At Elaine's funeral our childrencouldn't smoke around me, and they wouldn't dare smoke around my sister Cory, so they would excuse themselves and go often to the ladies' room or the men's room in the chapel at Arlington National Cemetery, where funeral services were held. No one was so crass as to ever mention it in my presence, but I knew what they were all thinking: My heavy smoking habit might have contributed to her cancer. I certainly felt heavy guilt about the possibility. A Japanese study had shown a 14 times greater incidence of cancer in women whose husbands smoked than in women whose spouses did not smoke.

What angered me most, I guess,was seeing my own children addicted --unable to give it up--and seeing the company whose devilish wares had robbed me of my health still out displaying its evil weeds in the mouths of healthy, virile young men. "Marlboro' means impotency and death for country men . . . not clean, fresh air in the lungs.

I'm back where I started now,near the farm home in Pella, Iowa. "Gone home to die,' you might say. I have a marvelous bride, Lorraine, the hometown girl who loved me enough to marry me in spite of my chronic, fatal illness. She was the ornery little clarinet player in the Pella Junior High band and the prettiest girl in high school. We double-dated before she married. Her first husband is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, probably because his heart attack was induced from years of smoking plentiful Navy-supplied cigarettes in his overseas military duty.

I have oxygen coming into mylungs 24 hours a day through the plastic tubes inserted in my nostrils. I shouldn't complain. I can afford portable oxygen, so that if I can muster up the energy, I can walk to other parts of the house. My less-fortunate, lower-ranking shipmates who have come down with emphysema can't afford the luxury of a home "wired for oxygen,' so to speak. They are in VA hospitals by the thousands, sometimes confined to their beds with wall oxygen outlets, because at month's end there aren't enough funds for the VA hospitals to supply them with portable oxygen so they can get up to go to the dining room or the bathroom. Chained to their beds, they live out their days in an agony worse than pain . . . air hunger! With strangulation.

Their "quality of life' is gone.

A wife who nagged me to quitsmoking . . . a nagging sister who sent admonishments and quitting aids. You might say naggers destroy the quality of life, but that's nothing compared to my present problem.

I had a marvelous life and career inthe Navy, but I could have had all that without the smoking, and it wouldn't have been cut short at age 47. I could have had all the enjoyment without the cigarettes. I didn't need the "enjoyment' of those cigarettes.

I could have had the stress-packed,action-packed exhilaration of serving on the first nuclear sub, the Nautilis; of building the first nuclear-powered frigate; of commanding nuclear subs and of achieving flag-officer rank in the Navy. I didn't need the cigarettes one bit.

Smokers know about naggers--their wives, their children, their mothers, their sisters, and their lovers. Listen to those who love you and pray to God for strength to fight the addiction. Don't accuse your loved ones of destroying your "quality of life' by having to be around you. Don't call your wife a common scold.

The "quality of life' when thedestruction from smoking catches up is so poor that last week I disconnected my oxygen. "I can't believe that God wants men to live in this agony,' I told Lorraine after she found me and hooked up the lifesaving tubes again.

Smokers, if you can still breathefreely, take a deep breath--a long, beautiful, painless, deep breath--and pray to God for strength to fight your addiction to nicotine.

Nicoban was not worth trying. Itcontained no nicotine fix. Today Nicorette does contain nicotine-- the equivalent nicotine of two cigarettes, enough for a nicotine fix, to satisfy your physically addicted cells while you handle the emotional and psychological dependence. It worked for my children.

A smoker is a fool not to use it.Then pray to God that you will be one of the 40 percent who use it and who are able to overcome their addiction by using it.

Last week I pulled my cord, but todayI have hope again. Just a faint hope, mind you, but enough to keep me alive.

I have hope because next week Iwill have a Micro-Trach inserted by Dr. Henry Heimlich. I will meet him in the Pella Community Hospital, where he and his team will insert a small, plastic indwelling catheter into my trachea. This will permit me to breathe oxygen directly into my lungs instead of through my nostrils. As Dr. Heimlich and his worthy colleagues explain, this will eliminate loss of air in the dead space of the nasopharynx. [See p. 106.]

Some of the oxygen entering mynostrils is lost through my open mouth when I speak or eat. The work of sucking the oxygen down from my nostrils into my lungs is more than my oxygenstarved muscles can accomplish.

I have hope that I can againbreathe enough air to think clearly.

I hope I will have enough strengthto warn all the young Navy and Army men and women and young people everywhere. I want to tell them, "Take time out to fight your addictions before they fell you!'

Photo: Comdr. Gerald E. Synhorst assumed his first fullcommand with the commissioning of the nuclear submarine USS Tullibee in June 1964.

Photo: Rear Adm. Cerald E. (Joe) Synhorst wasretired from the Navy at age 47. His career was abruptly shattered when his cigarette smoking left him with almost no lungs. Smoking causes emphysema, which destroys lung tissue.

Photo: (Left) Joe retreated to hisroom and refused to eat supper the night Pete, his pet pony, died of encephalitis. (Below) This wasn't Marlboro country--farmers had little time to smoke. Joe learned to operate farm equipment with his brother Abe. His forebears had plowed the ground with horses.

Photo: (Left) A plebe (first-year student)at the U.S. Naval Academy might feel socially insecure. Smoking was a status symbol, permitted in "Smoke Park' by midshipmen of sophomore rank or higher. (Below) By the time Joe married Elaine, he and most of his buddies were smoking.

Photo: The USS Swordfish at SubmarineBase in Pearl Harbor. When carbon monoxide (CO) levels rose too high, submariners would be asked to stop smoking until the air could be cleared. One carbonmonoxide accident left a submariner permanently brain damaged and incontinent.

Photo: Lt. "Joe' Synhorst, USN, reactor control officer, tells theJoint Chiefs how the USS Nautilus ballast system works.

Photo: Elaine and their four children, Paul, Barbara, Patty,and John (not shown), waited for the young engineering officer's return from submarine excursions.

Photo: "Joe would have made a great fleet commander,' said his last boss at the Pentagon. Cigarette addiction would end his career prematurely.

Photo: At Keelung, Taiwan, in 1960, Lt. Comdr. "Joe' Synhorst is congratulated on the performance of the Swordfish and its officers by President Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China, President Chiang cruised in the nuclear submarine for 3 1/2 hours, during which time the Swordfish submerged to a depth of 400 feet.

Photo: (Below) Family and friends gathered to welcome a returninghero. Joe removed his nasal cannula to pose. The oxygen tube remains exposed.

Photo: (Below) Joe's son John is an engineer with Texas Instruments in Dallas. When he married Margaret, they honeymooned in Iowa because Joe couldn't travel to the wedding--passengers' smoke makes travel on commercial airlines impossible for severe emphysema patients.

Photo: (Left) The survivors: Lorraine Synhorst was a navalofficer's widow. Her first husband died from a smoking-related illness. Childhood friends, she and Joe married after Elaine's death.

Photo: (Above) When Joe was given an estimatedfive years to live, he worried that his mother would have to see him die. "Joe is looking old,' she observed when he returned to Iowa from the Pentagon.

Photo: (Above) While Joe struggles for everybreath in a hospital bed, remnants of better days hang above the mantel of his den.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Rear Admiral Gerald E. Synhorst relates his smoking habit
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Interview
Date:Nov 1, 1986
Previous Article:Looking out for no. 2.
Next Article:Never get another dog.

Related Articles
Department of Defense news release (March 17, 2004): flag officer announcements.
Department of Defense news release (March 18, 2005): flag officer announcements.
Department of Defense news release (May 4, 2006): flag officer announcements.
Department of Defense news release (Feb. 13, 2008); Flag officer announcements.
Flag officer announcements; Department of Defense news release (March 27, 2008).
Flag officer announcements; Department of Defense news release (April 1, 2008).
Admiral Rosen recognized for Wellness Center work.
Pirates feel the might.
Bangladesh Navy Chief receives guard of honour in New Delhi.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters