I grew up in a very small town, and my high school was practically microscopic, even in small-town terms. There were approximately 250 students in the entire school, which was an ugly, utilitarian, shed-like building that we often referred to as the blue metal shack in the middle of a cow field. Truth be told, the school wasn’t actually in the middle of a pasture, but there was a dairy farm just across the highway, which earned the school the nickname Cow Pie High.
As you wound up the lonely side road to CPH early in the morning and kept your eyes peeled, you were bound to see an odd sight. Just east of the school between the highway and the fencing that kept the cows of the farm from roaming waywardly, a haze of smoke hovered in the air, not far above the ground: the miasma of the Ditch People.
Since smoking was prohibited on school property and carried heavy penalties, those in need of a nicotine fix would use the moments before the first bell to scamper across the highway, sit in the ditch, enjoy a cigarette or two, and socialize with those of a similar bent. Before school began, they would stamp out their butts, brush themselves off and head to class, slightly damp with dew and smelling of smoke and possibly faintly of manure, depending on which way the wind blew that day. Who ever said smoking isn’t cool?
I often wondered what went through the minds of people passing on the highway who did not know of the Ditch People. Maybe they caused a car accident or two, as drivers turned to stare in wonder at the tops of these ten to 15 heads that loomed in the smoke and morning mist and wondered to whom they belonged. Was this some sort of cult? Was it a band of homeless vagrants? Were these the ghosts of highway car accident victims, trapped forever in an eternal ditch?
Even among those of us who knew of the Ditch People, they became the stuff of legend. It was said that one brave soul was chosen to light the first cigarette each morning, and the rest would have to be lit off one another because open flames in the presence of all that Aqua Net-crisp mall hair was a recipe for disaster. Some people mused about whether the Ditch People would have to quit their habit when smokers’ lungs no longer allowed them to dash across the highway and dodge the high-speed traffic. And when their lung function improved, would they return to the ditch? Other people even said that if you listened carefully, you could sometimes hear the cows from the farm coughing, their lungs ravaged by second-hand smoke, sending them into the early stages of emphysema.
Now I wonder if the Ditch People still exist. Did each class of smokers entice new recruits to enter the ditch? Is another generation of Ditch People there right now, puffing away and turning the heads of unsuspecting motorists?