M uch of what Virginia "Sis" MacIntyre remembers about her days as a student at York Catholic High School is funny. Funny enough to laugh about it more than 40 years later. And she laughs a lot.
Consider, for example, the time she tried out for the school chorus -- she thought she had a nice singing voice. Somehow she was selected.
Then one day, during a practice session, one of the nuns -- Sister Rose -- approached Virginia. She got up really close and pointed a gnarled finger at her. "Virginia," she said, "maybe you could just move your lips."
Sister Rose was serious. She wanted Virginia to lip-synch because her singing voice apparently wasn't as good as Virginia thought it was. The group was going to a singing competition, and Sister Rose clearly didn't want Virginia to ruin it for the entire chorus.
Virginia howled when she told the story again last Thursday evening. And so did everyone within earshot who heard her tell it.
But not all of her high school memories are that funny.
One especially -- her 44-year smoking habit -- is a memory she'd just as soon forget.
The same goes for her three best friends -- Mary Lauer, Alice Brown and one we'll call the Mystery Woman, because even after all these years, her husband, parents and children don't know she smokes, and she doesn't want them to know. She said that, of course, while she was sitting at the table smoking a cigarette.
The group has no official name. Not even a nickname. They're just four women, now all in their mid- to late-50s, who have been best friends since grade school.
Their bonds are many. They all lived in York City -- two near center city and two in Fireside -- and they became hard and fast friends in the Catholic school system. They all graduated together in 1973.
They still recall in detail the color and looks of the dresses each of them wore to various proms and dances. They remember the names of every boyfriend. And they remember when they started to smoke.
They recall with some irritation that York Catholic boys were allowed to smoke without penalty -- senior boys could even smoke on school grounds, they claim -- but the girls could not.
Today, they all wish they'd never started smoking. For one thing, they're all grandmothers -- combined they have 10 children and 15 grandchildren. For another, Alice said, "It's a dirty habit. We don't like the smell of cigarette smoke on us. Everything -- clothing, hair, breath, even our skin -- reeks of smoke."
Virginia's daughter, Lacey, swears her mother told her the reason they started smoking and hanging out beneath a huge tree near the York College campus, was to attract college guys.
"Her best friends peer-pressured her into smoking ... so they could attract male attention from the York College guys. They figured that by smoking they looked college-age, and could get phone numbers or asked out on dates," Lacey said.
But Virginia says that's not true. She doesn't deny hanging out -- mostly with Alice, she said -- under a huge tree near York College. And she doesn't deny having attracted the attention of more than a few college guys over the years.
"But that's not the reason we started smoking," she said. "We started smoking because it's what everyone else did back in the late- '60s and early- '70s, and we thought it was cool."
They don't think it's so cool any more, however.
To set a good example for their grandchildren, they are trying to quit. They started smoking together, and they're hoping to quit smoking together.
I don't know how hard they're trying, though. During the 21/2-hour interview, they all smoked. They smoked a lot, in fact. Virginia said she was in her seventh straight day of abstinence, but at the sight of her first beer, she lit up a cigarette. Then another. And another.
So did they all. Alice still smokes a pack a day -- that's 20 cigarettes -- but not at work and not in her car. That's been her routine for three months, she said. She shrugged her shoulders, "It's a start."
Virginia doesn't smoke at home, she said. But prior to her recent streak, she would sneak them, then suck mints and spray herself with smell-good so her husband, Bruce, wouldn't know. But Bruce is a smart guy. Surely he knew.
Mary still smokes a pack a day, but is trying Chantix, the anti-smoking pill. "If only I can stick with it," she said.
And the Mystery Woman? She says she smokes three packs a week, but not at work and not at home. She might quit. She knows it's the right thing to do -- "My parents would kill me if they knew," she said. But no one would be surprised if she didn't.
We're talking hard-core smokers here. They're thick as thieves; they know each other's deepest and darkest secrets. They also know it's time to give up the ghost on smoking.
They're telling their story now -- except for the Mystery Woman -- because they think it might be a lesson for others. Teenagers especially.
If nothing else, consider the numbers. The four of them combined probably consumed 20 packs of cigarettes a week, at least, except when they were pregnant -- they swear they didn't smoke when they were pregnant.
So 20 packs a week, times 20 cigarettes in each pack. That was 400 cigarettes a week for the four of them. Then 52 weeks in a year, which equals 20,800 cigarettes a year. Times 44 years -- that's 915,200 smokes. And that's probably being conservative.
Cigarettes cost about $6 a pack today. But when the four women started smoking in the late- '60s, they cost about 50 cents a pack or a little less, Virginia said.
So for the sake of easy math, let's use $3 a pack as the average over 44 years. That's about 46,000 packs of cigarettes in their smoking lives at $3 a pack. That comes out to almost $140,000 the four of them might have spent on cigarettes.
Another good reason to quit, I guess.
"If I had one piece of advice for anyone thinking about lighting up a cigarette today," Alice said, "it would be two words -- don't start. I know that's easy advice, and I probably wouldn't have listened if someone had said that to me 44 years ago, but it's good advice."
And these four York Catholic grads should know.
Day 1 and counting.
Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.