Smoking Jack The Piano Man
By Bill Gann
At age 12, Jack Herring was already a champion smoker, and a talented musician. Naturally it’s a good thing that he stuck with music and let smoking go, but the kid really had astounding cigarette skills. In fact, if there had been competition in creative puffing, he’d have been an Olympic contender.
He even invented his own word for cigarettes, calling them “dolas.” Jack was Hawaiian but often people thought he was Mexican. It was this racial mix up that helped him create the term by altering Mexican slang. He had once hung out with a Southgate Latino gang whose jargon for cigarettes was “weedolas.”
The young man knew more smoking tricks than anyone I have ever met. Watching Jack smoke was to see a talented magician give his best show. Among the rest of the boys in our youthful Anaheim crowd, smoking was to show our rebellion while destroying our young lungs. With Jack, the cigarette pack he took from the roll of his tee shirt sleeve was a how he expressed art.
With great flourish he would rhythmically smack a fresh pack of unfiltered Camels against the palm of one of his long slender piano-man hands. This would make a nice sound and get everyone’s attention. Musicians know to start by setting the tempo, as magicians know how to attract the eyes. The beat would also pack the tobacco so tightly as to create a quarter inch of empty paper at the end of each cigarette. This was important for lighting.
With the cellophane and foil seal removed from the pack with great ceremony, he would again smack the opened pack against the palm. This time he would blast four or five cancer sticks in staggered steps out of the pack as if for a magazine advertisement. “Full, rich, tobacco flavor,” could have been written over the display Jack made this way.
Selecting one coffin nail, he would pass it under his nose to savor the aroma. This carefully selected smoke, he would store behind his ear. The mesmerized young people in the audience were then offered their first step to a lifetime of addiction. Some boys declined this honor, but I could never resist.
Lighting his dola with great flourish was next. He could flip open a Zippo lighter with one hand. This little trick is hard to describe and likely a lost art. But for kids who want to try this at home, you put your thumb at the bottom of the lighter and place your pointer and middle fingers on top facing away from you. Jack would look as if he intended to do some sort of cool Kung Fu move at this point, and that’s just what he did.
All eyes were on the entertainer; he would suddenly pop the lighter out of his long musical fingers as if trying to shoot it across the room. Quicker than any of us could see, he would also twist his wrist, and catch the lighter at the same time at the bottom. “Centrifugal force,” Jack, who was the son of a scientist, would explain for those who wanted desperately to learn this trick, “is what causes the lighter to fly open.”
Producing flame was accomplished by the snap of the fingers over the sparking wheel. Pushed off the thumb, the snapping finger traveling downward would move the wheel, spark, and make flame simultaneously with the snapping sound. Magic!
Jack’s Zippo was configured with massive amounts of lighter fluid and an extended wick to produce a blowtorch flame. He would then remove the cigarette from his ear and light it with his hands cuffed and one eye cocked. The little quarter inch of paper created from the packed cigarette would make a nice initial flash of flame at this point. He would extinguish the lighter with a quick wrist jerk that would send little bits of flaming lighter fluid into the air like fairy dust.
Taking a long deep drag, Jack would hold the fag away from his face between two fingers as if he were Humphrey Bogart in a scene from Casablanca. He would let out a little smoke and then do what he called a French inhale by sniffing two plumes of smoke from his mouth up his nose. Then he would pop his jaw and blast out several enormous smoke rings that we would all follow with starry eyes as they floated mystically around the room.
He would then offer to light the cigarettes we forgot we were still holding. This would give him a chance to do yet another lighter trick where he snapped the lighter open on the leg of his Levies in one direction, and sparked the wheel in the other direction as he brought the flame to the devil weed in your young mouth. As Jack passed the lighter around, all faces were lit with wonderment and warm torchlight.
It was because of Jack Herring that I made my first camping trip to the desert and discovered the wonders of the Mojave. When we were 12, Jack invited me along on a family camping trip to Fossil Falls. On the way home from this trip, we made a casual call at Bickel Camp. Walt Bickel was a friend of Jack's father. The old miner and his camp made such a lasting impression that Jack and I returned many times as adults.
Jack's father, Alika Herring, was a scientist and accomplished in many fields. Alika’s genius seems to have been passed down to Jack in music. Jack is an accomplished classical pianist who works today in the music industry. As a young boy, Jack impressed his teachers with extraordinary math and musical talent. Still, the smoking and badass look attracted adult scorn. We were sometimes kicked out of parties or asked to leave music stores upon arrival. This disrespect changed quickly if Jack got a seat at the nearest piano. At 13, Jack could give life to a Chopin etude with even more talent than even his trick smoking.
In those days Jack and I dressed like young hoodlums with our hair slicked back into greasy ducktails. We wore spit-shined French toed shoes, tee shirts and black suede jackets. We cut the belt loops from our Levies, wore them low on our hips, and cuffed the legs in thin bottom folds. We formed a gang in our middleclass Orange County housing track called “The Condors.” We walked like roosters with cigarettes dangling recklessly from your young lips.
This display of teenaged angst was a way pimply-faced kids to got attention back then. Mostly, Jack was a lover of the desert and thanks to his father he became an expert in opals and Native American artifacts. His father taught him to recognize subtle signs of Native People's ancient occupation. He could see house rings and ancient campfire sites where the untrained eye saw nothing unusual.
Jack's mother, Trene who recently passed away, was Hawaiian and his father was the son of missionaries who lived on the islands. He grew up in California but moved to Arizona when his father went to Tucson to work at one of the area's observatories.
Jack is featured in the story, The Condors that can be accessed from this page. Jack and I have been friends now for over fifty years. He still makes beautiful music, but quit smoking years ago. His greasy black hooligan hair has turned grey lately. He greets the day on his concert grand piano every morning at 5 a.m. A wiener dog named “Winnie” looks up adoringly from his lap as the living room of his Anaheim home explodes with melody. Complex chords and notes blend and harmonize and drift around the room like smoke.
Above, Jack is shown as he looked in his teens.
Jack and my son Billy are shown hiking in the El Pasos near Bickel Camp.