At the Eagles club, the smoking ban only ruffled a few feathers

The Vashon Eagles were fuming when Washington passed its smoking ban. Two years later, the smoke has cleared and, really, it's not a big deal.
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(U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)

The Vashon Eagles were fuming when Washington passed its smoking ban. Two years later, the smoke has cleared and, really, it's not a big deal.

The smoke used to hang so dense in the wood-paneled interior of the Vashon Island Eagles Lodge Aerie # 3144 that people's faces across the room, friends you'd known for decades, were hard to distinguish through the haze.

"You'd come in and choke," said Holly Divis, a grandmother and on-again, off-again smoker who frequents the lodge.

Regulars would drift in past the pool table swarming with kids, the Twilight Zone pinball machine incessantly dinging away. They'd sidle up to the bar, plant themselves on stools, and smoke non-stop for hour after hour, ripping through piles of pulltabs with names like Magic Lamp and In the Crosshairs and downing drinks from plastic cups. Run out of ciggies? No worries. A tin can on the wood-plank bar labeled "Bar Snacks - $0.25" was stuffed with single smokes for the taking.

"They didn't even have to get up to go smoke, so they wouldn't know how drunk they were," said Terry Beall, a large woman with teased blond hair, sitting at the bar and picking at a plate of fruit crepes with whipped cream. "They'd be falling off their chairs before they realized they'd had enough. I didn't come in here back then."

But the Vashon Eagles loved their cigarettes. Back in '05, back before the ban, they held "Smokers' Rights Nights" and railed against those who would take away their freedom to light up in their own club. When I visited the Vashon Eagles Lodge during the summer before Washington's Initiative 901 passed — banning smoking at all businesses, including restaurants, bars, and private clubs — the air was thick with indignation.

"Why is the government going to dictate how we treat our bodies?" Christine Van Valsem huffed, shaking her head so her thin blond locks flew violently and her glasses threatened to tumble off her nose. "If we want to smoke, that's our personal privilege. Its legal!"

"If you're a waitress at that restaurant and you don't want to be there," the woman sitting beside her chimed in.

"Then don't be there." Christine nodded. "There's enough smoking people who want to work in bars versus those who don't want to. They can pick another occupation."

Most lodge-goers shared their sentiments. This was their club, their home, and like hell was anyone going to march on over from the big city and stomp out their right to do as they pleased. The few Eagles who found the smoke, wafting its way into the back dining area and homing in on their platters of roast chicken and mashed potatoes, at all distasteful said so carefully and conciliatorily, wary of offending their smoking brethren. The Vashon Eagles were inflamed and poised for a battle. They didn't appear ready to quit.

Two years later, the smoking ban is old news and, in much of the state, largely forgotten. Even the smokers huddled outside city bars, puffing away in the cool Seattle drizzle and adding butts to soggy piles strewn along the sidewalks, don't seem to mind. It's not a big deal, they say. It helps us smoke less. And our hair smells better at the end of the night.

Were the Eagles the only remaining resistors, holding up their smoky fort? Were gentry posted at lodge entrances, armed with cartons of Newports, exhaling a thick moat to elude and smoke out those who would try to raid their den of iniquity? I hopped a ferry out to Vashon to find out how Aerie # 3144 had weathered the smoking ban.

The first thing I noticed was the smell: breakfast. The coffee, strong and rich, wafting over to meet me at the door, unimpeded by walls of smoke. The sausage smacked me in the nose next, crisp, crackling, popping off the grill in all its salty goodness and filling the air. In smoke-filled places, even the strongest food scents seem to be fighting their way up from a swamp of ashes. Even formerly smoky places often retain that distinctive seasoning, the walls and carpets sodden with years of sucking in the good old second-hand. Not here. The Vashon Eagles lodge smelled like breakfast-time at the most spic-and-span hometown diner around.

The place seemed brighter, more in-focus, absent the haze. I could see clear across the room to the freshly painted walls, the long tables where people sat eating heaps of pancakes and eggs. No forks in one hand and cigarettes in the other. No ashtrays between every other plate, emptied into a tin can by an ever-busy busboy. Not a cigarette to be seen. I looked up, remembering the cloud of smoke that had hung near the ceiling, tucking itself into murky corners, and found, instead, a flock of flower and butterfly cutouts in purple and pink, scrawled with children's handwriting and strung about as part of a spring fling cancer fund benefit. Clearly, change was in the air.

"You know, really it's a lot better without the smoking," bartender Phil said, sliding a Bloody Mary across the counter to me. "People used to sit here and light up one after another all day long. Some people wouldn't even come in because they couldn't deal with it. Now the smokers just sit out and bullshit next to the fire. It's not a big deal." He gestured toward a new outdoor smoking lounge behind the lodge. It's an idyllic little hideout, a circle of a dozen or so chairs set in a round on a concrete patio overlooking a grassy field. A wood fireplace gives it the cozy allure of a Girl Scout campfire circle, if it weren't for the ashtrays and burly men and women puffing away contentedly.

"We have this nice place to go with a fireplace, we can take our drinks and stay warm while we smoke," said Audrey Bell, a tall grandmother with a brown ponytail pulled tight behind her head. "Everyone's taken care of here."

"It's really the best of both worlds," said smoker Holly Divis, a white-haired woman in a blue cotton pants suit, and Audrey's "co-Grandmother" (the two have six shared grandchildren between them). "I enjoy it better. Now, if I go home and smell like smoke I know it's my own fault." Holly doesn't even smoke in her own home any longer, choosing to step outside so as not to offend visitors with the smell.

"Sometimes, out at other bars, it's kind of like you're an outcast out on the street corner in the rain," Audrey said. "People think smokers are bad, but drunks are bad, too!" The grandmothers erupted in laughter.

Back inside, Kurt Lysen, an island cop who recently quit smoking after 23 years, sat with his teenaged daughter and her friend, picking at the remnants of his breakfast. "It's the will of the people. That's the way government runs. More power to them," he said. He recalled the days when he and his buddies used to sit at the station and smoke during roll call. A few militant non-smokers would try to get them to stop by tossing their ashtrays out, but they'd just fish them out of the trash and go right on smoking. "I remember when you could smoke on planes. I remember smoking in the aisle as I walked through the grocery store and putting it out on the floor when I got to the check-out. Now that seems strange."

"Things change, and people get used to it," Terry Beall said from the bar. "Used to be women weren't allowed to sit at a bar. Folks would be offended if a woman came in and sat down. Used to be no dancing was allowed in the small town of Issaquah. Used to be cocaine was legal and alcohol was not. Change happens. It's all political."

And even the most stalwart smokers have rolled with that change. No, the Vashon Eagles haven't put out their cigarettes for good. They're still puffing away out back, swapping stories around the fire. But they've weathered the ban, and managed to accommodate one another, smoker and non, with a coat of fresh paint, a comfy smokers' den, and a community whose ties go beyond the politics of the moment. This is their home, change happens, and really, it's not a big deal.


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