America's smoking community is tonight trying to come to terms with the death of William "Billy" Dark, widely believed to be the last man in the USA, and perhaps beyond, capable of making smoking appear cool, attractive and generally badass.
In an era in which the partaking of tobacco has become taboo, its participants derided, its promoters despised, Billy Dark remained a laconic throwback to a more innocent time, a time when coating the insides of ones lungs with life-threatening quantities of noxious tar was seen as a symbol of the independent spirit, an opportunity for the common man to say "I can be Bogart. I can be the man that all men want to be. And I can do it on a budget."
Known for his ability to strike a match on any available surface, including plastic and rubber, Billy Dark was an icon to America's downtrodden smokers although, typically self-effacing, he never sought to portray himself as anything more than that most extraordinary thing - an ordinary American. Others, such as lifelong friend and admirer Steve Schultz felt otherwise. "Bill was my inspiration. During my frequent moments of weakness when I considered quitting for good just a glance at Bill would be enough to bring me to my senses. Seeing Bill with a smoke was like seeing Hendrix with a guitar. It was almost biblical. You just knew it was meant to be. It was like watching Astaire dance or hearing Sinatra sing. It was like seeing Babe Ruth step up to bat," he says, labouring the point.
Billy Dark's remarkable gift may have remain known to only the members of his smalltown community had not the hand of fate led a poor and starving photographer past Dark's house one fine summer evening. There stood the great man, leaning on a gatepost, silhouetted against the setting sun, casually drawing on his last smoke of the day. The young photographer, struck by the serene beauty of the image and overcome with thoughts of success and visions of food begged Dark permission for a photgraph and, taking pity on the poor wretch, Dark agreed. Thus a monochrome legend was born.
The picture became a poster "Nicotine David" that adorned the walls of countless homes across the United States inspiring a new generation of Americans to boldly explore the future as disease-ridden slaves of the tobacco giants. With fame came enemies, most notably Kurt Kurtz, leader of the extremist anti-smoking pressure group "Breath of Satan" who made a sixteen hundred mile trip to confront Billy Dark in person. However, a mere ten minutes into their meeting, the previously formidable Kurtz was found kneeling at the feet of the embarrassed Dark, a pack of Pall Malls clenched in his fist, pleading with his would-be nemesis to "Show me the way Bill, please, show me the way!" What the media had billed as "The Main Event" ended with Billy Dark triumphant, Kurtz an eighty-a-day wreck and cigarette sales hitting the stratosphere.
Ironically Dark never suffered any of the ill effects associated with longterm smoking and died peacefully in his sleep, aged 74, having enjoyed a lifetime of good health. "Never so much as heard him clear his throat," wheezes Steve Schultz between long gasping breaths from his oxygen bottle. "Never smelled of stale smoke either and I never once saw him desperate for a smoke. Seemed like Bill only lit up when it suited him. Yep, if there's a god of tobacco he sure did smile upon Bill." Gripped by an intense attack of wracking, heaving coughs he slowly recovers and pauses for a moment to consider his farewell words to his late friend.
"Son of a bitch," he says.