The Smelliest Cigars of Them All

In many ways, the world we live in is a different place from when Vulcan went offshore fifty to sixty years ago. Some of the issues remain, such as energy independence and security. But others, in the U.S. at least, have been banished from the public square. One of those issues is smoking. I duly noted that, at Vulcan’s Centennial celebration in 1952, cigarettes were furnished to the guests, a practice that proved the undoing of three generations of Warringtons.

In terms of Vulcan and smoking, however, the most memorable–if not the deadliest, at least for the smoker–were the cigars of Herman Hasenkampf, who for years handled Vulcan’s account for Woodard-Wight and later as Vulcan’s offshore sales manager. His smoke of choice: Optimo Admiral.

The side of one of Herman Hasenkampf’s cigar boxes, proudly displaying his favourite brand.

Sometimes I think Herman picked the Optimo Admiral because it was the smelliest cigar of them all. It gave off an odour that defies verbal description, especially when you were choking on the smoke. But a large part of the problem was not just how bad it smelled, but how and where he smoked it.

Herman Hasenkampf smoking his favourite Optimo Admiral cigar during the pile installation of the I-10 over the Atchafalaya floodway in 1969.

I think that his wife Stella banished them from the interior of the house. But that was about it: he smoked them everywhere else. In addition to lighting up on outdoor jobsites, confined places were not spared. When we went to Morgan City to visit our customers, we always stayed in the same place: the Holiday Inn Holidome in Houma. They always gave him the same room. Herman was certainly a creature of habit but this was doubtless defensive: no one else wanted the room after he had lit up his Optimo Admiral’s there.

The car was his favourite place to trap people with the cigar smoke. To begin with, years before automotive manufacturers offered them as standard equipment, his vehicles always had tinted windows in the form of a brown film on the interior. The cloth seats got the same treatment. He had plenty of time to enjoy his stogies on the road, because in the 1960’s and 1970’s US 90 was a two-lane road from New Orleans to Houma and Morgan City, frequently slowed down by sugar cane trucks. Herman wasn’t a fast driver, so anyone who went down to the bayou with him was sure to get a good dose of cigar smoke. Whatever clothes you were wearing smelled like Optimo Admiral by the end of the day, as my brother found out after I made one trip and went on to Houston, the odour filled up the closet.

In addition to the cigar smoke, Herman had the delightful habit of chewing on the other end as he regaled his audience with his stories (one of which, at least, has made its way to this site) and depositing the little balls of tobacco. In a company where spitting chewing tobacco on the floor was a firing offence, this evasion was interesting, to say the least.

Some people, however, got their can full of this. One of them was my father, himself a chain smoker of Camels. On one trip to the bayou, they stopped in Raceland at a convenience store for gas. As the car was being filled with gas and Herman was absent, my father went into the store, bought one of those “aerosol bombs” in a can, went back to the car, opened the door, broke the top off of the can, threw the can into the car and closed the door. The can emptied its entire contents in the car. How much of an effect this had on the smell of the interior was hard to say, although with Herman’s persistence the effect was surely temporary.

I am sure that, at some point in the years he was associated with Vulcan, he used a matchbook such as the one of the right (which probably dated to the time around the Centennial) to light up. After decrying capitalists like Vulcan’s founder Henry Warrington (who left Manchester the same year that Friedrich Engels arrived) in the first volume of Das Kapital, Karl Marx noted that the book “…will not bring in enough money to pay for the cigars I smoked up when I was writing it.” Herman’s income as a successful salesman surely paid for his Optimo Admiral stogies, but as it happens it wasn’t the only price to be paid for those “extra claro” cigars.

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