It was 1962 and Frank Lato, who was born and raised in Norwalk, was at the Ox Ridge Horse Show in Darien.
He was watching the adults riding open jumpers and he walked up to one of his heroes, David T. Kelly, and asked him if jumping a horse over five-foot fences ever scared him.
First Kelly smiled, then took a drag of his Marlboro cigarette, and said, "Well Frankie, no, not scared. I just get damn concerned sometimes."
Lato, just 12 years old, was impressed by how cool his hero was.
Four years later, Lato himself was competing at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden as an open jumper rider.
A longtime friend from Connecticut approached him as he was waiting his turn to go into the ring and jump his course and congratulated him on making it to the National Horse
"Aren't you scared?" the friend asked Lato.
As Lato took a drag from his Marlboro cigarette, he replied, "No Freddie, not scared. I just get damned concerned sometimes."
Lato, a 1968 Brien McMahon High School graduate, now a resident of Greensboro, N.C., tells this story in his new book, "Tobacco Road: How to Choose Not to Use," to illustrate how powerful someone's influence can be on us, especially since humans tend to be copy cats.
Speaking of influences, Lato was raised on a farm in Norwalk, and grew up around horse shows, rodeos and livestock auctions, where the majority of people, including friends and family, smoked.
From age 16 to age 38, Lato smoked openly in front of his family.
And while he may have been fearless sitting on a 1,200 pound animal facing 14 five-foot high jumps in front of a crowd of 30,000 people in Madison Square Garden, it was something his doctor said during a routine physical at age 36 that really scared him.
"The doctor said I was as healthy as a goat but that I was a damn fool," Lato recalled during a recent phone interview from his North Carolina home.
"I said, `Excuse me? Why?' He said, `Did you think you fooled me because you didn't smoke before you came in for your physical this morning? I hear a wheeze.'
"His words scared me to pieces."
By age 38, Lato had found a way--his way-- to completely stop smoking. (He said he never used the nicotine gum or patches.) Along the way he kept a journal, which was the seed from which his new book sprouted.
"I said to the doctor, `What do I do?' And he said, `quit.' I was in the Marines when I was 19 years old and we weren't allowed to use the word quit. So quit meant finality, and I wasn't ready to have that," Lato said.
"I had decided I was pretty well self-taught in a lot of things anyway, up to and including riding show horses, so I started keeping notes and writing things down in a journal. I saw something on TV one morning--the American Cancer Society said never stop trying. So I took the word quit and put it into gear and told myself `never quit trying.' That's the only way I knew how to use the word quit."
For two years he would write down ideas that came to him and take notes on experiences he had as he tried to stop smoking. For example, one was to take the first cigarette every morning, crush it and throw it out the window. Then he would take a minute to smell the odor on his hand. Suddenly he didn't want to smoke anymore. And then he wouldn't smoke again until two in the afternoon.
"Then I wouldn't smoke for three days," explained Lato. "And after that when I lit a cigarette I got really mad and started to lecture myself. Then I realized that if I made it inconvenient to smoke, like carrying a pack in the trunk of the car, and still made an honest effort to smoke, I realized I didn't want one that bad. There were other things I would try..."
Those other things included starting to fashion his life around people who were heroes that didn't smoke. For him the astronauts were a big deal.
"I thought these guys were heroes and I couldn't picture them lighting up on the way to the moon. And even if they were smokers they chose not to....and I realized this is really a choice," Lato said.
"I didn't know I was writing a book. But I was literally taking notes."
For two years Lato would start and stop smoking again and again.
But on Dec. 7, 1988, at 4:45 in the afternoon, he stopped smoking for good. He described how he was moving into a house he had rented on Candlewood Lake in Danbury for the winter season. He was thinking about the New Year and getting his life in order.
"I was single and enjoying life and I thought, I don't want to do this anymore. I had bummed a Newport from one of the delivery truck drivers and I threw it on the ground and I gave it a kick and I walked inside and I have not touched a cigarette in 22 years."
With his new book, which is divided into 13 chapters, Lato hopes to be a positive influence on people who want to stop smoking. He writes: "I hope to influence you on the idea that you can change your health, looks and self worth. You can add some years to your life if you stop using tobacco just like I did after 22 years....If you can acknowledge that I am a positive person or respect that fact that I did something you view as "hard" to do or nearly impossible to achieve, and if you can see me as a good influence, then I will be able to help you help yourself."
In the book, readers will learn about the people and events that have influenced them to use tobacco; discover that the bad habit is a bad relationship they can resolve; learn how they are anchored to tobacco and triggers that make them return to their habit, consider what "used smoke" is doing to those they love most and figure out how to take control and make a choice.
Lato chuckles when asked if he ever thought he would write a book.
"I envisioned being a land developer, which I am, and a grading contractor, which I am, and riding show horses, which I have done, and I still have horses. But writing a book, no....But it's funny throughout my life people have told me, `You have a way with words. Why aren't you on TV or radio?'" he said.
It was actually some folks he met through the American Cancer Society that made him take writing a book seriously.
When he moved to Greensboro in 1990 he had been smoke-free for two years. He had read an article about how the American Cancer Society was looking for people to help teach how to stop smoking.
He called the ACS and decided to take a class that certified people to teach how to stop smoking.
"It turned out I was the longtime guy in the class-- I had smoked longer than anyone in the room. Plus I had taught myself to stop. I had made a brief 30-second pitch. Immediately three people said, `You need to be on tape or at least have a book,' and that was the beginning of the idea for the book."
He actually started working on the book years later in 2007.
Lato said he loves what he is doing as a result of having his book published. He has embarked on a book tour, which he hopes will land him in his old stomping grounds--Norwalk, Darien, Springfield, Mass., to mention a few. You can be sure when he stops in Norwalk he will visit with Andy Savvidis, owner of Silver Star Diner in Norwalk, who he has been friends with for more than 40 years.
He enjoys meeting people and talking about his journey down tobacco road.
"I really enjoy meeting people at book signings. I love to see Frank Lato 20 years ago in their eyes. I have great appreciation for what they are trying to do and never make light of it. I find it interesting when I see denial--those that say `I can quit, I just don't want to.' I am sensitive to that."
The hardest thing for Lato was changing his routine.
"Smoking was a form of security. But it's false security. It's going to harm you," he said.
"I realized I needed to change my routine if I was going to help myself. I really didn't ever say, `I can't do this and I can't do that.' I realized that I was still human. So if I picked one up here and there, at least I was doing better than before. The hardest part was to realize, I am not a loser, and I'm ok."
Along with the book, there is a mytobaccoroad.com website where people can share their stories and browse through the Tobacco Road store.
There will be travel bags, jackets, journals, pens, mouse pads and even Post-It notes with the words "tobacco road" shadowed on them.
"I literally teach people to have a Post-It note on your mirror or computer screen everyday with your husband's name on it or child's name or pet's name--whatever sparks you to go, `Oh that touches me.' Because you are trying to program the computer between your ears. And you have to keep reminding yourself you're going to be ok."
On his own bathroom mirror, every year starting in January, Lato puts a list of goals for the New Year.
One future goal Lato shared with the Citizen is that he wants to ride competitively again.
"I haven't gone back to showing yet, but I made myself a promise that someday before I am too old I would very much like to get myself one good jumper again and compete at the Springfield Expo Horse Show one more time. I have such fond memories of that place showing there as a kid."
With Lato's drive and determination, it likely won't be long before he's back in the saddle again.
To order "Tobacco Road," visit www.mytobaccoroad.com.