“Can you SMOKE in here?”

The burly truck driver was on the bar stool to my right as he directed his question to the bartender, who set a frosty draft beer down in front of him.

“There’s still a little freedom left in the world,” the bartender replied with a chuckle.

It’s a real western-style tavern ­— knotty pine, rodeo art on the walls, and more cowboy hats than baseball caps — located alongside Interstate 80, about a mile from where I live. I wandered in one afternoon when we were new to the neighborhood, and noticed right away that there was something different about the place. Something that brought back memories.

There was that harbor-side bar in Wisconsin, with the huge schooners of Blue Ribbon, and a massive painting of Sea Biscuit by the pool table. I spent a few college-era evenings in that place. Or the rustic place up in one of the towns leading to Yellowstone, with moose and elk heads gazing down on a guy as he quaffed a cold one after a long drive.

It was on my second visit to this bar down the road that I figured out what was bringing back all the memories. It was the smoke. Turns out that while you can’t smoke in most places in the towns and cities around us, this place is out in the county, and a bar can still let customers light up if that’s what they want to do.

“There’s still a little freedom left in the world,” as the bartender said.

Now, I haven’t smoked a cigarette in, oh, let me do some quick math here, roughly 43 years. I haven’t lit up since, and haven’t been tempted. In those ensuing years, I’ve known folks who succumbed to lung cancer, including a relative. So, I don’t advocate smoking in any way, shape or form.

But, still... That bar down the road smells like bars used to smell, when things seemed a lot simpler, and there was no pretense about bars being healthy. It’s like that “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” line from “Apocalypse Now.”

It smells like old times.

“Sounds awful,” my daughter said when I told her about the smoky bar down the road. She’s a creature of her era, a blooming health care professional just like her mom, and wasn’t around when bars smelled like, well, bars.

Newsrooms smelled like smoke when I started out in the business, working across a desk from my editor who smoked, and another reporter, who smoked. That, and the oil-tinged aroma of the clacking UPI teletypes gave the place a smell and a sound all it’s own. These days, newsrooms smell like the waiting room at the dentist, and we’ve clearly lost something gritty and important.

Later, as a non-smoking editor myself, I discovered that my abstention put me at a distinct disadvantage. The press foreman, a friend, was a smoker, and a regular member of the circle of employees ruining their health out on the loading dock. He was always in on the conversation among the smokers. And I noticed that he knew all the office scuttlebutt long before I did.

And there’s this. A downside of being a healthy non smoker for 43 years is the absence of those moments when, involved in some big project or important activity, you would stop for a moment, light up, and take a few minutes to actually think about what you were doing. It was a good thing, made possible by a bad thing. And I’ve never figured out what takes the place of a cigarette for contemplative moments like that. Chewing gum, or crunching healthy carrots, aren’t the same.

I have no intention of starting to smoke again after 43 years. I no longer have to keep up with the office scuttlebutt out on the loading dock. And I just stare into space when I want to take a contemplative break from some project.

But, about twice a month, I enjoy a glass of beer and a nostalgic second-hand smoke at the bar down the road, where “there’s still a little freedom left in the world.”

Dave Simpson can be contacted at davesimpson145@hotmail.com