For Love of Briar and Stone: A Fascination with Tobacco Pipes

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My grandfather kept his pipe under the eve of the smokehouse. Standing well over six feet in height, he could easily reach under the edge of the tin roof and retrieve his pipe while out on a jaunt, along with a tall, rounded tin of Prince Albert. He filled it, lit it with a Bic, and stood looking at the old pasture as he puffed.
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I remember the smell. I remember the routine, watching him gently shove the finely shredded tobacco into the bowl with his thumb and even it out with the Parker Jotter pen from the bib of his overalls. I don’t recall why the pipe was kept concealed beside the smokehouse, nor why the spent tins of tobacco were discarded in the disused and rotting rabbit pin on the old farm, but I remember noticing how the pipe seemed to soothe him. It made him contemplative. It was altogether different from his cigarettes, which he sometimes hastily rolled himself but mostly bought and smoked by the carton. The cigarette was a need – it was smoked like that first breath that one inhales after a long, deep dive under water. The pipe, however, was a leisurely walk along the banks of a pond where the cattails thumped against one another in the breeze.

Later, my heroes smoked pipes. James Qwilleran was one. The protagonist of Lillian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who…” series, “Qwill” was a hard-drinking, pipe-smoking, coffee-loving crime reporter. About the time he gave up the pipe and alcohol, however, I lost interest in the books.

Another, and by far the most influential on my pipe-smoking, was of course Sherlock Holmes. As he sat up through the night watching the smoke swirl from his bowl, laboring over some problem or another, so did I, clutching my dog-eared paperback edition of the complete stories. He was partial to “black shag” tobacco smoked in a briar; and never, to my recollection, sported the calabash with which he was so often portrayed. (Indeed, I was grateful that pipes were not omitted from the recent Robert Downy, Jr. series of films, but rather were used liberally throughout as they were in the stories.)

Sherlock. Qwill. My grandfather. Michael, the jovial, bald and bearded local tobacconist who sold me my first pipe – a hardwood – for $10 and threw in an ounce of his “Jeffersonian” blend tobacco so I could see if I liked it. That first bowl, sitting on the brickwork outside my dad’s house in the sideyard, clumsily filling and lighting and relighting the bowl.

Now, a pipesmoker is as essential to the way I identify myself as is my religion and income. I’m a middle-class, protestant, Caucasian pipesmoker.

The drawer in my office at home contains about a half-dozen decent pipes. Each has a story. One I got when I began my first full-time newspaper job, editor of a weekly newspaper north of here. Another when I moved to a staff writer position at a local daily paper. There’s one I bought with the money I was saving to pay my student fees after the university kicked me out because I still didn’t have enough to cover my fees (might as well buy a pipe, right?), and one that was given by a dear friend before I officiated his wedding. My wife has given me two pipes – one for a birthday when we were living in our second apartment, before we built the house, and one for Christmas last year. And I have about two or three others that also were nice but have encountered damage that I cannot repair myself.

I always insist that I’m incredibly easy to find a gift for: no matter the occasion, I would love to have a new pipe.

There is a time in the evening when I wish I could retire to the porch – no matter the weather – and light my pipe. Twilight, just as the sun creeps beyond the razor’s edge of the horizon for the day. Yes, to sit outdoors then and light a pipe, there at my favorite time of day is magical. It lets me recall all the days I couldn’t do that. A prisoner of employment that kept me confined at that hour, in restaurants or retail stores, newsrooms or over my own desk reworking someone else’s writing on deadline.

Even now, however, there’s no chance for that. There’s always something – the kid’s homework or bath, the dirty kitchen or the unprepared dinner, something – that seems to require my attention.

Recently, I joined a group on Facebook – The Gentleman’s Pipe Smoking Society – where members routinely post pictures of their “pipe porn”: tables and shelves overflowing with all manner of pipes in stands, fancy tins and humidifying jars of various tobaccos and more. Massive collections that I must confess, I do envy. But alas, in my life, the time I began to encounter a steady income also coincided with my courtship and marriage, and though I’ve advanced my career and accordingly my income tremendously since she and I began cohabitating almost a decade ago, there still has never seemed to be enough money left at the end of every month to spend on something as frivolous and selfish as a new pipe.

And so the pipes are gifts. They are rare treats that mark milestones, and with that I’m OK. As has been noted at times by members of that Facebook group, you can smoke only one pipe at a time. Recently, my wife found a pipe I had thought lost in a box of old stuff from her desk, and I had the occasion to work on my beloved meerschaum until a bit of pipe cleaner fuzz was finally cleared from the stem. Ah, it’s been like Christmas! Two pipes added to the collection once more.

My wife asks if ever I’ll quit my pipe. I tell her that I will, one day. But then, I also think of the days when the kids are moved out on their own, the house is paid for, the bills more moderate, and hope then that I’ll have the resources to buy myself a pipe every now and then. I look at the Web sites, like pipesandcigars.com, almost weekly. I marvel at the styles, the colors, read the reviews. I have brands that I love – GBD, Comoy’s of London, Chacom – and I treasure those pieces of my modest collection, which also includes its share of Dr. Grabows and basket pipes. I wish I could replace the pipes I’ve lost – the ones that dropped and shattered, the beloved calabash I found broken in two beside my desk after my 5-year-old spent a day in the office watching shows on the computer – but pipes, like friends, come and go in life. I like a straight-stem with a large bowl. I like little rings of nickle around the stem. I badly want a poker pipe – one with a barrel-like bowl and flat bottom that sits on its own. I had one once. It’s one of the friends I’ve lost when it fell from the pocket of my jacket while I was getting something from the trunk of my car. I mourn it still.

I’ve spent more than a little time at my grandfather’s house, peering beneath the eaves of his smokehouse. I don’t remember him throwing his pipe away. I don’t remember it getting broken.

I would love to find it, to put it in the drawer alongside my own.

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