"Could you pass me a match, too, Dave?"
The thermometer reads seventy degrees in January down here in Florida, and I’m quickly running out of my own matches in the breeze of an afternoon on my uncle’s patio. We’re enjoying some of his tobacco from the never-ending tub of Half & Half, which I’m finding quite agreeable for the weather. I offer him some of the Peterson Nutty Cut that I’ve brought down with me for the trip, but he passes on it with a wave, saying, "Not just now; that stuff smells too good. I’ll try some after dinner." And he’s right: the burley and bright Virginia blend we’re smoking is the perfect tobacco for the season, and it amuses me to realize how much of a tobacco snob I’ve become. The light and effortless drugstore blend proves to be an ideal companion to our afternoon chat, allowing for several refills without overdoing it on the nicotine, and burning easily in the mild atmosphere. This trip is a thankful reprieve from the grind of a long Manhattan winter for me; more than that, though, it’s a chance to reconnect with the family history, to listen to our stories, and to find something of my identity and legacy within that.
My Uncle Dave is one of the main inspirations that led me to join the fellowship of the briar. He’s been a pipe smoker since the beginning of time, at least in my accounting of it, and he stands as the archetype of such in my mental images. He is a burley man, and a burly man—not much over five-foot seven, but built like a sturdy wall, with a barrel chest and tattoos of clipper ships and hula girls—a man’s man, by all accounts. Humble, and preferring to smile and not take things too seriously, for he discovered long ago that this is what attracts a good woman, which he found and held onto in my mother’s sister, Katie. He smokes Half & Half mostly, but makes an occasional foray into Carter Hall, Prince Albert, even the odd pouch of Captain Black. He laughs when I ask him which cherry blend he prefers, since it’s indelibly imprinted in my mind as a hallmark of the winter holiday season and the visits to his house. The answer is Middleton’s, and he still keeps some in the cabinet. My aunt calls us in to dinner, though, and my thoughts turn to memories of food.
Winter holiday trips to my uncle’s were something to look forward to: a break from the boredom of home and school, and a chance to gorge myself on the best food of the year for days on end. I’d spend afternoons in front of the TV playing Atari with my cousins, the strong smells of tobacco mingling with the delicious kitchen aromas—particularly the pies, cookies and other sweet, bready baked goods that were a specialty of our clan. Being offered a wooden spoon covered in the batter that would become a cake or pastry filling was a special treat, and was often a reward for good behavior—or at least not actively engaging in any bad behavior for several minutes before the goodies were mixed. I’m sure I had an angel looking over my shoulder, considering the absurd number of raw eggs and dairy products I consumed, but what a blissful experience: to know the texture and taste of each of the flavors from the recipe in their pure form, and then to witness the transformation when they were combined and baked, was a revelation. Likewise with canned goods, of which there were many—we’re of Welsh ancestry, after all, and anything that could be made to fit in a jar often was. The chemistry of binder and protein, sugar and time, when balanced precisely by the experienced hands of my mother, aunt, and grandmother, was nothing short of wizardry to me. Many years later I would remember those holiday baking sessions while taking cooking classes, and was humbled that my precise measurements of ingredients could not equal their casual perfection in the kitchen. I eventually managed at least a small degree of acumen with a stove, and now make it a point to do some sort of cooking or baking at every family get-together.
Through these early experiences, the notion of taste as the refuge of the senses was imprinted deeply on my psyche. It was a delicious chemistry set, in a way, to my analytical young mind. This practical education in the changes effected through bacterial action, fermentation, and transformation by heat and age, has now found its expression in me through my own enjoyment of fine tobaccos—cellaring, tasting, blending, and even writing about them.
After dinner we return to the patio for some more conversation and tobacco, this time of the "good stuff". Dave is delighted to learn I’ve taken up the pipe, and pleased as punch to relate his own history with our noble hobby. Even approaching seventy, he can recall that his first pipe, at age sixteen, was a Missouri Meerschaum corncob, and that he paid a hefty thirty-nine cents for it in 1960—probably a day’s wage for him then. He’d graduated from chewing tobacco to the pipe for the flavor and sophistication of it, and realized that the ladies thought it handsome and refined, which we both agree still holds true. A year later and he was in the Navy, growing his collection with meerschaums from Turkey and wood from ports of call in the Mediterranean. He learned first-hand the differences in briar from Greece or Spain or France or Morocco, and he favored the Italians, a preference I’ve arrived at in my own collecting, coincidentally. I ask him what his favorite pipe was, and he immediately recalls the Kaywoodie that he inherited from his grandfather—a pipe that would have been comparable or even superior to a Dunhill from that era.
"I’ll always remember, it was the day that Kennedy was shot. I was up on the weather deck, smoking that pipe, when we got the call to go to general quarters. Everyone was scared—here we were in the middle of the Mediterranean, a long way from home, and we didn’t know if this was going to turn into a nuclear war or what. So everybody’s running to their battle stations, and I was going below decks through a hatch that was a little tight for me. Well, my pipe was in my shirt pocket, and I got caught on the lip of the hatch—it ripped my pocket open, and I watched the pipe fall down below and break into pieces. I couldn’t even stop to pick it up, though, as I had to haul ass to my station. And then the news went around the ship that the President was killed, and we were even more nervous then—suddenly there was no Commander in Chief; we all liked him, he was a Navy man. But I sure wish I still had that pipe."
The service was a job and a travel ticket for a small-town guy, and he took advantage of it with gusto; it was a life that suited his adventurous spirit. It didn’t suit his first wife quite as well, however, with him being away months at a time, and his marriage didn’t last as long as his stint in the Navy. Back home, he worked for a while in the Lackawanna steel mill, during which time he met and married my aunt. He soon needed a bigger paycheck to support his growing family, though. The 1970s marked the decline of American industry, and the mill was systematically dismantled by its parent company, Bethlehem Steel. The service offered a steady income, and Vietnam was underway, so Dave signed up with the Army Reserve as a combat medic. I can recall from my youth some stories he told, usually when the adults had gotten a bit drunk at holiday festivities. One in particular sticks in my mind, of him seeing a soldier sucked into a helicopter’s rotors… and there not being enough of him left to save. We don’t talk about this now, though, as I can still hear in his voice the scars that are left from that time.
It wasn’t until my twenty-first birthday that I discovered the pleasures of pipe smoking. My girlfriend often commented that she thought of me as being older than my skin, of being from a different time. I’d picked up the cigarette habit in my teens, and was a confirmed smoker, but she was sure I’d look better smoking a pipe—and so gifted me my first and most treasured briar, a Sasieni Ruff Root. She really couldn’t have chosen a better pipe, its baby-blue satin bag revealing what, to me, was (and still is) the epitome of the billiard shape. It fit me perfectly, and felt natural and befitting for a young writer, which was my ambition back then. We went that afternoon to the tobacconist to find something to fill the pipe with, spending a lot of time with a patient old man who seemed amused to help us in our selection. Lifting glass jar after glass jar, reveling in the exotic spices they contained, we finally settled on a sweet aromatic and a lighter, non-aromatic—in retrospect, it was likely a burley blend, for I recall it immediately triggered the scent-memory of baked goods and my uncle’s living room rocker, a chair in which I’d fallen asleep many nights while the adults played cards and drank.
Back then I was out on my own, far away from home and family. I’d tried college for a few years, until I realized that the halls of academia weren’t the ideal place for me to learn. I was possessed of the familial wanderlust, the need to see things, to live everywhere and do everything. The pipe stayed with me after the girlfriend was long gone, and I smoked the hell out of it. I smoked until my tongue was raw leather, convinced that I wasn’t doing it right until I’d extracted a sufficient volume of smoke on each puff to fill an entire room. I enjoyed the flavor and the ritual of the experience, but was always nagged by the thought that if that’s what a real man had to go through to enjoy a pipe, then I was half the man my uncle was. I stuck with it, though, until I learned to slow down and savor my time; the pipe, in turn, has repaid me with innumerable hours of clarity and contemplation. As in Dave’s youth, my peregrinations took me all over the country and halfway around the globe; unlike my uncle, though, my war was not external. I lived in a far different world than he did. A child of détente, I knew no great strife and had the luxury of long years of introspection without responsibility. Thankfully, the closest I ever came to combat was the evening news.
As the twilight draws darker around us and my visit comes to an end, I throw my uncle a curveball, something I imagine young guys have been entreating of their elders since there were fires to gather around: I ask him what he thinks the meaning of life is. He deliberates for a moment and laughs. "If you’re gonna live in this world, try to live the best you can; be good to your friends and neighbors. Nine times out of ten they won’t stab you in the back." It is comforting to look back on one’s journey, and while mine certainly hasn’t been a straight line, I can better see the contour of the course my own path has taken. Perhaps it is the gift and province of pipe smokers to focus our effort of thought on the understanding of time. These trinkets we fill with incense are imbued with our musings, and become talismans of our memories, treasured relics to be preserved as a part of our person. For my part, I know that I’ll always have a tub of Half & Half on hand now, to remember the match that has been passed to me.