It was a beautiful Sunday morning here – as bright and crisp as anyone could wish for on a December morning. I decided to don my sheepskin coat, wool scarf, and fedora to take a walk in the park across the street. I took my small two-pipe and pouch carrier in my pocket, hoping to find a bench in the sun where I could sit down and enjoy a pipe.
There is a bench not far beyond the Arlington Boulevard overpass overlooking a creek there. I had my sights on sitting there as I figured I’d get plenty of sun since it’s out in the open and away from the trees.
As the bench came into view, my heart sank. Someone was sitting there already. I avoid smoking around anyone else, mainly because I hate the predictable dirty looks or lecturing that may come my way when I do.
As I walked closer up the path imagine my surprise when I discovered that the person perched on the bench was smoking a pipe! I couldn’t believe it. This never happens to me.
I picked up my pace a bit. As I approached the bench I could see that the stocking cap and overcoat-clad man in front of me was at least eighty, maybe older. He peered up at me over enormous and thick bifocals with a curious and somewhat suspicious gaze. His eyebrows – resembling two fat, white, and hairy caterpillers – looked like they might scuttle under his cap.
He pulled the old bent Peterson from his lips. “Do I know you?” he inquired, obviously hoping that no affirmative answer would come from me.
“No,” I replied, “I was just out for a walk this morning and hoped to sit down here and smoke my pipe for awhile. I was disappointed when I saw someone here, but now I see you’re a pipe smoker. Would you mind if I joined you? It’s a big bench. It looks like there’s room.”
“Well, you would require a big bench, now, wouldn’t you?” he parried, then resumed lighting and tamping his pipe, swinging his cloudy gray eyes up at me briefly. I thought he might smile, but he didn’t.
“If you’re going to sit, sit,” he said, not quite annoyed, but not warm, either. “I came out here for some peace and quiet and to escape my daughter and her daughter and her daughter. Too many bosses for me. They won’t let me smoke. If they knew I was smoking here, they’d complain.”
I sat down, pulling my pouch from my pocket, then removed my glove.
“They tell me I’m going to die from smoking,” he railed on. “I’m going to die from something. Might as well be smoking. At my age, what difference does it make? Dead is dead. They’d rather I died from something else…” He tapered off, took a long draw and gazed into the distance.
I had no idea what to say. So, I said nothing. I took my Jack Howell bamboo rhodesian from the little leather pipe and tobacco pouch, packed it with Old Dog, extracted my Zippo from its zippered enclave, then commenced lighting up. I couldn’t get to my pants pocket with my coat buttoned up so I stood up to dig out my tamper.
“Leaving?” he chirped, trying not to smile, but his hopeful expression dawned as brightly as an ocean sunrise. I could see loose dentures bobbing down from his gums. He put his old bent Peterson back and pried them up, back into place. A blue stream emerged from the corner where his chapped-lips met. He hadn’t shaved in at least a couple of days. A gray stubble dotted his upper lip like a few solitary cornstalks in a winter field.
“No, just getting my tamper,” I said as I sat down, wondering why I ever thought I was lucky to have encountered this cranky old man who was as devoid of briar-brotherhood spirit as anyone I could imagine.
“I thought it might be fun to talk pipes when I saw you. Or tobaccos, being fellow pipe-smokers.”
“Pipes?” he said in a tone that suggested I might have asked him about the particulars of his bowel rituals. He took his pipe from his mouth, glanced down at it, flicked an ember from a rim with more tar on it than the asphalted path we sat beside, then stuck it back in his mouth, puffed a couple of times, then stared down at his bouncing foot. A khaki cuff wiggled sideways, revealing a knobby ankle clad in bright red socks patterned with cap-clad grinning Santa heads.
“Nice socks,” I said wanly smiling, uncomfortable with the silence.
“My granddaughter gave them to me for Christmas. My daughter told me it would be nice if she saw me wear them today,” he said between puffs. “She’s a nice girl, but I like black socks. These aren’t black socks.”
“No, they’re not,” I agreed. “What kind of pipe are you smoking?” I asked politely, already aware that it was a Peterson.
“Kaywoodie,” he answered, quizzically pausing a moment. He grabbed the old bent from his mouth, turned it upside-down, and let a fine white ash sprinkle, like sooty snow, on the strangely still-green grass. “I’ve had it a long time.”
“Kaywoodie,” I repeated robotically. I put my pipe back in my mouth, took a long draw, then blew a steamy smoke-stream skyward. My glasses fogged briefly. I wondered; was he messing with me? I could see the Peterson logo clear as the blotchy, open-pored nose struggling to support his bifocals.
“I’d have sworn that pipe was a Peterson,” I blurted cheerily, wondering what response my observation might prompt.
“Ahhhh, yes. Right. Yes, Peterson, Kaywoodie, they’re all the same,” he declared, the faint traces of some Southern accent betrayed by his squeezing two syllables into the word “all.”
“What tobacco are you smoking?” I asked, trying to keep the sputtering conversation from stalling out.
“Not sure,” he answered. “I can’t recall. Could be Half and Half. Could be Prince Albert. I can’t taste the difference any more.”
“I’m smoking Old Dog in a Jack Howell,” I volunteered. “I love this tobacco, especially at this time of year. The taste reminds me of Autumn and falling leaves.”
“Smells more like Wet Dog to me.” His face broke open. He actually smiled. It was a big smile with the perfectly even teeth one sees in dentures, albeit stained yellow and brown from smoking his pipes.
As chilly as our conversation had been, that smile felt warmed by the morning sun above. I’m used to my friends giving me a hard time. Having a stranger do it was going to take some getting used to.
“When you think about it, who wants to smoke an old dog?” I replied. The strangeness of the blend’s name suddenly dawned on me. I felt embarrassed about my enthusiasm for it. I love it. Why did I feel I shouldn’t? I’d always been fond of the name. Now I was unsure.
We sat there smoking. The silence hung on me like a wet coat.
“My name is Neill,” I announced as I pulled the right glove from my hand and thrust it towards him. He glanced down, inspecting my hand as if someone had thrust a feral cat in his direction.
“Stanley,” he said, keeping his right-hand fingers firmy wrapped around the bowl of his pipe, his left hand thrust under his right armpit. “Stan-ley,” he repeated, as if I might be slow.”
I awkwardly withdrew my hand, each of us watching it retract like a doddering turtle’s head into its shell.
“Arth-a-ritis,” he volunteered. “I don’t shake hands anymore. It hurts.”
I could see that he was embarrassed, that my simple, unawares act of introducing myself in a ritual as old as manhood, itself, had unnerved him. I slowly slid my hand back into the warm recesses of my cashmere-lined glove, feeling like I should have known better, but didn’t.
“Neill,” he repeated. “That’s an unusual name. Whyever did your mother do that to you?”
“Who knows?” I said. “I suppose she thought it was a good start. I might have been named after my two grandfathers. When I think that I might have been named Floyd Roy or Roy Floyd, I’m plenty happy with Neill. If I had been named Floyd Roy Roan, I’d have been facing a life as a moonshiner, a bank-robber, or playing steel guitar in a country-western band.”
Naming is destiny, I thought. The great Lakota shaman, Black Elk, said, “True wisdom is knowing the real name of things.” Floyd Roy had a definite five-mongrels-under-the-front-porch ring to it.
“I was named after my father who was named after his father,” Stanley stated. “As the oldest boy, my name was decided before my father ever met my mother. That’s how things were in my day.”
“How long have you smoked a pipe, Stanley?” I queried. I tried to recall if I’d ever met an older pipe smoker than Stanley seemed to be. I couldn’t remember one.
“I was born in 1922,” he replied, stretching his neck down; his neck popped like a loud finger knuckle. “1940. Summer. My cousin gave me his pipe when he joined the Merchant Marine. Seventy-two, almost seventy-three years. Smoking will kill you, you know,” he cackled. “Someday it will kill me, I’m sure.”
Our conversation proceeded much along the same lines for another hour or so. I smoked another bowl while I asked him questions and listened to his quirky and occasional abrupt responses. I’d never had a chance to ask what it was like to be a pipe smoker during what we now think of as pipe-smoking’s Golden Era.
Although I was surprised at some of his responses, as I try to reconstruct the conversation for you now, I suppose I shouldn’t have been. In hindsight, they make more sense than I might have known.
It became apparent to me that nostalgia has me fully in its clutches. Like so many, I yearn for a time that never really was - one that I constructed in my imagination.
I sit here now, convinced that it is I who am the lucky one. I am living in the pipe’s real Golden Era when there is a kind of connoisseurship that may have been mostly absent in earlier days.
Here are a few choice snippets from our conversation. With Stanley’s begrudging consent, I recorded most of them on my iPhone. They are transcribed here in bits and pieces. I hope you enjoy them.
“We didn’t think too much about particular pipes or tobaccos like you do now. We’d just buy what we liked, pack our pipes, and enjoy a smoke. We enjoyed relaxing for awhile.”
“Everybody smoked then. Where I worked, nobody ever said anything about smoking. We didn’t take breaks to smoke. We smoked while we worked. Nobody complained. We all smoked. Who’d complain?”
“The girls worked up front. Only men worked in back. The girls smoked cigarettes and so did we…Nobody smoked cigars at work. It would have been ill-mannered.”
“You seem to think there were many pipe smokers then. It wasn’t like that. It wasn’t like that. There was just two other fellas at work who smoked pipes. People smoked cigarettes. You’re the first pipe smoker I’ve met in quite awhile. The fellas I knew…my friends…who smoked pipes are all gone. Everybody’s gone now.”
“Sure, we had favorite pipes, but in those days it seemed like there wasn’t all that much difference between one pipe and another. I liked all my pipes. If I got hold of a pipe I didn’t like, I just threw it away. Fellas didn’t sell pipes in those days, like you say they do now. I liked all my pipes. Some better than others, but that’s true for everything. Shoes. Shirts. Everything.”
“I was a working man. Three girls. A wife. I had a good job, but there was never enough money. I never owned fancy pipes. I bought my pipes and tobacco at a newsstand.”
“My pipes all looked alike. Bent pipes. Nothing else. I smoked while I worked and didn’t think about whether it was a good smoke or a bad smoke. It was just a smoke….only time I ever noticed a bad smoke was when I’d suck juice in. Damn inconvenient. It was damn inconvenient. I’d have to go to the toilet to spit. You didn’t spit in front of people or let them see you do that. We were proper. I’d stop smoking for awhile when that happened….never occurred to me I had a bad pipe. All my pipes did that.”
“Yes, I remember Balkan Sobranie. I remember it. I didn’t like it much. There was a fella at the lodge who smoked it. He smoked Sobranie cigarettes, too. People complained about the smell. This never happened to me. When I’d smoke the last from my pouch, he’d give…Ralph, his name was Ralph. I smoked Half and Half. Smoked Velvet. Prince Albert. That lodge fella…Ralph…he smoked Sobranie. One time I forgot my tobacco and I smoked Sobranie with Ralph that night. We played cards.”