By Jim Dodson
On a cool and misty autumn afternoon not long ago, I found myself taking up a secret pleasure I’d abandoned years ago.
While doing book research for the day in Staunton, Va., the lovely Shenandoah Valley town just off the Great Wagon Road that brought thousands of Scots-Irish to the American South, I turned up my coat’s collar and took a stroll though downtown in search of a cup of tea and a bookshop before hitting the road for home.
On the corner, I spotted an old-fashioned tobacco shop.
Its window display featured a selection of gorgeous, hand-carved pipes with names such as Mastro Geppetto and Savinelli Estate.
Beyond them, two gents sat in comfortable wing chairs, smoking pipes and having a quiet rainy day conversation.
On a lark, I stepped inside.
If Marcel Proust’s main character in Swann’s Way associated the taste of a simple madeleine with childhood, my version might well be a whiff of pipe smoke.
The scent of aromatic pipe smoke, you see, has a similar effect on me, conjuring up nice family memories and not a little amusement at my own youthful vanity.
Walter Dodson, my paternal grandfather, a cabinetmaker whose name I bear, smoked a Dr. Grabow pipe, the inexpensive brand once manufactured in the pretty Carolina mountain town of Sparta. Walter was a man of few words but a rural polymath who could make anything with his hands. He taught me to fish and how to cut a straight line with a handsaw.
Some of my fondest memories of him are of fishing together in a Florida bayou or watching my grandfather work in his carpenter’s shop, his pipe clenched in his teeth, fragrant smoke drifting all around us. Walter was the age I am today — mid 60s — but looked positively ancient to me, and a bit like an old Indian chief. In fact, family lore holds that his mother was a woman of Native American heritage.
I was 10 or 12 years old at the time of these encounters, a bookish kid under the influence of adventure tales in which wise forest wizards and noble Indian chiefs smoked pipes. So it all seemed perfectly natural and wildly romantic to me.
I never worked up the courage to ask my grandfather if I could try a puff of his Grabow pipe, and he never offered.
Ironically, about this same time, heeding the new surgeon general’s warnings about the health hazards of smoking, both my parents ditched their cigarettes, hoping my older brother and I wouldn’t take up the habit.
They needn’t have worried.
Following the prescribed formula for pulling an “all-nighter” for a geology exam my freshman year at college, like an idiot I drank an entire pot of black coffee and smoked half a pack of Camel, my first cigarettes ever. Somewhere around midnight, after throwing up and peeing myself silly, I fell asleep and managed to miss my 8 a.m. exam.
I’ve never touched another cigarette.
That same autumn, however, I drove home on a beautiful October afternoon to surprise my father at his office, hoping we might slip out for nine holes of golf before dark.
I found him sitting in his office reading Markings, a spiritual classic by Dag Hammarskjöld, the Scandinavian diplomat who’d served as the secretary-general of the United Nations.
He was also smoking a handsome wooden pipe.
“Oh no! You’ve discovered my secret pleasure,” he said with a sheepish grin.
Given my recent unhappy run-in with cigarettes, not to mention his own abandoned habit, I was surprised to see him smoking anything.
He explained that pipes were different from cigarettes. For one thing, you didn’t inhale pipe smoke into your lungs but allowed it to circulate in the air around you, “pleasing both the nose and the soul” — one reason, he reckoned, so many writers, poets and philosophers chose to smoke a pipe.
“It was either Charles Darwin or James Barrie who said a pipe stimulates noble thoughts” he said.
“Maybe it was either Santa Claus or Hugh Hefner,” I suggested. “They smoke pipes, too.”
I learned that he’d bought his first pipe in London during the Blitz and brought the habit home with him. “I thought it made me look like an intellectual,” he added with a chuckle. “Truth is, it reminded me of home. Your granddad smoked a pipe. It was pure comfort, a pacifier with smoke and memory.”
I wondered how frequently he smoked his pipes. There were three on his desk. Two looked new, one looked very old.
“Not very often. A dozen times a year, tops. It’s not a habit — more a simple pleasure.”
He laughed, handing me his oldest-looking pipe. It had a cracked stem.
“This one belonged to your grandfather. You can have it, if you wish.”
“Can I smoke it?”
“Better try this one instead. Fits the hand nicely. Not much bite.”
It was a handsome thing, burled briarwood, a simple Italian affair with an elegant long stem. He showed me how to pack and light it and watched me puff away, reminding me not to inhale.
“So what do you think, college boy?” He asked.
I liked it.
He smiled. “We won’t tell your mother.”
That Christmas, though, he gave me a copy of Markings and a gorgeous handmade-Italian pipe that looked like it had been carved from a knot of mahogany.
I loved my new pipe even if my new college girlfriend didn’t.
She was a fellow English lit major, a self-described Marxist who had expensive tastes in footwear. She laughed out loud when she saw me pull out my fancy new Italian pipe and fire it up at a party where the guests were smoking a different kind of pipe and something that smelled like burning shag carpet.
“My God,” she hooted. “You look like an idiot! Next thing you’ll be wearing a corduroy jacket with elbow patches and calling yourself a Republican.” Had I been quicker on my feet, I might have told her that Che Guevara and her personal hero Virginia Woolf both smoked pipes, and that William Wordsworth carried his favorite pipe with him during his famous Lake District rambles. I could just picture the bard sitting on the crumbling wall at Tintern Abbey, dreaming of his lost Lucy as he sent perfect smoke rings into the still summer air.
We broke up a short time later — irreconcilable differences over politics and pipes — at which point I went straight out and bought a second-hand corduroy jacket with elbow patches, hoping I might look like John le Carré on the back cover of his latest espionage thriller.
By the time I was a married father living in a forest of birch and beech trees near the coast of Maine, I owned several handmade pipes, which I typically only smoked when summer vanished and the weather turned.
Our kids, however, always loved watching me smoke my pipe, probably because I could blow smoke rings prettier than either Bilbo Baggins or Gandalf the wizard.
Which may explain why, on that recent misty afternoon in western Virginia, realizing it had been many years since I even held a pipe in my hand, I impulsively bought a cheap Missouri Meerschaum pipe and an ounce of mild tobacco and had a fine time making smoke rings as I hoofed around town.
Back home, I went searching for a box in the basement that contained items from my office desk in Maine and found a few of my favorite pipes from those days, but not my grandfather’s Grabow or even the handsome Italian number my father gave me once upon a time.
They may be waiting somewhere in an unopened box, like artifacts from a carpenter’s workshop or a spy novelist’s corduroy jacket.
Or maybe they simply vanished, like smoke and memory. SP
Contact Jim Dodson at email@example.com.