Thursday, June 5, 2014

June 5: Pipes

It was the year Two Thousand and Four when I ordered my first block of briar.  My cigar aficionado brother was in need of a Christmas present and with a semester of Jr High woodworking class under my belt I decided to go ahead and make him a tool for tobacco incineration.  At its very basic level a pipe is nothing but two holes meeting in the middle, how hard could that be?

It may be a surprise to the reader but growing up I did not have a superfluous number of friends.  I definitely did have a few and what they lacked in quantity they more than made up by in quality but there was a lot of time spent with no friends to interact with in my developing years.  When a child has too much free time and has already read all of his books more than once the Encyclopedia set is a welcome relief.  I spent thousands of hours pouring over fount of knowledge through the years.  I would spread out multiple volumes on the floor as I was cross referencing what I was reading about.  One of the articles that would often catch my eye was the pipe image which showed a block of briar and 5 of the classic shapes.  I would just stare at the different shapes and decide which were my favorite.  The father of the kids across the street smoked a pipe and there was always a massive bag or two of pipe tobacco on the living room bookshelf.  I can still smell the way the Gash house smelt, though I have no idea what blend it was that he smoked out of those prolific plastic bags.

I loved the pipes in the grocery store and loved to see Sherlock Holmes with his gourd or oily clay.  I had no idea how deep the rabbit hole of briar, clay, and meerschaum would take me.

I decided I would carve my father and brother pipes and using the college's machine shop drilled them out and using just hand files and sand paper spent hours shaping my brother's pipe into the shape of a cruiser gas tank and my dad's pipe was a very wizardly churchwarden.  I made myself a nose warmer poker shape with a cool rusticated wrap finish.  It was well before the last of the red briar dust had cleared from our little apartment that I was hooked.  Never having smoked a pipe and really having no idea what made a good pipe great I communicated by e-mail and read a lot of articles, joined forums, and began to dream of pipes.  Luckily I happened to live in Chicago which is home to both Iwan Ries and the Chicagoland Pipe Show.  Both of which are among the finest tobacco institutions in the country.

I was like a child who had 3 garage sale comics going into a comic book store for the first time.  I think one of the unfortunate side effects of the internet is the current crop of children will have much less opportunity to discover how big the world is.  The world is always there in the other end of the screen.  Its complexity and diversity are so easy to access if one looks that I am afraid my children will never have those moments of awe.  The first comic book shop, pipe shop, the first time summiting a mountain.  All of these have a similar feeling of awakening and discover.  If there was any doubt that I was a life long pipe man it was quickly erased when I first entered into the convention center of the Chicago Pipe Show.  So many opportunities, so many tobaccos to sample.  I could finally smell, see and taste all these things which had only been words on a screen before.  Latakia, Perique, and Virginia.  A wonderful journey of discovery.  Like artisan beer the question was, I know what everyone else likes but what do I love?

Why smoke a pipe when a cigar is so much easier?  A pipe you light and enjoy.  A monkey can, and probably has, done it.  Primarily I'm a blend of scottish and dutch heritage.  Both nations have a strong heritage of not spending a penny more than absolutely necessary and $5-$10 a stick is hard for me to swallow, and cheaper than that they tend to be hard for me to smoke.  A $10 tin of tobacco can last more than 20 pipe loads.  Easy call.  Cigars tend to be made from different conditions of 1 variation of tobacco.  The range of pipe flavours and experiences is much wider, even without the nasty flavouring that so many blends have.
I'm exhausted and this is coming out pretty crappy.

The biggest reason I'm a pipe man is the tinkering, the ritual of it.  You can cut & light a cigar and be done with it.  You can put it down and come back and not have to re-light it.  You can do a lot of things with a cigar.  But cigars are like taking a Harley to the dealer and picking parts out of a catalog.  A pipe is like finding an ancient relic and nursing it back to running shape.  If you refurbish an old estate pipe this metaphor holds even more true.  An old bike takes a loving hand and knowing how it operates.  A pipe is very similar, it must be tamped, re-lit, and fiddled with.  A cigar is a one night stand, a pipe is a deep romance.  To each their own.

I did finish those first 2 pipes and they arrived that Christmas.  I made many more pipes after that.  I have found I am a huge fan of English and Balkan blends.  Orientals and Latakias make me happy, though they often have the reverse effect on anyone who is around me while I consume them.  But it was an adventure of discover that opened my eyes to a lot of things.  Especially carving one's own pipes because you can't afford to buy a decent one really helped me to see I could create.  I could fix.  I learned to deal with shortcomings and frustrations.  I learned to rub out delicious Virginia flakes.  I smoked in the national slow smoking competition and did horribly.  I met some wonderful people and miss that community.

But best of all I found something that makes me feel like an old man without having to be one, and that is worth more than any number of words.

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