Pipe Dreams

Even Bad Things Are Sometimes Good
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I don’t intentionally set out to cause heartache, discontent and angry reader emails but I know it’ll happen this month. However, I remain somewhat unrepentant, mildly defiant and wholly unconvinced I’m the purveyor of dangerous advice.

In today’s sermon we’re going to talk about tobacco in general, cigars and pipes in particular.

I believe this a suitable topic for this corner as many, many shooting and hunting adventures involve tobacco in some format and many shooters, especially those of a certain age, consider a nice bowl of burley or a Churchill cigar an integral part of the experience. If you prefer a cigarette, I understand, but I can’t offer any special insights.

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The Root Of All Evil

First, let’s address the potential angry emails and letters. Yes, I understand smoking is bad for you in many ways, starting off with the “Big C,” cancer. Like most folks, my circle of family and friends has been affected by smoking-related cancer. I also know use of tobacco is not good for your cardiac health, weight control and is implicated in a variety of other health problems. My cardiologist will probably disown me if he happens to read this issue. Cigarettes are the worst due to their frequency of use and deep-draw into the lungs, while chewing and snuff are a close second. Even critics will grudgingly admit pipe and cigar is less so, but then again, “less so” is meaningless if you end up suffering from major health problems or chronic death.

So, gentle reader, I’m in agreement there is no safe or acceptable level of tobacco usage — but I’m still going to occasionally partake in my own vices, so let’s go there. Besides, at my age, I’m playing for smaller stakes …

One side rant: Someone needs to explain to me how tobacco is so universally considered evil and dangerous, but somehow deeply inhaling unfiltered smoke from a “left-handed cigarette” of unknown provenance is fine, even touted as “healthy” and “natural” by many so-called advocates. I can’t smoke a cigar or pipe in public without receiving nasty looks but this weekend at a college football game, I watched plenty of folks walking around with a glazed look as they sucked on foul-smelling hand-rolled smokes. I’m mostly libertarian in this regard, but I do hate hypocrisy and double standards. I suppose nobody under the age of 40 cares what an old white guy thinks anyway, but it still rankles me.

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The Clouds Of Time

Back when I was a kid in the early Mesozoic era — not that long ago — everybody smoked. One of my fondest early memories is my doctor smoking his cherry-scented pipe during office visits. Of course, only a decade or so earlier, television advertising actually touted smoking as a healthful pastime. Doctors, lawyers and housewives all smoked, all the time. Every public gathering place was cloaked in blue clouds of choking smoke and even hospital waiting rooms had a veneer of brown nicotine glaze on the walls. I’m sure there was probably even an old-school surgeon or two who didn’t think a butt in his lips would seriously hinder the procedure so long as he didn’t get ashes on the spleen.

Growing up, I didn’t smoke. Actually I did, but it was usually the result of a fireworks mishap and fast application of a garden hose fixed the problem. However, once I reached the age of majority, one of my closest friends offered me a cigar one day as we were lounging around the range after packing up our shooting gear.

Holding the brown stick, I looked like a freshman being handed one of the aforementioned left-handed smokes. I was curious and a bit anxious but I reasoned all the cool guys I knew smoked cigars and I wanted to be like them. Yes — peer- and social-pressure are still a thing for immature guys of any age.

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Don’t Do It

Like Bill Clinton, I smoked but didn’t inhale. For those who haven’t smoked a cigar, you don’t inhale, ever. If you do, the world starts becoming green-tinted, your stomach begins to climb up your throat and you hear jungle drums in your ears. It’s much like my ill-fated sampling of chewing tobacco — I quickly perceived the cool guys didn’t barf on their shoes so I had to learn the proper ways of ’baccy.

Since those early days in my 20s, I’ve smoked a passel of cigars. Some of them were good, some weren’t so good and some were downright vile. Not surprisingly, price isn’t always an indicator of quality.

In fact, one of the most awkward moments in a man’s life is when someone, with great embellishment and decorum, presents you with an expensive cigar intended to be smoked immediately as a bit of gratitude, honor or comradery. When the stick is great, no worries. However, when it tastes like a burning flophouse mattress doused in old radiator water, it’s hard to maintain a veneer of appreciation. Learning to say convincingly “Wow, I love it! It’s really … interesting” is part of the social skills of any tactical cigar smoker. However, it’s harder than it sounds when you’re in the middle of a violent fit of hurling.

Cigars have been part, good and bad, of my overall shooting experience for a long time. Win a competition? Smoke a cigar! Bag a trophy animal? It’s cigar time! Sitting around a campfire with buddies at sunset, talking about a great day in the field? Light ’em up!
Reloading a few rounds at the end of the day? Um, no. Smoking doesn’t fit every activity, unless you really enjoy emergency visits to the local burn center.

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New Clouds On The Horizon

But now, after decades of cigar enjoyment, I’ve moved on to become a Fellow of the Briar after learning the relaxing ways of pipe smokers.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened but one day I had an impulsive thought, “I remember all the old guys of my youth, tamping and smoking their fragrant pipes. What happened to them?” What happened is they’re all dead — but not necessarily due to pipe tobacco.

I grew more and more intrigued by the idea of doing something so retro and, frankly, even a bit counter-culture. It was the antithesis of modern life, a living anachronism — a state of affairs I could certainly relate to. Not inconsequentially, I also felt like those of us who sported thinning locks of white hair could smoke a pipe and not look overtly ridiculous in the process. I believed I had earned the price of admission.

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It Begins

Thus, after months of internal debate, I set my jaw and marched down to the local smokers emporium — selling “Cigarettes at State Minimum Prices!” — and bought myself an inexpensive Dr. Grabow. From the first bowl I was hooked, even though those initial attempts at keeping the pipe lit left my scorched tongue feeling like a piece of dried-out shoe leather for a few weeks.

There is significantly more flavor involved with a pipe than smoking cigars, and the “room note” can even be considered pleasant to those nearby rather than the stink-fest of old cigar smoke. However, the main attraction for me about smoking a pipe, something I have grown to love even more, is the fact the whole process of setting up a bowl is more of a ritual than a simple act.

Instead of just firing a rolled-up wad of leaves, a pipe demands care and attention to loading, packing, tamping, the false light, more tamping and then a final light. Along the way, you’ll then need a bit more tamping, perhaps some ash management, tamping and one or two more lights. Overall, smoking a pipe is not something you do casually, it’s a much more deliberate experience you must learn to savor — just like hunting with a muzzleloader, refinishing a walnut stock or repairing an old box-lock. It’s something requiring time, experience and focus, a deliberate and slow process you can’t hurry lest it all falls apart.

If only more people understood the appeal. Pipes might not be physically healthy, but as a balm for the psyche, they are superior to many other modern things you can do.

For instance, social media. If you think inhaling burning leaves are bad for you, have you been online lately?

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