The other evening just before sunset, I was watering my little plot in the community garden, when I smelled the rich, burnt odor of pipe tobacco. Without turning around, I knew it was Madison, whose plot is next to mine. Madison is the only pipe smoker I know these days—another example of how much the world has changed during my over three quarters of a century on this planet.
When I was growing up, almost everyone smoked. Smoke hung in the air in movie theaters, teachers’ rooms, lobbies, airplanes, trains, buses, hotel rooms, dance halls, any place where people congregated, apart from church sanctuaries and classrooms (and come to think of it, when I was a graduate assistant teaching in college, my students and I smoked there, too).
My father started smoking about the age of twelve and continued until his death at 66 from oat cell carcinoma—a highly malignant form of lung cancer that occurs only in smokers. One of my most vivid memories is of him sitting in the living room flicking ashes into a huge glass brown ashtray as he drank Blue Ribbon and smoked his Camels, watching The Gillette Friday Night Fights on our black and white Philco, while I sat on the couch, eating my bologna sandwich, aware at some level of being initiated into the male world of razor blades and beer and violence and cigarettes.
My grandfather Lufkin’s cigar was part of him, like his railroad cap, his glasses, and his hearing aid. He never put his cigar down. Wisps of smoke leaking from the corners of his mouth, he’d polish the chrome portholes of one of the Buicks he bought every two years, run a pine board through the table saw in his workshop, and point out tufts of grass I’d missed clipping along the side of the garage.
My first smoke was a cigar—a Phillies Cheroot, whose TV ads featured cowboys and wide-open western prairies before the Marlboro Man galloped into the scenery. I can’t remember who gave me that cigar, but I remember being at the local carnival with Spider and Willie and Goose and Marty–maybe even Pea Soup and Wild Bill–sauntering through the rides and the games and fun houses, looking for girls. As we paused in front of the Giant Swing to light our cigars, I met Susan, who was to become my first love, coming with her friends from the opposite direction.
After Susan and I broke up, I bought a pipe because, along with my pin-striped shirts and chinos with a buckle in the back and dirty bucks, I thought it made me ready for college. I smoked that pipe, filled with a cloyingly sweet tobacco called Rum and Maple, until I filched a pack of Dad’s Camels from the carton he always had in his bedroom closet, and spent one afternoon in front of a mirror imitating the way he smoked—wedging a cigarette into the V between my index and middle fingers, casually raising my hand to his mouth and inhaling slowly, drawing the smoke deep into my lungs, trying to exhale with a satisfied sigh as smoke seared my lungs and tears rolled down my face.
But I got the hang of it, and the next day I bought my own Camels. And after about a week, I was smoking a pack a day, just like Dad.
I was a man.
But cigarettes lost their appeal, when, after four years of two packs a day and summers inhaling smoke as a fire fighter, my lungs could no longer take unfiltered Camels. By then, however, I was hooked and it took another fifteen years of cutting down, switching brands, stopping, starting again, cutting down again before I could throw away what were now called cancer sticks.
I went back to my pipe. Which became my hundred pipes (no, really: I counted them once)—meershams, corn cobs, long-stemmed clay pipes, pipes with special filters, carved pipes with caps, a Sherlock Holmes Calabash—along with pipe racks (some I’d made myself), pipe cleaners, pipe scrapers, pipe sweeteners, tobacco pouches and tobacco jars. I had my own special blend of tobacco, thanks to the Blue Hill Tea & Tobacco Shop, which I may have kept in business.
I used to think my pipe enhanced my teaching persona, along with my suits and vests and ties and matching pocket handkerchiefs, but I wonder now if spending all that time collecting and fiddling with my pipes wasn’t a way to avoid dealing with the disintegration of my first marriage, a way to lose myself in smoke.
After I remarried and moved back to the town in which I’d been raised, I threw away my pipes, started jogging, and mixed granola instead of tobacco. Then, Mary Lee and I bought my grandfather Lufkin’s house. One night, just after we’d moved in, I was in the garage besides my grandfather’s workbench, when I swore I could smell the fragrance of Grampy’s cigar. The next afternoon I walked to the corner store and bought a package of Phillies Cheroots.
The next time Mary Lee and I were visiting her parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I took a walk into Harvard Square and discovered Leavitt and Peirce, a well-known tobacco store. I went in, bought a small Hoyo de Monterrey, and went upstairs to where a couple of men—Harvard professors, I decided—were talking philosophy, playing chess, and smoking big cigars.
For this country boy from Maine, large, expensive hand-rolled cigars became the doorway into a new world of intellectual sophistication. And when, a few years later, a national magazine called Cigar Aficionado accepted my essay “Smoking on the Back Porch,” cigar smoking became the source of my fifteen minutes of fame (John Travolta appeared on the cover; I was—thanks to a two-hour photography session—on the back page), not to mention the source of one of my few substantial paychecks for a piece of writing.
In that Cigar Aficionado piece, I quote Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season.” Cigar smoking, which I thought had been a contemplative practice, eventually started to get in the way of real contemplation, and on my sixtieth birthday, I had my last cigar. And have had no desire to smoke since.
But I still dream about smoking again. And even now, thinking about this habit/practice/hobby/whatever that killed my father (and also my other grandfather, another heavy cigarette smoker), scarred my lungs, and cost me I can’t calculate how many thousands of dollars, I’m filled with warm and fuzzy memories.
I think what may attract me these days to the smell of Madison’s pipe is that smoking reminds me of important transition points in my life—entering adulthood, going to college, becoming a teacher, learning to be a writer—as well as important people, such as my father and grandfathers. All of which and all of whom made me who I am today.
And I’m happy I to be that person.
I’m also happy he no longer smokes.