Reflections in Smoke
This was originally posted to the alt.smokers.pipes newsgroup. Joel Farr, then editor of the now out of print Pipe Friendly Magazine, picked it up, and published it. This was my first pipe related article in print. Thanks, Joel! Pipe Friendly is gone, but I'm still here, so I present it just 'cause it's my site, and I want to. -glp
Tonight, for old time's sake, I picked up a pouch of Borkum Riff. This was the first tobacco I ever smoked, and something about seeing it on the supermarket shelves got the best of me. It must be 18 years since I've smoked it, and probably close to that many since I thought about it. But there it was, singing to me with a siren's voice, calling me to rekindle some old memories. It worked.
When I was in high school, it was still permissible for teachers to smoke in their offices (it wasn't even that long ago). One of my favorite science teachers routinely and contentedly puffed away on a pipe full of some flavour of Borkum Riff between classes. His fragrant smoke perfumed the air, and some combination of curiosity, admiration for my teacher, and my own peculiar tendency to connect myself somehow to the rituals of the ancient ones (anyone over 50), led me to a single, inevitable conclusion; I would become a pipe smoker.
The process of procuring my first pipe, a Medico full bent sandblast (I had no idea it was sandblasted - I just knew it cost less than the smooth ones) was something of a rite of passage. The experience didn't exactly mark my entry into the mysteries of manhood, but it tested my mettle nearly as much as buying that first package of condoms. There it was, locked safely away in a little glass cabinet. Drat. I'd have to ask for it. I'd have to TALK to someone. What would I tell them? It's for my dad. No. My uncle.
The details beyond this become a bit fuzzy. That's the way rites of passage are, or, at least, the way they should be. If you remember them in too much detail, the mystery is lost. Passage is not a continuum; it is a step. You remember what happens before, you remember the ordeal being over, and you recall, or just know, that something happened in between. I entered the peristyle a petitioner and somehow emerged from the other side an initiate, armed with my new Medico and a pouch of Borkum Riff. If this tobacco was good enough for Mr. Havel, it would be good enough for me.
Though I have fond memories of smoking that pipe in those neophyte days, I freely admit, very few of them were a result of a fine smoke. I was an odd kid - most odd adults start out as odd kids, so this is hardly surprising. I drove an old Austin Healy. I had a strange penchant for wearing tweed jackets and driving caps. And, I smoked a pipe. I did enjoy the affectations... (Perhaps, it is presumptuous to say that I "smoked" a pipe. I did try, but from where I sit today, it's fairly clear I never fully succeeded.)
I never got much flavor out of that pipe. I smoked a host of the tobaccos that I could get at the drugstore, thinking something with more aroma would also taste more like, well, something - anything at all. All I got was hot air, and the occasional stinging feeling I would later learn was something called "tongue bite." I finally was taken under the wing of a knowledgeable tobacconist, but that's another story for another day. This story is about the pouch of Borkum Riff I picked up at the supermarket tonight. Remember?
As supermarket tobaccos go, it really isn't too bad. I don't have much to compare it to these days, as I haven't smoked anything but "real" tobaccos for the past 18 years. It's not devoid of taste, as I thought it to be in earlier years. Perhaps I've learned a bit about smoking a pipe after all. But, shall I compare thee to a bowl of Balkan Sobranie? No chance! And on and on I puff...
Then it hit, suddenly, without warning. The sense of smell is the most intense trigger of memories we have. One whiff of that aroma, one gaze into the hypnotic dance of the sinewy smoke, and I was instantly transported back to high school. As I puffed away, I recalled those days in the science lab, Mr. Havel's pipe smoke quietly creeping in, hinting at the mysteries I would someday know. I remembered Doonsbury, my old Austin Healy. I remembered teachers I hadn't thought about in years, including a few that influenced my life more than I could ever know at the time, and I thanked them silently. I thought about debates and drama, and the innocence of a young life.
Mostly, though, I remembered Julie, my first true love, who tolerated my odd behaviors beyond the limits of most high school girls, and even thought my pipe smoking was kind of cute. And, those lovely foggy days, when we'd lower Doonsbury's "hood," take off the side curtains and drive the hills to her house, bundled up in coat, cap and muffler, enjoying the moistness of the air as it mingled with the aromas of the pipe and that wonderful smell of leather and mildew that only an English roadster can have. I can still tune a pair of SU carburetors in my sleep, and know the valve clearances of that engine as though they were tattooed on the back of my hand. I can still smell Julie's strawberry shampoo, hear her sweet laughter at my foolish jokes, and feel the warmth of her hand in my own.
Many loves, many schools, many cars and many tobaccos have gone the way of Julie and Borkum Riff. How wonderful it is that this little pouch of joyful memories was right there at the supermarket for the small price of $3.49. Education, experience and a few years have brought many new things into my life, and a fine life it is, but nothing can ever replace the wondrous simplicity of youth, even though we are often too naive to realize it until it comes around again in clouds of smoky reflection.
To Julie, Mr. Havel and Doonsbury, good night, wherever you are.