Used - Not Abused

2nd January, 2004: Posted by glpease in Pipes

This morning, I received a pipe in the post. I’d placed a bid on Ebay, and was fortunate to “win” the pipe, a wonderful old Castello Sea Rock being sold by a delightful woman named Dierdre for her father. It’s a large piece, a G, shape 34 - a beautiful slightly bent Dublin, with a smooth, wavy top, a red pearlized acrylic mouthpice, sporting the once more common “diamond”, indicating the pipe’s destination for US shores. My first reaction upon looking at the pipe was, “My GOD! How could anyone treat such a nice pipe like that?” There was too much cake in the bowl, cracked and chipping, and crawling over the bowl’s edge. The top was coated with hardened carbon and tar, fully occluding the beautiful red-stained wood that graced the pipe when it was new. The stem, while not chewed, did have a couple of toothmarks, and was rather grimy. The overall appearance of the finish was more gray than black.

Looking a little deeper, though, brought a different realization. This pipe was loved. This pipe was smoked and smoked and smoked, and enjoyed fully. The fellow who smoked it cared more for a great smoke than he did for the appearance of his pipe. He bought this Castello, not as any sort of badge, not to position himself as a member of an elite group, but for its excellent smoking characteristics, and smoke it, he did. I imagined the old guy dipping his pipe into his pouch, using his fingers to stuff the bowl with his favorite tobacco, tamping the top with his thumb, and lighting up. I considered the hours of joy this piece of briar and plastic provided him, how they began to be companions. Sometimes, it’s those things that are most familar, most comfortable that get the least attention, and perhaps this is because these are the things that don’t demand it of us. For a moment, I considered leaving the pipe as it was, and just smoking it.

Once, while sitting in Tom Eltang’s workshop, a guy came in with one of Eltang’s high-grades, in a similarly much-smoked condition. I asked Tom if it bothered him to see his creation treated like that. “No! It shows that he really loves this pipe. Every smoker is different, and all that matters is that they enjoy their pipes.” For the first time, I think I deeply understand the wisdom of Tom’s words.

Alas, I am something of a fussy pipester, so smoking it as-is was a fleeting thought. I lavish great care upon my pipes. I polish their stems with a soft cloth. I ream the whenever the slightest hint of irregularity begins to appear in the cake. I carefully wipe the top to keep it free from blackening, and admire the grain and the finish. I love my pipes, too, but it’s a different sort of thing, and I wondered if I was missing out on something. I wondered if the old guy really held the key to enjoying his smokes, while I am too prissy about their appearance to derive the fullest pleasure from my own. This, too, was a fleeting thought, and I set about to restore the pipe to some condition that I would consider smoking.

Setting to work, I reamed the bowl, practically to the walls. I cleaned the shank with dozens of ethanol soaked pipe cleaners. I scrubbed the black off the top, and polished the stem. A soft brush and a little water brought the black back to the wonderfully rusticated surface, leaving glints of red where the pipe had been handled for the years its previous owner had owned it. I was actually a little surprised at how easily the work progressed. The top was free from dings and dents - he had clearly not banged it around. There were very minor toothmarks on the stem. He had loved this pipe, albeit with somewhat less of a gentle touch than I love my pipes, but he had loved it nonetheless.

The cleaning ritual completed, I had no patience to even wait for the alcohol to evaporate. I swabbed out the bowl with paper towls, heated it with a match to hasten the drying process, re-fitted the now shiny and beautiful stem, and filled it with Abingdon. (A full-flavoured tobacco might have the best chance of overwhelming whatever else had been in the bowl. Thankfully, it wasn’t Erinmore…) I’m smoking away as I write this, taking pauses to admire both the shape of this wonderful pipe, and my own handiwork. The ghosts of tobaccos past are, indeed, revealing themselves beneath the smokiness of my own leaf, but rather than be annoyed by these spectres, they serve, however briefly, as a reminder of its past life, of the man who enjoyed this pipe for years before I did. I wish I knew him. I wish I could spend an hour or two chatting with him. If he smokes life with the same gusto with which he smoked this pipe, he must be a hell of a guy.

This Castello is my pipe, now. I’ll no doubt treat it as I treat all my pipes. I shall lavish the same great care upon it, and form a different sort of relationship with it than it had with its previous caretaker. I hope that it finds its new home comforting, in time, and repays me with wonderful smokes, as it clearly has for Dierdre’s dad for so many years. If not, I may just have to smoke the hell out of it, rarely clean it, never ream it, and see how that goes. My suspicion, however, is that pipes are fairly adaptable creatures, and it will quickly come to accept my persnickety ways, just as it learned to accept the more casual companionship of its past life. I’ll probably put a couple of toothmarks in the stem, just deep enough to serve as a sort of dental record that it is my pipe. Above all, out of respect for a man I’ve never met, I’ll enjoy every bowl I smoke in it immensely.