Why I Smoke a Pipe

Phil Webb

This lovely article was originally posted on ASP by Phil Webb. I was so moved by it, that I asked Phil if I could publish it on my site, and he gracioiusly agreed. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! -glp

I suppose the "Why" of pipe smoking should first be preceded by the "How" of why I smoke a pipe.

I got started in 1996. I had been a tobacco "chewer". I would go through about 2 bags of Beech-Nut Wintergreen Chew per day. After several years of this, my wife "encouraged" me to quit chewing with several admonitions usually containing the words "nasty, filthy, stinky" and/or "disgusting". At one point she suggested I take up pipe smoking as an alternative.

Some months later I was on a solo trip to Wal-Mart for some trinket or another and realized I had ten extra dollars with me. "Just for giggles" I thought, "why don't I find out how much a pipe would cost?" Lo and behold, there was a small, bent Dr. Grabow pipe, in all its lustrous blister-packed glory, and it was a measly $6.98. A small package of some generic Vanilla Cavendish (promising to smoke coolly, gently and flavorfully) was another $1.99 and for a paltry eight dollars and ninety-seven cents, I was on my way.

One Grabow gave way to another, and then another, and then I discovered my local tobacconist. Upon arriving there, I saw laid out before me a collection of pipes and tobacciana that gave rise to several things. Firstly, at that moment I realized that "it had to be better". Obviously, if pipe smoking hurt so bad, no one would pay "X hundred" dollars for a pipe. If there wasn't a demand for more and better flavors of tobacco, there wouldn't be 30-odd flavors laid out here and there was then hope that I wouldn't be condemned to forever smoking combinations of black, vanilla, cherry or whiskey cavendish, none of which I liked and none of the possible combinations seemed to offer much hope.

It was also at that moment I stepped from being a strict neophyte to being a "professional amateur". It was at that moment I determined to become better. A better pipe smoker for sure, but by extension a better person.

I have no appreciable history of pipe smoking in my family. Neither my mother nor my father is, (or was) a smoker of any kind, save a very brief period where for some few months my father smoked a pipe. The only evidence of this is a short section of home movie that shows my father walking out the back door of a house with an apparently unlit, straight billiard pipe in his mouth. I would have been less than one year old. None of my grandparents smoke, although my maternal grandfather quit smoking cigarettes sometime in the early 1940's.

So there is the history, so now, why? Why do I smoke a pipe when all the evidence would seem to be against me? When "The Research" says I am facing an eminent and horrible demise? When at the very least, it is Un-Cool (being as I am at the age where I am told in order to succeed I must fit in as I am too old to be "eager" and too young to be "experienced").

I smoke a pipe because it brings out something good in me. Pipe smokers are looked on as generally kind and benevolent. Grandfatherly if you will. I have found this to be quite true. I have yet to meet a pipe smoker who is arrogant or full of himself. I have yet to meet the pipe smoker who knows all there is to know about smoking a pipe. I have yet to meet the pipe smoker who is unwilling to help out with gentle instruction and encouragement when asked. So, I am doing my best to live up to the example that is set before me, and to become an example to others, that they may find themselves as welcomed as I have been.

I smoke a pipe because it is a tie to others greater than I, from the past. I will never be known as a great mind, such as Einstein or Bohr (or even Holmes) nor a great writer such as Clemens, but were I able to meet them, we could talk for hours about pipes and thus build a bridge across the vast depths of humanity.

I smoke a pipe because it is a tie to others greater than I in the present. I have met so many great people through this avocation and because of them; my life is so much the richer. I have met co-workers who are pipe smokers and am privileged to count them among my friends. I have met other pipe smokers as customers and my life has been enriched by my encounter with them, as I hope theirs has been with me. Through face to face interaction in the store where I work, and through electronic communication, I have met many great people whom I have asked questions of, and answered questions from. My life has been enriched by people who have names like Beard, Follodor, Paden and Manadily and "handles" like Birmingham Bob, Ming-Kahuna and Colonel Panic. While I may not agree with them all the time (or sometimes even often) my horizons are expanded, my knowledge is greater, and my life richer for having met them. To think, all this from a few ounces of an obscure wood, a "bit" of rubber or plastic and a pinch of a shredded leaf.

I smoke a pipe because it is my hope to be a tie to the future. I hope to be the kind of man that is looked on favorably by future generations, and if I am remembered as a "typical pipe smoker" so much the better.

I smoker a pipe because it is, well, a bit eccentric. Two men I admire greatly are known for "going against the grain". C.S. Lewis while making no bones about his faith and beliefs also made no secret of the fact that he enjoyed a good drink and a cigar, much to the consternation of many modern evangelicals. Francis Schaeffer, probably one of the (if not the) greatest thinkers at the end of the 20th century enjoyed a glass of sherry after his evening meals whilst discussing the philosophy of the day with his students at L'Abri, profoundly confusing those who equate piousness and asceticism with belief and obedience. While smoking a pipe will not make me a great thinker (although it does help set aside time to think) it does, in a way that is tangible at least to me, provide a link to men whose thoughts I admire and to whose greatness I aspire.

I smoke a pipe because in pipes and tobacco I see art. It is, to borrow a phrase, "Art that works". Unlike a painting or sculpture, beautiful or profound as it may be, I can't carry it with me throughout my day to enjoy at will. While that singular detachment may enhance the value and appreciation of a given piece of art, the opposite is true of my pipe. Whether it is a modern master such as a Tinsky, Talbert or Nording, a past master such as Holm or even a virtual untouchable such as a Bang, I have the ability to carry it in my hand and appreciate the care, craftsmanship, skill and even the love expressed in a simple block of briar. I can see the personality of the craftsman, whether it is his faithful recreation of a classic billiard or his wildest imagination in the most unlikely looking freehand. Whether my taste in a given day runs from a classic serene "Monet" to the profoundly and invigoratingly abrasive "Giger", I can carry my art with me anywhere and enjoy it in any activity I may be engaged in. The art I most enjoy is also multi sensory. Through taste and smell, I can enjoy the handiwork of many, be they Gregory Pease, The McNeil’s or even companies with names like Orlik and Davidoff. Through my own choices and moods, my art changes and grows through combination of leaf and briar, unlike any other. Once painted, once sculpted, once composed and recorded, that piece is timeless in its static nature. Through my pipe, I enjoy art that is forever changing, to be savored only once in the moment, never to be exactly re-created.

I smoke a pipe because it is a tie to a past that will never be seen again. To a day when it was possible to see Lawrence of Arabia in all its glory on the big screen and enjoy a pipe at the same time. To a time when I may have been able to watch "Murderers Row" at the ballpark while feeling the warmth of a lit pipe in my hand on a cool autumn afternoon. To a "Norman Rockwell" existence that may have never existed, but I can still long for. Some may indeed say it never existed, but I can taste it in my pipe, and smell its sweet aroma in its smoke.

I smoke a pipe in the hope that one day I will be the kind, gentlemanly grandfather, teaching my grandson the finer points of whittling, fishing and hunting or bicycle riding, telling the story of the year McGwire broke the record and explaining what a "Television" was and why we spent so much time in front of one.

I smoke a pipe in the hope that one day I will be both a father and a daddy to my son, teaching him to hit and catch, to be a gentleman and to respect a lady, to support him whether he chooses to learn football or opera, whether he chooses to be a doctor or a truck driver, or even a lawyer. It is my sincere desire that when the time comes and he is of age, I can pass my art and avocation on to him, and in that smoke and briar, he will be reminded of who I was, and who he can be.

I smoke a pipe in the hope that one day I will be both a father and daddy to my daughter, teaching her through my example what to expect in a man, to offer her protection and security, and to encourage her to leave my security and protection and build her own. It is my hope that one day she will find a mate who will provide for her, challenge her, cause her to grow, and who she will challenge and cause to grow. It is my desire that when, in later days she smells a pipe, that she will again be reminded, comforted and challenged, that she will be reminded of who I was, and who she can be.

I smoke a pipe in the hope that one day my children, grandchildren and friends will walk by someone or someplace and smell the burning leaf and seek out its owner and not curse or revile him, but thank him for reminding them of a person who was both wise and fun, strong and gentle and a source of richness and enjoyment in their life, that that memory would be of me.

Why do I smoke a pipe? I shall tell you. Because I am a Pipe Smoker.