By Tom Burke / Herald columnist
When I was young and foolish (now, I’m just foolish), “Smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em” had meaning. We’d fish out a pack of Marlboros and a Zippo and settle back for a relaxing ten minutes of inhaling a throatful of cancer, a chestful of coronary artery disease, or a sweet case of lung-wracking emphysema. Pure pleasure!
And when I started working at a Madison Avenue ad agency, smoking at your desk was just fine.
But there were hints that “cancer sticks” weren’t healthy, despite ads avowing otherwise; such as when Lucky Strike Green, in 1930, reassuringly claimed,”20,679 physicians say, ‘Luckies are less irritating.’” (Which begs the question, less irritating than what: World War I mustard gas? Agent Orange? Pepper spray?)
We were also reassured by the they-wouldn’t-lie-to-their-customers R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., that, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.”
Famous back-in-the-day A-list personalities also touted smoking, such as John Wayne, “A Camel fan goin’ on 24 years” (before he lost a lung to cancer), pin-up girl Betty Grable (died of lung cancer), actor Spencer Tracy (dead from heart disease), and jazz great Louis Armstrong (a heart attack took him).
Now, I started smoking at the Sewane Country Club where I caddied. All the loopers smoked copiously. I smoked in school, on the ships (the merchant navy on freighters and tankers), in saloons, and when I worked construction as an ironworker. I also smoked in that ad agency office, lighting up whenever the phone rang, and it rang a lot.
And I quit, cold turkey, one day as the phone jingled and realized I had one going in the ashtray, one in my mouth, and I was fishing a third out of the pack.
Since that afternoon in 1976 I tried exactly one more time, half-finished it (gawd, it tasted awful) and ground it under my heel.
But now that spring has sprung and summer in nigh upon us, I am beginning my summer-season tobacco indulgence: my pipe.
Wadda ya mean, pipe? No one smokes a pipe any more, unless it’s stuffed with some of that recently legalized weed.
Well, I do, but only on sunny days, when I can sit outside in my shirtsleeves. (Is there anything more pitiful than a small huddle of people, bunched together against sleet and rain, bundled up in blizzard-proof parkas, Siberian-grade winter hats, and three-times-around the neck scarves, desperately trying to “enjoy” a smoke, in a bleak parking lot behind some building?)
Now you don’t inhale pipe tobacco; at least I don’t. And I like fiddling and fussing with the wind-proof lighter and the pick and tamper. (Pipe-smoking is like skippering a sailboat: both are the perfect relaxation for people who can’t relax. On a sailboat there’s always a sheet to tug or a touch of helm necessary to gain an extra quarter-knot.)
And then there’s the tobacco. Mild or strong. Some with headache-inducing nicotine levels (to which I said, ala Poe’s raven, “Never more”) and others as sweet as honey.
I have a “dealer” up in Middlebury, Vt., (OK, not a dealer, a tobacconist) who blends his own and then whimsically names ‘em: his Three Blind Moose after a small herd that wouldn’t move despite flashing headlights; Bald Headed Teacher in honor of a prof at nearby Middlebury College; and my favorite Lord Methley’s Blend (“Flavorful Virginias, mellow Burleys, and Black Cavendish give it a flavor of a berry-filled pie just out of the oven. A true aromatic with no tongue bite developed for the real Lord Methley of West Yorkshire, UK.”)
My cardiologist isn’t a great fan of my indulgence. But as long as it’s maybe three pipefuls a week, he isn’t on a crusade to get me to quit.
My wife on the other hand, well, as a health professional for 50-plus years, she takes a dimmer view than my Doc.
But I figure, what with only a couple of bowls a week, and all of November, December, January, February, March and April to breath again, it ain’t gonna be the end of me.
I just placed an order (more Lord Methley’s and two new ones: Britt’s Balkan’ (full but not overpowering) and Bread Loaf (An Oriental-forward with the slightest hint of Latakia for smokiness) so I should be good ‘til next June.
Now the classic pipe-smoking scenario is aspirational: a deep leather armchair hard by the fireplace, a good book, a dram of single-malt, and the dog at my feet.
But, as I don’t smoke indoors, don’t have leather armchairs or a fireplace, my reading’s been more current events than Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, I’m off the booze for a while, and we had to put our English cocker, Telly, down last September; I’m settling for a Diet Coke, in a lawn chair, on the patio, with today’s Herald.
And my pipe.
Stay safe. Keep masking up.
Tom Burke’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.