When I was 16, I told my father I wanted to try smoking a pipe. So he brought me to the local drug store, where he bought one of their inexpensive pipes, a pouch of cheap tobacco, and a package of pipe cleaners. On the sidewalk outside the store, he showed me how to pack in the tobacco, tamp it down with my thumb, and get it lit, which sometimes took quite a few matches.
I didn’t get sick and I sort of enjoyed it. You don’t inhale the smoke, so maybe it wouldn’t cause lung cancer. Back then, in the late 50s, anything known by the tobacco companies and the government about the consequences of smoking was suppressed. It was later we learned about the possibility of lip or tongue cancer.
I never got along with my father, but this was one simple, successful rite of passage. It does seem crazy, doesn’t it, a parent introducing a child to smoking? But it was common then, and I felt very grown up as I puffed away, in between re-lighting the pipe.
I told my best friend about it, and he started too. We took the MTA into Boston, where we found a venerable wood-paneled tobacco store that dated back to the 1800s. They sold dozens of varieties of tobacco and would register your name and your own special blend. It was expensive, but we thought sophistication had to be be expensive. And it didn’t cost anything to walk inside and inhale the wonderful aroma of the store.
At college it wasn’t a rare thing to smoke a pipe, even in classes or the dining hall, but it was still a mark of distinction. One girlfriend tried to impress her family by describing me as “a boy who wears a corduroy sport coat and smokes a pipe.” Another one bought me a pipe lighter so I wouldn’t have to keep lighting my pipe with matches. The lighter fluid vaporized and would blast a flame toward the tobacco in the pipe’s bowl.
It was just a few years later that smoking a pipe started to make me physically ill. Sick to my stomach, maybe from those juices you used pipe cleaners to ream out. So that may have saved my life and spared me from other horrible effects.
So I gave up looking sophisticated and having something to do while waiting for a bus or holding a conversation—all the filling, cleaning, lighting, and puffing.
Last summer I needed to clean out the jets on our stove. So at our local supermarket, I asked for “pipe cleaners” at the courtesy counter where cigarettes are kept. The kids who worked there didn’t know what they were. Their middle-aged supervisor had to find the one package where it was hidden away.
No, it didn’t make me feel old. And at least I was alive.