Thursday, May 20, 2010

Wise Man Smokes Own Coughin'

“A pipe gives a wise man time to think before he speaks and a fool something to put in his mouth. – Anonymous”

Go back in time with me to a more peaceful era, not when the world was less complicated, but when the cosmos was smaller; basically a global sphere about as big around as my field of vision at any given time, which was that of your average twelve year old boy in 1966. Childhood innocence is a wonderful thing; bittersweet in hindsight when you first realize you’re losing it. A hint of that impending loss was revealed to me that year.

My granddad smoked a pipe for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I’d watch in fascination as he practiced his routine, seldom varying it in any way. He’d take his time filling the pipe bowl with his favorite tobacco; a fragrant, cherry blend as I recall. He’d lean forward on the edge of his old wooden rocking chair, as if anticipating his actions or perhaps just eager to satisfy his nicotine habit; I was too young to know. He’d tamp the tobacco down in the bowl of the pipe and then strike a long wooden match on the sole of his shoe and watch intently as the sulfur flared brightly before shrinking into a small yellow sun. I wonder what universal truths were revealed in that momentary flash of brilliance he studied so raptly.

He’d tilt the match downward briefly and then sideways with fingers gnarled with age and years of hard work on the railroads, and then hold it to the bowl of the pipe, causing the flame to elongate along the match. He’d hold it over the low mound of tobacco while he puffed quickly on the mouth of the pipe to suck the flame into the bowl. I don’t think I could even blink or breathe as I watched this ritual. I could hear his quick little whoosh of breath with each puff, and see the flame from the match draw down, transforming the tobacco into glowing red stringy embers, and somehow becoming rapid shots of white smoke escaping from the opposite corner of grandpa’s mouth from where the pipe was gripped between tobacco-stained teeth. Did he even inhale? I couldn’t tell.

Blue-white smoke eventually stormed up, surrounding grandpa's head in a gathering cloud as he settled back into his creaky chair. He’d absentmindedly shake out what was left of the flame on the stub of the match and drop it in the ashtray on the table by his side, used; forgotten. Then he'd r-e-l-a-x into his smoke as if he'd just chuffed in from the wild, wild west, lurching off the rail car after a tough couple of months chasing the lonesome whistle across the dusty, red Oklahoma range. The urgency so evident at the beginning of this ritual suddenly turned into a desire to simply be. To be at ease. To enjoy. Grandpa had a talent for being still. After a few quiet moments with his eyes closed, he’d begin rocking gently in his chair, and the ambient silence in the room was slowly heightened by a slightly sticky sound of the rocker legs on cracked, old linoleum, and punctuated with the occasional heal or toe tap to keep his rhythm going.

Still the engrossed child, my hypnotic moment broke and I came back to myself when I noticed grandpa was now watching me watching him. I was a little startled, I think, as though I’d been caught doing something I shouldn’t. He was silently smiling at me as he puffed on his pipe, a kindness in his eyes, as always. Did he know something I didn’t? I remember grandpa as being a kind and gentle man as I was growing up, and soft spoken to a point where I sometimes had difficulty understanding him.

On the occasion of this recollection he sat in his chair smoking his pipe and the room filled with his smoke. The room was so still that the smoke hovered in layers it was so thick, yet wafted ever so gently as though disturbed by some temperate wind. He sat in his chair reading, as did grandma Mary. If anyone got up and walked through the room, of course, the smoke would eventually even itself out and just stand in the room like smog, losing its personality entirely, and losing my interest as well.

Sometimes grandpa would allow himself a second pipe in the evening, sometimes not. Either way, when he was finished, he cleaned out the bowl with a pipe cleaner and a small knife he kept nearby for that purpose. I remember watching as he methodically scraped the bowl of the pipe and wondering why he bothered, since I knew he would load the smelly thing up with more tobacco the next time the urge struck him. I always thought it was odd how the pipe itself stunk so badly when the smoke it produced was so welcoming and comforting.

In the summer of 1966 I spent a few days at grandpa and Mary’s. He was smoking his pipe one evening after supper, as I recalled above, and I finally got up the nerve to ask him if I could have a puff or two. He said in his husky, soft-spoken way, “no, but I’ll let you smoke your own. On one condition.” Don’t think those sentences were spoken nearly as fast as you just read them! There were long pauses in between the words and the sentences. Grandpa was never one to hurry his words, choosing his thoughts carefully and speaking them just as carefully. I was interested, so I said, “Okay, what is it?”

In between thoughtful puffs he replied, “You can smoke the pipe, but once you start, you can’t stop until it’s completely finished.” Long pause. “Do we have a deal?” A blue wisp of smoke curled up from the mouthpiece resting on his lower lip and caused his eyes to squint ever so slightly as he awaited my response.

I bowed my head in thought and gave the proposal thorough consideration while the old rocker had at least a good 10-count of creak-sticky-toe-tap, and didn’t really see the downside to the deal, so I agreed. Grandpa proceeded to get a second pipe out of his pipe stand (he wasn’t about to let me smoke his favorite pipe) and handed it to me. Then, step by step, he with his pipe and me with mine, he taught me how to fill it correctly, light it, and start smoking it. I was delighted to be initiated into a tradition I had thus far only been allowed to observe.

As I said, I was 12 years old, but I felt entirely grown up having my first smoke with grandpa. But of course you know exactly what happened. The first indrawn breath produced a series of hacking coughs that brought tears to my eyes and a painful burning sensation in my chest and throat. It took a while for the coughing episode to subside before I could continue. I had probably four or five good, but much shallower, puffs before I started to get light headed and nauseous, and it was only moments later before I was taking a second, much less appetizing, look at what I had for dinner an hour or so earlier. Grandpa had had the foresight to conduct this smoking experiment outdoors, so when I began regurgitating at least it was in the grass instead of in the living room!

Grandpa held me to my word, though. When I finished throwing up, which I noticed he’d watched with some amusement, he made me wipe my mouth off and sit back in my lawn chair and take up the pipe again. Our agreement was that I was required to finish the whole bowl! This time, he told me not to inhale the smoke. He told me to breathe in first and hold my breath, then puff the pipe and hold the smoke in my mouth briefly, and then exhale slowly. This would allow me to taste the smoke without inhaling it. I experimented a few times, but had difficulty getting the hang of it. Besides, I watched him and that’s not how he seemed to be smoking his pipe, but I tried my best to do as he instructed. I still felt nauseous and was more than ready to ditch the whole idea. I’d much rather just lie flat on my back in the cool grass until I stopped feeling sick! What had seemed like a few minutes when I watched grandpa smoke his pipe before felt like hours while I was doing it.

So we sat in silence and smoked our pipes. We were outside on a hot summer evening, sitting on the east side of the house, as was usual for the time of day in order to take advantage of the shade provided by the house. The air was calm and humid, and I was sweating. I’m sure the evening’s activity had me sweating more than what could be blamed on the weather! Mosquitos were everywhere and seemed to be drawn to my sweaty brow.

Grandpa picked up his book (Readers Digest, condensed) and puffed on his pipe. He’d look over the top of his book at me occasionally, but otherwise left me to myself. For my part, I sat there trying to keep the remaining contents of my stomach where they were. I watched him, slyly I thought, trying to mimic his mannerisms to learn how to hold the pipe in my hand and mouth, and to have the right angle of head and chin tilt to indicate the proper amount of deep thought without appearing to be in danger of dropping off to sleep. We shared a companionable silence.

When I sensed him looking at me, I’d quickly look away so as not to get caught studying him. My gaze would always return to the gravel driveway just in front of the house, where stood one of grandpa’s prized possessions; a 1950s pickup truck. I don’t remember the year, or make for that matter; too many years between then and now for me to recall it exactly. What I do remember with great clarity is how he loved that truck so much that he painted it one year (several years later) with a 3-inch hand brush! Cobalt blue, from front to back! Up close, especially in direct sunlight, you could see the coarse brush strokes everywhere along the body of that pickup, but grandpa was sure proud of it! It brings a smile to my face even now when I think of it.

The smoke began to peter out. I didn’t throw up again, but the nausea stayed with me right to the end. The pipe finally went out and after the bowl cooled grandpa showed me how to dump out the tobacco and clean out the bowl with the knife and clean the stem with the pipe cleaner. He grumbled a bit about how much saliva I’d let into the mouthpiece, and then made a good natured comment or two about me looking a little green around the gills. I tried to grin and bear it all, but was anxious to get it over with.

I went back inside and returned the pipe to its place in the pipe stand. Grandma Mary smiled sympathetically at me over her glasses from her chair as I passed. Her affection and concern for me changed to a frown of frustration when grandpa followed me into the room, and she pursed her lips repeatedly in that “nervous tick” kind of way she had, as if to show her disapproval of this whole “smoking nonsense,” I think she called it, muttering under her breath a little. She shook her head and returned to her book.

I never picked up a pipe again. Or a cigarette for that matter. I never had the desire to smoke after that. I remember harboring a bit of childhood resentment toward grandpa for quite a while afterwards, thinking it was very cruel to pull such a mean trick on me, to make me sick like that, and to laugh at me while he was doing it. Of course, looking back on it now, I know he was teaching me a lesson, and doing a very effective job of it, too. I didn’t know I was losing a bit of my childhood innocence that day. Just a smidgen of it, but that’s how we lose it, isn’t it? It doesn’t just disappear all at once. It’s not something we generally squander; at least not most of us, if we’re lucky.

I was one of the lucky ones. I got to lose my innocence over a long and happy childhood, through some interesting lessons like this one. They weren’t always appreciated at the time they were taught, but as I said, they were certainly effective.

In looking back at what I learned from grandpa at this particular time, I know it wasn’t only about the smoking. I’m at a point in my life when I need serenity, where tranquility is important to me. I have achieved grandpa’s talent for being still. It was so easy to recall grandpa settling into his stillness when he went through his pipe lighting routine as I described it above. I actually recognized it in him because I recognize it in myself.

I think of grandpa as being a very wise man. Without ever discussing the pros and cons of smoking, without ever telling me a single thing about how or why he took up the habit, and without glamorizing or demonizing a habit that gave him at least some measure of comfort and serenity, he managed to teach me a lesson by demonstration.

“A pipe gives a wise man time to think before he speaks and a fool something to put in his mouth.” The first part of this adage describes grandpa perfectly! The second part serves as ample warning to the rest of us to think before we speak at all. With a grandpa who was grounded and tranquil at heart and who embodied wisdom and cared enough to teach, how could I not live long enough to learn how to be still and to appreciate serenity?

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