If you’re anything like me, you spent at least one bowl this last week wishing you were in Chicago and enjoying the glory of shiny pipes and tobacco samplers. I like to imagine it’s a place where flake tobaccos pave the roads, rope tobaccos hang from trees like willows, and ribbon-cut tobacco covers the ground like moss. Tins of glory are everywhere for the taking and pipes grow as the flower of the briar tree, free for the picking.
Impossible as it seems, it’s been a year since the Chicagoland International Pipe and Tobacciana Show, and the date for this year’s extravaganza is fast approaching. Last year’s show was my first, and you can read all about my experiences right here at PipesMagazine.com, as well as other exclusive reports from Chris Stout and John Winton: just navigate over to the left side of the home page and click on the Categories sub-header, Pipe Shows. To say the event was memorable is to do it great disservice; it was a life-changing experience, and I came away from it with much more than some pipes and tobaccos—I made some friendships there that will last a lifetime. It was at the show that I had the good fortune to become acquainted with two extraordinary up-and-coming talents in the pipe-carving world, namely Kostas Gourvelos and Konstantinos Anastasopoulos.
Since cave men discovered fire (if that’s the history you choose to believe in…) people have been burning things for a number of reasons. Used for all sorts of purposes ranging from keeping warm, to cooking and eventually as a weapon, fire has produced all sorts of tangible results. But when you hear people say, ‘where there is smoke, there is fire’, the opposite is actually more true. I’ve seen smoke where no fire has ever resulted. But 100% of the time, where there is fire, there is smoke.
At some point, some man discovered that if I set this herb, plant, bush or whatever on fire, it produces a savory smell that I enjoy. Later discoveries included some medicinal purposes of smoke, and smokes curing factor on meats and food stores. But as man refined the use of smoke, and in the process refined himself, smoking plants quickly became a source of relaxation, fun, and just a pastime enjoyed by many still today.
I grew up in the Pittsburgh, PA area playing the drums, and had some rather successful years in the music industry playing, writing and recording. Some of my work can be heard on records/CD’s to this day, but clearly not something that you would have remembered, or I would not be the struggling journalist I am today. As a drummer, I studied drummers and had the great pleasure of seeing some of my all-time heroes play live. Buddy Rich put on one heck of a show, and Ed Shaughnessy always gave him a run for his money. Steve Smith is best known for his years with the band Journey, but his best work by far is with his jazz band called Vital Information. I attended sessions with Kevin Valentine and Carmine Appice, and currently play a kit previously owned by the great Billy Cobham.
One drummer I studied, loved his style and never got to see play was Jeff Porcaro. A fantastic and innovative studio drummer who was a founding member of the band Toto, Jeff played with them from 1977 until his untimely death on my birthday in 1992. His rhythmic shuffle in the song Rosanna is immediately recognizable. Toto has recorded 17 albums sold over 35 million records, and is perhaps best known for its song Africa from the LP Toto IV released in 1982. Who can forget the clutching harmonies of, “God bless the rains down in Africa”? One man for whom the rains of Africa, South Africa in particular, are very important is, Charl Goussard. Charl is the artist behind this review.
It seems there is always one ‘thing’ about a pipecrafter’s style that draws my attention. There is always one sort of standout characteristic that tells me, "You need to get to know this guy!" Things like Bruce Weaver’s blasting techniques, the finishes of Dotter pipes, the classic ‘tough guy’ poker shapes from Mark Balkovec (who can do much more than a classic poker I assure you …), etc. You get the picture.
In 1989 I went through Infantry Basic Training at Ft. Jackson, SC. I was sworn in 7 September, and left basic training 14 December and was assigned to Ft. Lewis, near Tacoma, Washington. Basic Training is designed to mold a young man into a soldier. Training is drilled into you by a succession of skilled, task-oriented Drill Sergeants. Each task repeated over and over and over until that one task becomes a response of nature, rather than a ’skill’ you have to stop and remember. If you have to take the time to stop and think, it will be too late, and you’ll become a battlefield statistic.
I remember a lot of my days in basic training; the heat, the cold, the commitment, the hard work, and the brothers that were made there. But something else really stands out from those days in basic. The only day off I had was Thanksgiving Day. That was the only day we were granted the privilege of leaving post with a 24 hour Pass. On that day, I sat in the living room of the home of a high school friend of mine, and watched the beginnings of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. That day CNN was filed with images of the Berlin Wall being crushed, torn asunder, and family members who had been stuck on opposite sides of that wall, emotionally embracing each other after having been separated for nearly 50 years.
Nestled in west-central Indiana, the city of Cloverdale has a population of 2,172. It hosts a single McDonalds, an Econo-Lodge and a beautiful natural attraction called Cataract Falls along Mill Creek. Cataract Falls is the largest waterfall in Indiana with a drop of over 80 feet cascading over a set of double waterfalls. The epitome of small town America, Cloverdale has a proud heritage going back nearly 150 years, and looks like a community right out of a Normal Rockwell painting.
When I was young, I was a little different than the other kids. I suffered from Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis that was diagnosed at the age of five. Because of the growth variables and bone and joint weakness caused by this disease, from age five to eight, my activities were seriously curtailed. To this day I distinctly remember the doctor say that I needed to rest, and not get involved in any strenuous activity or sports in order to ensure a somewhat “normal future”. That line stuck with me.
With that said, my dreams as a young man are what really made me different. My dreams were simply to walk without pain. For me walking more than ten or twenty feet was a triumph at times. While most kids my age dreamed of professional sports or vacations in the Caribbean, I dreamed of walking – long hikes through the woods at home, backpacking through Europe, seeing the lands of my ancestors in Germany and Poland, and walking the same beautiful hills that the Von Trapp Family did in “The Sound of Music”. That’s what I dreamed of.
As pipe smokers and collectors, we are always looking for our next favorite pipe, or our next favorite tobacco blend. Typically, we don’t have to wait too long until a pipe or blend comes along that piques our interests and gets our heart pumping to get our hands on it and give it a try.
Like a golfer that has a perfectly good sand wedge that has served him well for years, something new that looks cool and feels good in your hands comes along, and you grab it up. Most of us do the same thing with pipes, lighters, tobaccos etc. The problem is that more often than not, that sand wedge is no better than the one you had before, and while it certainly does the job, your scores don’t change and the whole proposition ends up being a big let-down that cost you $150.00.
How a shape appears to a pipe-carver as they sit and stare at a raw block of briar is a mystery to many of us who are collectors and smokers. Perhaps not so much to the artisans that are actually doing the carving, but as for me, I’d be lost. Some people though, much like I have read about Michelangelo, see the finished product in the raw material before a hammer, file or chisel is set to the material. Michelangelo is quoted as having said to a contemporary, that it is not that he has to carve the figure out of the marble that stands before him, as much as it is to simply take off the material that he knows does not belong there.