Pipe Love  Blog » Shelby Foote

Mind Workers of the World

    March 30th, 2011

This was a few years ago in Memphis, a town that I absolutely love for many, many reasons. It is the mega center of the Delta and the city of blues and barbecue. B.B. King hung out here. So did William Faulkner, and Fury Lewis. Beale Street is for real (well, it was until the city and county turned it into a caricature of itself). I was there in the years after W.C. Handy put Beale on the map. It was still a time when bluesmen wandered in out of Arkansas and Mississippi delta lands to play blues on the street corner. Free. It was ripe and wonderful.

In those days, I also got to know some writers, one I’m especially fond to call my friend. The late Shelby Foote was just a gracious Southern gentleman. You heard him on PBS as the star of the Ken Burns Civil War series in 1990.

Shelby with the iconic Southern drawl and laugh. It was as soft as a delta full moon hovering over the Mississippi River. Lord, he had a laugh.

I asked him once, in between puffs of his Dunhill, a billiard, about a Group 2 or 3, what the PBS series did for his three volume work on the Civil War.

“Lawd, lawd, it put it over the moon,” he said.

I loved the “lawd, lawd.”

Shelby helped me often with history and stories I was writing. He even let me come to his house to interview him for a book I was writing on Southern writers.

He was the last of the Southerners with a direct connection to William Faulkner, one of my very favorite authors. Shelby was also great friends with Walker Percy, who became a medical doctor and then a writer. They grew up together.

One evening as the sun began to settle beneath the Memphis skyline, Shelby took me into his home office, which was in his bedroom. Over his bed were large photographs of Faulkner and Marcel Proust.

“There is God,” Shelby said, pointing to William Faulkner.

“And there is God Almighty,” he said, pointing to Proust.

They were, as he said, his mentors, who showed him the way of words.

We talked for a while about the South and, of course, the Civil War. He smoked some Prince Albert in that Dunhill.

And when it smoked down, he dragged over a tin wastepaper basket and began to bang the side of that precious Dunhill on the inside of that metal trash bin, and immediately refilled the pipe.

I cringed. I could only guess as to how old the Dunhill might be. I should have asked, but didn’t.

I know that Shelby was a U.S. Marine in World War II and may have picked up that pipe during some time spent in London.

He told me he wasn’t so particular about pipe tobacco. Whatever was handy. PA was something Faulkner liked as well. He also smoked Dunhill’s My Mixture, or 965.

But, a Faulkner museum person (Rowan Oak in Oxford, Miss., or Faulkner’s old home) told me once that one day in one of Faulkner’s tweed coats, they found a tin of PA. They found more¬†tins in his closets and other shelves.

Watching Shelby bang out that Dunhill has often reminded me that to some, a pipe is something with which to enjoy tobacco. Nothing more, nothing less.

For others of us, collecting high end pipes, or even low end pipes, is part of the pleasure. I’ve done both.

Today, I think I find myself on the side of my late and missed friend, Shelby Foote. I just want to enjoy my pipes and tobacco in peace without all the fire and thunder of people telling me what I can and can’t do.

I seek the pure relaxation of a sweet Virginia and burley mix to take me back to the days of my youth when old-timers sat around a pot-bellied wood and coal stove in Mr. Mullinax’s Grocery in a small Georgia town. They smoked their pipes, chewed their tobacco, rolled their cigarettes, as I drank Coca-Colas filled to the top with fizzing¬†peanuts.

The grizzled pipe smokers knocked their pipes out on the side of the stove, or into the grate itself. They thought nothing of it. It was just a pipe.

I don’t need the sound and the fury of misguided anti-tobacco people, who have yet to cite valid science about smoke, who won’t tell the truth about the money they raise for their backhanded campaigns against smokers.

Pipe smokers, for me, are the mind workers of the world. We are a good set of people, who love to sit and talk and think. We don’t trouble others, and in fact most of us enjoy people. And we even take our pipes outside now to find solitude.

My hope is that one day before I join my friend Shelby Foote, wherever I may find him, that I will be able to return to my favorite restaurant and see a welcome sign for smokers of every stripe.

We are deserving of better than this current treatment from the general public and politicians, whom we pay with our hard-earned taxes.