When does a fad cease being a fad and become an exciting hobby? And following that line of thought, when does that compelling hobby cease to be a hobby and become an all-encompassing serious obsession?
Personally, I’m at the serious obsession stage right now today. My pipe smoking and collecting began shortly after college, in the 1960s when I came across the old Royal Cigar Store on Forsyth Street in Downtown Atlanta and actually thought I had found heaven.
The appeal of the smells, the tins, the pipes, the cigars, the men smoking both and everyone talking pipes and tobaccos hit me so hard, it was as if I had found the Court of Montezuma and someone handed me a pipe to join in the ceremony.
To make it short, the fellas in Royal Cigar in Downtown Atlanta had me at "hello." For the next several years, I stopped by Royal Cigar at every opportunity, spending money I’d earned working in grocery stores and from summer jobs with the State of Georgia survey crews.
Royal Cigar Company, Atlanta, GA (Late 60s early ’70s?)
It was as if I had found Never-Never Land. The tobacco tins were round and came with crinkly paper that reminded me of neck collars worn by medieval princes. I was, after all, a serious romantic as well, being an English Lit major.
The experienced pipe men at Royal Cigar took me through a veritable fairly land of pipes and tobaccos. They taught me how to load the pipe, light it, smoke it slowly, enjoy the pure tobacco, and most of all, how to relax and just be one with the whole process. Zen like, yes.
I also noticed that many of my college professors, especially history, philosophy and physics, all smoked pipes. And they mostly smoked Sir Walter Raleigh or Prince Albert.
But my physics professor, Dr. Neill Whitelaw, smoked mostly Revelation. That wasn’t his only tobacco. The tops of his lab shelves were lined with the old tubs: Briggs, PA, Half and Half, Barking Dog, Country Doctor, and of course, Revelation.
It was even more thrilling to learn that my physics professor was buddies with, ahem, Mr. Einstein. I often wondered what those two talked about. As for me, I could barely understand Dr. Whitelaw in plain English. That’s why after my first Whitelaw lab exam, he suggested I "drop the course immediately." I did and told him "Dr. Whitelaw, I’m headed to the English Department, where I understand what I read." Dr. Whitelaw did not suffer fools lightly.
At my graduation, however, he was one of the first to shake my hand in a congratulatory shake. "Frankly," Dr. Whitelaw said then, "I didn’t think you were going to make it." Uh, I didn’t either.
Later, in my junior year of college, I discovered Edward’s Pipe Shop of Atlanta. It was, again, love at first "hello." Over time, I purchased several of Edward’s pipes. I loved them all, especially a Canadian that I called "My Edwardian" if you get the drift of that. Edwards bulk tobaccos taught me about burleys, aromatics, Virginias.
By now, I had several pipes in my collection, and I was on what Edwards called a "steady order" list. I received a pound of tobacco monthly, which meant I could mix and match. My pipe collection had ceased to be a fad. It had become a solemn hobby. Each time I received an Edwards Catalog, I ordered another pipe.
By the time I was the editor of a small daily newspaper, my pipe smoking had reached another level. Instead of a pound a month, I was smoking close to a pound a week!
Those were the days when you could smoke anywhere you pleased. There were few anti-smoking zealots at the time.
So, I had a pipe clenched between my teeth most of the day. I tried not to smoke my pipe in my sleep (apologies to Mr. Twain).
Also by this time, my pipe collection had exceeded some 30 briars and meerschaums. One of the meers was given to me by a college classmate, who said it was "old and no good." I still smoke it today!
And, by the way, all of those pipes purchased in the 1960s have their own little place in my pipe racks today, with the exception of one of my beloved Edwards, which I foolishly traded away at a pipe show. I have regretted that deal ever since.
Yes, I know every pipe I have ever purchased. I can recall the time and place. I have refrained from naming all of them, with the exception of a claw-meer, which is the Jeff Davis (this has nothing to do with politics or wars; Davis, president of the Confederacy, smoked a claw-meer).
I have named another my Shelby Foote (the famed Southern author, whom I knew and interviewed several times); the William Faulkner (whom I did not know, but have read and admire); the JRR Tolkien and the C.S. Lewis (for obvious reasons).
At some point, my hobby, no longer a fad, switched gears and became a serious obsession, a movement of its own, an avalanche of emotion, feeling, desire and need.
I admit it. Pipes and their lure have besotted me, taken over my very being. I am incurable at this point, I fear. Yes, this is an expensive hobby and an even more costly obsession. So are alpine skiing, climbing mountains, flying, scuba diving, fly-fishing, cars and stamps.
But at this stage, I don’t know what I would do with a day without being able to see, to hold, to cherish my pipes and the fine tobaccos I put in them.
Note: I define fine tobaccos as any tobacco that I choose to smoke, be it Codger Blend, a Match Blend of the Codgers, the latest from Mr. Pease, Cornell & Diehl, or any of PipeMagazine’s excellent sponsors.
Frankly, I have tried just about all varieties (of course that is unabashedly hyperbole; no one could smoke all the fine tobacco blends out today; but, god knows, I have tried, I have tried).
My pipes are a part of who I am. There, I’ve said it and it is the truth. I shall go to my grave holding one of my pipes in my hand, filled with tobacco, and hoping that St. Peter has a match at the other end.