Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A whiff of the past

So, as I was walking past the big retirement community on the way home from a turn around the lake, I caught the smell of a cigar. The earthy tang was coming from a codger leaning on a fence taking the summery air with a stogie all fired up and burning. The smell took me back forty years or more, and put me in mind of uncles and family friends and strangers on the street in what seemed like a simpler time and which must have been a much more aromatic one.

My father had smoked cigars in his younger days; one of my favorite pictures of him was taken before I was born: a vital, dark-haired young man in fancy dress is seated at a table with a bunch of cronies at the end of what appeared to have been a sumptuous meal, a big cigar clutched in his hand and a sly, almost feral smile on his face. I never knew what occasion might have put this working-class meat-cutter, card-player, and fan of the trotters into such luxurious surroundings, but he sure had the cigar to match.

When I knew him, though, he was a pipe man. When I was a child, the aroma of pipe tobacco filled our home. My older sisters and their men smoked cigarettes: Pall Mall, Lucky Strike, and Chesterfield.  Pop hung with Prince Albert. He would sit and smoke, reading his bowling books, and the air would become redolent of the "most delightful and wholesome" tobacco. I would watch him manipulate all the accoutrement of pipe smoking and play with the stuff while he was gone: the cans of tobacco, the tamping tool, the cleaning spike, the racks, and, of course, the pipes themselves. He had several, some with curved stems and some with straight, one with a really large bowl, all of them acrid and bitter-tasting when I put them in my mouth in imitation, the taste not at all like the smell they had when they were burning.  And the beautiful racks, the curved dark wood stands that held these tools of his habit. When I encountered some racks at a local thrift store, they had held onto their aroma and it only took a little imagining to fill the empty spaces with the artifacts of my remembered father.

Somewhere along the line, Pop quit smoking. I don't remember exactly when it happened, or even that it was ever marked as a Thing, but while I was still small, I noticed the pipes just remained in their racks and the gear went unused until eventually my mother removed it all from the little table next to the big chair in the living room. When we moved to a new apartment, there was no trace of this - what, hobby? Habit? Pastime? - to be found anywhere, and another age was gone as the present became the past and we all slipped into a future that held many things, but no jetpacks and no smoking.

My father died when I was twenty-six, almost thirty years ago, and I am sure he had quit smoking fifteen years before that. But all it takes is a little tobacco smoke to bring him into the room again.

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