When I was a kid, I thought only farmers and ship captains smoked a pipe. I was so surprised when my dentist walked into his clinic with a pipe in his mouth. That was in the late 1950s when most men smoked.
An elderly woman at church told me that when she was growing up, if boys at age 15 or 16 weren’t smoking yet, their parents would say, “Isn’t it about time you started smoking?”
My father was a pipe smoker. I looked through family photo albums the other day and in many of the photos my father is holding a pipe in his hand. He always had a pipe with him wherever he went. If we had to assist a dairy cow that was calving, dad would first light up his pipe. It was probably a stress reliever for him in case calving didn’t go well. I frowned on that ridiculous habit.
He was in his late sixties and still climbed up the outside of our 60-ft high silo. He would have his pipe in his mouth, wooden shoes on his feet, and up he’d go without stopping. He made many trips up to adjust the distributor when we filled the silo. He smoked his pipe right up until he died at the age of 69. He worked hard, was seldom sick and lit his pipe shortly after he got up every morning at 6 a.m.
He didn’t think kindly of men who chewed a plug of tobacco. That was despicable. “He chews!” he’d say with a scowl.
Old Bill, our neighbour from the 1950s and early 1960s, used his jack knife to cut a dark slice off a small cake of hard tobacco. He had only one long brown tooth. His face was brown, weathered and like leather. His hands were gnarled and tough as nails. He never went to a doctor or dentist, but smoked his pipe constantly. At age 85 he slumped over from a heart attack when he hand raked hay with a wooden rake. He wore long johns in the summer and bib coveralls.
A pipe projects a calm, peaceful image. Early television dads like Robert Young in Father Knows Best and Fred MacMurray in My Three Sons were wise fathers you looked up to. General Douglas MacArthur was often photographed sporting an oversize corn cob pipe.
I recently had to chuckle at some pipe-smoking scenes when I watched the 1948 classic movie The Snake Pit. In this movie, Olivia de Havilland stars as an outwardly normal young woman, married to loyal, kindly husband played by Mark Stevens. As her behaviour becomes more and more erratic, her husband comes to the sad conclusion that she needs professional help. Olivia is sent to an overcrowded state mental hospital for treatment. She is treated with compassion by a soft-spoken psychiatrist, pipe-smoking Dr. Mark Kik, played by Leo Genn.
The first time Olivia goes to see Dr. Kik he’s smoking a pipe. Imagine going to see your doctor nowadays and he’s lighting up his pipe.
Throughout the movie, Dr. Kik fiddles with his pipe. Pipe-smoking takes a lot of time and bother tamping and tapping and scraping and cleaning and lighting and relighting many times. It’s fiddling-intensive activity. A crazy-vile habit, if you ask me.
Olivia goes to see Dr. Kik for the last time before being released from the hospital. He offers her a cigarette which she refuses. The doctor is seen happily smoking. After some serious discussion, Dr. Kik says the patient is ready to go home. Olivia is happy with the news.
“Will you have a cigarette now?” asks the doctor. She smiles and says she will. The doctor gives her one and lights it for her. Smoking, ironically, becomes a symbol of health.
The pipe is a relic of those bygone days when it was fashionable to be seen smoking. It was a different world with different habits. I read somewhere that in 1970, Americans bought 52 million pounds of pipe tobacco. In 2004, they bought less than 5 million pounds. Now pipe smoking is making a bit of a comeback with the micro-brewery beer drinkers.
Today’s fathers and grandfathers are wise not to be smoking a pipe.
Happy Father’s Day on June 16!
Maynard van der Galien runs a cash-crop near Renfrew, Ontario. He’s been writing columns for 33 years.