Better Days
A Series on Pipes Smoking's Nostalgic Past

By Ernie Whitenack

"The Glamour and Lure of Smoking"

The month of August brought on the annual trip to Boston and Raymond's department store for school clothing. Dad and I would take the train from Waltham before lunch and walk from North Station. This particular trip gave me a new insight to the world. We stopped at David P Ehrlich's where a man sat in the window at a strange wood lathe making white pipes. My questions prompted dad to explain Meerschaum and its merits. I watched for several minutes and then we entered. The clerks all had very large pipes going and the odor of DPE filled the store. At twelve years old the shop was a majestic palace with all the mahogany and glass and the goods so neatly displayed. That entrance into a truly man's world is something I will never forget.

Despite my mother's constant reminders about cigarettes being "coffin nails" and hearing her chant some ancient ditty about
     "Cigarettes must go, go-go-go –
     "Schoolboys, schoolboys say - say so"

I did succumb to the evil weed at fourteen years.

I suppose there were reasons I started smoking, not the least of which was having been around smokers all my young life. But, pressure from many sources was probably the primary reason.

There was the need to be a man and Bogart smoked, the Duke smoked, and doctors on the back of magazines praised the mildness and calming nature of Chesterfields.
How dapper was it when Gable leaned across the small table in some darkened nightclub to flick his lighter and put a glow to the end of a seductive blonde's cigarette. He always seemed to stay close long enough to praise some part of her facial anatomy which always brought a responsive coo or a demure flutter of her eyelashes.
We, whose hormones were starting to rage just knew, that from that moment, Gable had it made.

And then there were friends who smoked and wondered why I didn't – constantly offering me a "butt".

And so it happened one day while walking home from school that I stopped in a tiny corner variety store and purchased a pack of Kools – the first and only time for that brand. Cigarettes, when I could afford them, became my companion. One had to be content with the off brands for the most part. Store owners would hide top brands when they had them and quietly let good customers know. This happened only in neighborhood variety and local smoke shops. The owner would give you a knowing look and you would hang around until other customers were gone. He would reach under the counter and produce a couple of packs of whatever brand name he had. If you were lucky he might have a couple of brands and might hand out three or four packs. There was no ID carding at the time but I am sure the shop keeper had talked to my dad and had permission to sell me cigarettes. Shortly after VE Day name brands became more available and after VJ day the stores were well supplied again. There must have been a heavy stockpile as they appeared almost over-night and in great quantity. Naturally, during the shortage, my buddies and I often wondered among ourselves how many tons of cigarettes ended up at the bottom of the oceans.

But right alongside Bogie and the Duke there were also a lot of movies featuring a college environment. Now these, for the most part, had weak plots but were a showcase for such hopeful song and dance talents as Mickey Rooney, Donald O'Connor and a raft of young folks who didn't make the big time. In these flicks were always a couple of rich playboy types who were frequently seen either holding a pipe in hand or mouth or one sticking out of the chest pocket of a blazer - but never smoking. Among my associates the pipe prop was really solid – that's cool to you.

Gracing the silver screen, often accompanied by clouds of pipe smoke, were the great gentlemen of film; Ralph Bellamy, Nigel Bruce, Bing Crosby, Pat O'Brien, Gene Hersholt, Edward G Robinson and of course, Basil Rathbone.

Our family dentist had two sons and lived in my neighborhood. Naturally I was friendly with the boys and one Sunday I was invited to cruse the Charles River basin with them and their father. (I wondered where he got the fuel to run the boat. Dad had a gasoline rationing A card and he had to walk the two or so miles to work once in a while when he ran out of gas.) I decided it was an occasion worthy of a pipe and I would look quite dapper standing on the deck in my Glen Plaid sport jacket puffing on a pipe. So, before going to their house to leave for the Charles I stopped at Blackie's (Blackstone's Smoke Shop) and purchased my first pipe, about $1.50, and a pouch of Bond Street. Both items were a big mistake. I lit up on the boat, a very nice inboard with a cabin and deck seating. Naturally the wind was strong and the tobacco burned rapidly. I think there was more flavor in the lacquer burning off the inside of the bowl than in the highly flavored Bond Street. For about a week I had hardly any taste sensation and my tongue suffered greatly.

Well, that was the end of pipe smoking for me for a number of years. Smoking a pipe hardly entered my mind until I was in the army – but that is a story for another time.

Copyright© 2010 Ernest Whitenack

Other Better Days Articles
Grandpa Baloney
Granpa Newt
The Glamour and Lure of Smoking
Smoking the War Away
Germany, Cigs and Ration Cards
The Final Chapter - Part 1

Ernie Whitenack was born in 1928 in Springfield, Illinois and moved to Massachusetts in the mid 1930's. He is a Korean War veteran, worked as a photographic illustrator for 43 years and is now retired.

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