Better Days
A Series on Pipes Smoking's Nostalgic Past

By Ernie Whitenack

"Smoking the War Away"

According to the Civilian Defense Corps the glow of a cigarette and pipe could be seen clearly at bomber elevations and far to sea. And so it was, during mock air raids of WWII that "put out that cigarette", commanded by a neighborhood air raid warden, could be heard often.

The factory whistles would blow the coded warning, usually at night, and it was each person's responsibility to darken homes, stop and turn off auto lights (already with the top half of lenses painted black) and find a shelter.

Unless a home had efficient black-out curtains one was forbidden to smoke inside as well as out. The exercises often lasted a couple of hours and ended by the "all clear" whistles or sirens from the factories. The first thing seen was the flame from matches and lighters. Then, cars could be heard starting, street lights would come on (also painted black except for an inch or two at the bulb bottom) and homes were again bright active places.

I was an air raid messenger, resplendent in my CD armband and steel helmet. My duty, during blackouts was to bicycle messages from the neighborhood wardens to headquarters at the Waltham Police Station or to other wardens and neighborhoods.
The task gave me a sense of really doing something for the war effort beyond buying War Stamps and War Bonds or bringing a jar of bacon fat to school. And, it was exciting tooling around a darkened city where I could, on occasion, yell in passing "put out that cigarette".

The war years were busy for everyone. The work age was dropped to fourteen and schools, if grades were maintained, issued work permits for part time jobs. Everyone worked - often working double shifts. Additionally there was volunteer work to be done in many areas by students, churches and Scout troupes. There were materials drives to collect rubber, aluminum, steel and animal fat; harvests to be brought in (students were given time from school to harvest apples and potatoes), work at the USO and especially military hospitals.

Family life was somewhat fragmented with everyone having busy and odd schedules. My sister and I arrived at the house at the same time one day. With her husband on convoy duty in the North Atlantic, she was around more often than usual. Mother was busy setting the dinner table as I asked if Dad was home. She told me he was in the cellar and admonished me not to aggravate him. I found him near the furnace threading wire through the bowl and shank of his pipes and hanging them on a line. Naturally I asked why he was doing such a thing, to which he slowly and softly replied through clinched teeth,

"Your-mother-washed-my-pipes."

He went on to explain that she didn't like the smell and scrubbed the bowls with a bottle brush. He had just finished swabbing the bowls with alcohol in hopes of absorbing the residual water. It was a quiet dinner that evening. Other than Dad mentioning he was glad she didn't find his meerschaum, I don't think another word was said about the incident. Over the next week or so he blackened the bowl interiors over an alcohol lamp and waxed and buffed the exteriors. The stems were buffed and polished with jewelers rouge. He didn't lose a single pipe.

The war years seemed to pass quickly and with victory in sight life gradually resumed a normal pace. I was too old now for Dad to take me to Raymond's for school clothes and our visits to Ehrlich's ended. About the only times I thought about pipes was when I smelled the smoke. I don't think Dad had been to Ehrlich's for a long while due to time constraints. Briggs, Dill's Best, Country Doctor and Barking Dog were smoked, each for a time before switching to the next. Having a bit more time to hunt for "good" cigarettes than Dad, with his often sixty hour work week, I shared with him when the prospecting was good. Several good relationships with smoke shops and variety stores had been established over the years.

I was more interested in girls, sports and work than pipes and tobacco and continued with cigarettes. My girlfriend's father was an avid Prince Albert fan and had what was known as a smoking stand next to "his chair" in the parlor. It was a table about a foot square and as tall as the chair arm with turned legs and a platform leg support six to eight inches from the floor. The top housed a pipe rack, an ashtray and match holder. There was a drawer for incidentals and, under the drawer, a door enclosing a cabinet that contained his pound of Prince Albert.

As I walked home one day during the waning days of the war, the late western sun silhouetted the figure that approached me. The outline of his cap indicated he was military and, by the distorted shape of the cap's "fifty mission crush", a flyer. The distinctive khaki color of his uniform known as "Pinks" and the shine of his captain's bars became clear as we approached; as did the large full bent pipe clinched between his teeth. He was sharply pressed and walked with authority, his large pilot's sunglasses firmly in place. The thing I didn't notice until I was abreast of him was the adhesive tape holding the glasses in place instead of ears and the massive burn scars that covered his entire face. All of the radio news reports, theater newsreels, newspapers and social studies classes over the years did not bring the war's terrible consequences to me as did the fleeting encounter with that man, probably not far from my age, and the grave sacrifice he had made for his country.

Tobacco became an important commodity after the war. In 1948-1949, under the Marshall Plan, 93,000 tons of tobacco are shipped free of charge to Germany. An April NY Times headline of 1948 read, "210,000,000 Cigarettes to Aid German Economy." The Marshall Plan sent more than $13 billion in aid to Western Europe.

Cigarettes, oddly enough, became a medium of exchange for years during the occupation of Germany.

Copyright© 2010 Ernest Whitenack

Other Better Days Articles
Grandpa Baloney
Granpa Newt
Rememberances
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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