James L. Blackburn

Warm Briar

What a contemplative thing it is to smoke a pipe, especially on a rainy December day.  While the wind blows sheets of fine spray across the windowpane, obscuring my view of the neighbor’s evergreens, and rattles the roof gutters, and sends a permeating chill to every corner of my little flat, I can sit sweater-comforted with my thoughts and this warm briar.  A cold, rainy day is perfect for a pipe.  The wisp of steam rising from my coffee cup parallels the blue-white column of smoke undulating over the bowl as a charmed snake.  They approach one another as modest lovers, embrace, entwine, become one, become nothing.  My thoughts are like the smoke and the steam: ephemeral, drifting.  Perhaps pipe smoking is Western man’s meditation.

I come from a family of smokers and ex-smokers, but I’m the only member who ever smoked a pipe; not frequently, mind you, but when the mood is right, as today.  My grandfather smoked a lot, but he smoked Winstons.  He practically supported the makers; he smoked four packs a day as far back as I can remember.  He would sit at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a pack of Winstons, looking out of the window at his fields.  So many times, I saw him there; I can see him still, a big, powerful man, heavily muscled with thick, round shoulders and a deep chest.  His meaty forearms rest like hams on the red-and-white-checkered tablecloth.  Beside them sit his Winstons, his lighter (the kind with the plastic body you look through and see the fluid), an ashtray from Niagara Falls, a can of Pet Milk, the cheap, ceramic sugar bowl, and his coffee cup, one of those plastic base-types with the white snap-in cones.  He takes a long draw on his cigarette and holds it there, in front of his face, while he slowly exhales through his nose, a dragon in my grandmother’s kitchen.  With slow deliberate movements (he did everything slowly and deliberately) he squeezes a thick, calloused finger through the little cup handle to take another sip.

The old man passed away a few weeks ago, to no one’s surprise.  He was seventy-two and had gotten sedentary in his later years.  The smoking, the idleness, and the farmer’s diet caught up with him.  He had stroke after stroke, getting smaller and more frail with each, until he could barely speak.  His voice became a raspy squeak, and listeners were resigned to smile and nod before they looked away.  I saw him only once after his strokes.  The debilitated, aged man I saw was a stranger, not the farmer of my childhood.  I felt bad for him and patted his shoulder and kidded him about chasing women.  I didn’t know what else to say.

It was the best that I could do for him.  After all, he had brought it upon himself.  He was such a stubborn old man.  Every one in the family had said, “Bud, that smoking is going to kill you.”  But he wouldn’t listen.  You couldn’t tell him anything.  Every night he would eat meat and potatoes, meat and potatoes; and in helpings twice what my father would eat.  He would sit at the head of the heavy, old dining room table – which had huge claw-and-ball feet on which I was forever smashing my toes – and level these little mountains of food.  My great-grandfather would sit at the foot of the table and the two old hayseeds would talk fences or corn or cows.  Both were uneducated farmers, sometimes cantankerous, always stubborn, set in their ways, the old ways.  My great-grandfather shaved with a straight razor and rolled his own Prince Albert and Zig Zag cigarettes until his death at ninety-two.  You could tell neither of the old coots a thing.

I can remember sitting at that table as an adult, listening to the arguing, the narrow-mindedness, the unabashed sexism and thinking how phony “The Waltons” television show was.  The old sage that was Grandpa Walton was not my grandfather.  I’m sure my grandfather never finished high school.  He spent his whole life living and working on farms in Upstate New York.  The closest he came to technology was a CB radio for his truck.  He was always twenty years behind the times.  From the time I was eighteen, with long hair, we never had much to say to one another.  He never said so, but I think he thought I was a hippie.  He was always nice to me, of course; but I didn’t go out to the farm much after that.  The older he got, the more he just sat around and drank coffee and smoked cigarettes.  After I grew up there wasn’t much to do out there, and the old couple was rather boring to be around.  We just didn’t have anything in common.

I didn’t go to the funeral.  I should have, I suppose, but I live four hundred miles away now, and I’m very busy with my job; and it isn’t like we were close.  The last time I saw him, after his strokes, I was very uncomfortable.  After his first stroke the doctor had told him to quit smoking; and my grandfather had been so frightened that he listened to him.  When I saw him sitting at the same kitchen table, but with bottles of pills next to his coffee, a shrunken, enfeebled Methuselah, I was at a loss for words.  His gaunt, wrinkled hands were folded in front of him, no longer having a cigarette to hold.  He recognized me and smiled a half-smile.  He tried to speak but I couldn’t understand him.  He seemed to know this and didn’t speak again before I left.  I told him to take it easy and listen to the doctor.  There was irony in this advice; my grandfather never listened to doctors.  He only went to them when it was imperative, which was seldom; he thought them all charlatans, and he told them so.  I bet the old coot raised some hell in their offices.

This is a nice tobacco I’m trying, sweet and aromatic.  It burns a little too fast, though, which makes the briar hot.  I shouldn’t complain; my drafty old flat is so chilly the bowl will keep my hand warm.  The briar is the color of rosewood, with black swirled through it.  The bowl is large, making my small hand look even smaller.  My hands are small for a man.  I try to keep them manicured to compensate for their size.  “They are the hands of an artist”, I like to think; but they could belong to an accountant, or a clerk.  They certainly are not a farmer’s hands.  My grandfather had tremendous hands.  They had broad palms with thick fingers.  They always looked dirty, even after he washed them.  The backs of his fingers were lined with dark cracks, and his nails and cuticles were never white like mine.  He kept a bar of Lava soap in the kitchen, and when he came in from the barn or the fields he would scrub and scrub his hands, but they never got really clean.  I remember when I was small and he would take me by the hand down to the barn.  My hand would be flat inside his, not even filling his palm.  I would feel his calluses, like warm burlap, pressed gently against my skin.

The old bear could be gentle at times.  One spring – I must have been seven or eight – he took me down to the barn; he had to pitch straw.  It was late morning and the sun was high above the treetops on the wooded hill to the east.  We walked down the tractor path, whose ruts were perpetually muddy.  My small, green pack boots had problems negotiating the hard ridges and soft bottoms of the ruts.  I stumbled along behind the big man who ambled as a bull in no particular hurry.  I remember looking up at his back in awe as we walked.  With broad, round shoulders and head nodding slightly with each step, he looked from behind like a bear wearing a green cap and red hunting jacket.  His steps were slow and deliberate; his heavy, mud-caked boots unimpeded by the same wheel tracks that hindered me.  I tried to follow in his footprints but they were too far apart.

At the barn he told me to wait for him while he went up to one of the fields to check on something.  The cows had been put out to pasture at dawn, and I was alone in the barn.  There was a heady mixture of smells as I explored the dusky old building: manure, straw, diesel fuel.  There were rusty chains of various sizes, with thick hooks on each end, hanging from nails against the walls and strewn along the floor.  In a wooden feed bin was silage, whose intoxicating aroma and coarse texture invited me to plunge my hands deep and watch the green and tan nuggets sift through my fingers.  In one corner sat an antique corn shucker.  I thought it a fascinating mechanical mystery.  A narrow wooden box, it sat on rusty iron legs and had an equally rusty crank in the center of one side.  If I turned the crank, which took both hands to start, and dropped an ear of dried corn into the chute at the top, kernels would rain out of the bottom and a stripped cob would pop out through a separate chute.  The operation was accompanied by teeth-grating crunches and rattles, not so loud as to keep me from amusing myself for several minutes.  Pausing between ears, I looked out of the big open doorway and saw my grandfather’s rumpled form coming down the tractor path.  As he grew nearer I could see the gleam from his broad smile.  Within his powerful arms he carried a newborn calf.

I ran from the barn to meet him and he laid the calf at my feet.  It was a Holstein, with deep blue eyes and black and white hide.  When I asked if it was a boy or a girl, he responded by raising its rear leg and pointing to four pink teats nestled amid white fur.  Her whole belly was covered in white, but sparsely so that her tender pink skin was visible beneath.  The old man stroked the long white belly slowly with his cracked and wrinkled hand.

“She’s got four little titties, ” he said, “four little titties”, over and over as he petted the sleek new fur.

We took the calf into the barn and bedded her down in straw.  I stayed with her until my grandfather returned with the dam.  When he was satisfied of their comfort, he went out and climbed into the seat of his red Massey Ferguson.  The old tractor reluctantly chugged to life, belching puffs of black diesel exhaust.  He let it idle for a minute, then yelled, “Coming, Grandson?”  I ran to the side of the great steel beast and looked up at his weathered face.  He smiled, reached down and offered an open palm.  His hand enveloped mine as he pulled me up onto the running board, from which I climbed into my usual spot.  I stood on the axle house next to him, leaning back on the wheel fender.  With one hand I gripped the fender, with the other his coarse wool sleeve.  I held tightly as we lumbered up the path.  Sometimes he would look at me and smile.  He would reseat his green cap on his shiny, freckled head, look at me and smile.

My pipe has gone out now.  The ashes are cold but the briar is still warm.  That is the nice thing about a pipe; when the smoking is over, the pipe remains.  Tobacco lasts only a short time, but you can keep a pipe your whole life.  The rain on my window pane has stopped, and I can see the evergreens clearly now.  They seem oblivious to the cold and rain of an early winter day.  But in their verdure I see a springtime.  I see dogwood blossoms bordering a plowed meadow, and a crisp breeze carries the smell of fresh-turned earth.  Shadows of clouds race across sunlit fields, and the chug-chug-chug of a diesel is heard in the distance.  An old man in a hunting jacket guides a red tractor through an opening in a crumbled stone fence.  Poplars wait for him beside the path.  They show their petticoats in the breeze, and whisper as he passes.

James L. Blackburn is a freelance journalist living in southwest Florida with occasional expeditions to Ecuador.