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Soot, stench and spit — chain smokers in their glory days

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During the 1960s, when I was in high school, I (along with all my buddies) smoked cigarettes. Fortunately, during this period, instead of causing cancer, cigarettes were deemed only to stunt your growth. “You better give up those smokes,” we were told, “or they’ll stunt your growth.” Cancer was never mentioned, just height. The growth-stunting hazard wasn’t much of a deterrent.

More recently, as a result of current news articles, a couple of my fellow retirees and I have had clumsy conversations about the evils and injuries of vaping, and its odious comparisons to the cigarette-smoking generation we grew up in. Our discussion resolved nothing, but the prattle did provoke some distant and foggy memories of a couple of recidivist smokers, each of whom would easily qualify for the Reader’s Digest designation of My Most Unforgettable Character — if anyone is old enough to remember that feature in the monthly edition.

One of these nicotine-addled eccentrics was my pipe-smoking grandfather (dead for 40 years), and the other a former teacher colleague of mine — who is, surprisingly, still extant.

I’ll get back to these scoundrels in a minute.

Apparently, there are people even smarter than psychologists who tell us that smells are among our strongest memory triggers. It seems to be about biology: they say the olfactory sense is directly connected to areas of the brain that are concerned with emotion and memory — especially childhood memories. Old folks in particular tend to experience this phenomenon — endless possibilities for unexpected recollections provoked by a smell.

Fresh-baked biscuits, boiled cabbage on a wood stove, yeast and molasses, damp stone cellars, ploughed ground after a rain, wet woollen mittens on the furnace grate, the pee on a baby’s leather shoes, a newly opened tin of tobacco. And what about the smell of your Aunt Theresa’s geraniums, the varnish and piety of the parish church and the unimprovable barn smell of cow shit and straw?

And among these smells, the pleasant aroma of my grandfather’s pipe tobacco was probably the most agreeable — that is, right up until he abandoned his pipe for the pleasures of roll-your-own cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

You don’t come across many pipe smokers these days. Nearly extinct they are, although I can report a recent sighting on a September Saturday at a rural Petro-Can where I stopped for gas. An elderly white-haired man upholstered in tweed was at the counter paying his bill (with cash), puffing away on a crooked pipe, a white cloud around his head. No one complained about him smoking inside the building, and if they had, I am certain he wouldn’t have paid the slightest attention. The old guy had leathery skin and one tooth (in the bottom jaw). The sweet smell of the tobacco cloud that surrounded him was wonderful. After painstakingly counting his change, the pipe smoker issued a polite thank-you and left.

Setting aside for a minute the nefarious health issues, it’s a shame about the scarcity of pipe smokers these days. I miss them.

Before the First World War, pipes, cigars and chewing tobacco were the popular forms of tobacco consumption. In the muddy trenches of France, pipes and cigars were cumbersome and unmanageable and tobacco companies sensed an opportunity. They sent millions........

© The Telegram