My Father’s Pipe

May 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Chinese-opium-pipes

I wanted to see my mother’s lifeless body for my self – say goodbye. I didn’t really get to when my father died. I said goodbye, but it was an offhanded farewell to a man who was only leaving me on his way run a few errands. They didn’t allow children in the ICU, so that casual hug was the last I ever saw of him. I went to see my mother on every one of her last days. On the final one, I kissed her silent face and cried some tears onto her soft still warm shoulder. I don’t know which memory is worse, her frightened gaping face, or the absence of his.

The really funny thing is, within a few months of her succumbing to a protracted battle with lung cancer, I started smoking again, so did my sister. I had been gratefully clean for ten years, since the birth of my first son. I swore I would never take another puff, I had come to hate my smoking so much, and had such a hard time quitting, that I was sure I had left it behind. To my own considerable surprise, I found myself back to 3, 4 packs a day in no time at all.

In one of my most haunting recollections of my parents, all I can see are the dancing fireflies of the glowing ends of their cigarettes. I would sometimes awaken them in the small hours to escape the horror of a bad dream in the snuggling security of their bed. They would invariably light up as they patiently listened to me babbling down from the nightmare adrenaline rush. In the dark, those dancing tobacco cherries were powerful symbols of their presence, their strength and their love.

She would be dead 2 years before I could muster the inspiration to finally, once again, conquer that horrible addiction. By the time I came to understand its genesis in that hopeless attempt at recovering their eternally lost love, it was too late. My second battle with that evil weed, that had taken both of my parents, turned out to be a protracted and bloody one. Each failed attempt at slogging through the week of confusion and inability to concentrate, each guilt-ridden drag of deeply pressed smoke that so majestically washed away that fog, only strengthened the grip that awful drug had on me. But I did finally succeed, and know better still that I will never let tobacco get a hold of me again. Thankfully none of my kids has been snagged.

When my father was a young man, most people smoked. How peculiar it is, in the light of our current mores, to watch some old movie in which some sexy Noir dame pulls a long drag on a filterless cigarette then picks a piece of tobacco off her tongue with her long dark nails – I presume that some may still find that sexy, but to me, it seems disgusting. My aunt told me that as a boy my father collected pipes.  He had been proud of the old briars and unusual meerschaums he had congregated.  How noble and grown up he must have felt as he clinched some fragrant old stem in his teeth.  However, there was one pipe in his collection that was completely unlike his others. It was clearly not meant to be smoked in the evening with dogs and children gathered round the master’s feet; it was not meant to fight back the gale on the clipper’s bridge, nor inspire the old academic in the wingback chair of his club. This odd pipe, clearly an opium pipe by its tiny bowl and confirmed by the worn ideograms stamped into the flip-up lid of the small container suggesting that it was built some where in China. It is the only one of my father’s I ever met, and was forged out of some unusual alloy which I suppose must be brass, though the color is very pale and steely. I have seen other pipes of a similar design, but no other like his, intended no doubt to soothe the exhausted body of some pitifully poor serf, or inspire the dreams of some pathetically spoiled prince. How it found its way into my father’s collection, I will never know, everyone who might have, is now dead. I doubt that as a young man, whom I’m sure occasionally fired up even his rarest meerschaum, he ever bothered to light this particular pipe.

When WWII came, like most of the rest of his generation, he enlisted. He ended up in a successful yardbird revue and went off to the theaters of war, as the show’s chief cook and ballerina. Hey Rookie finally disbanded in Calcutta, India. My father and his best friend, the show’s band leader, stayed on in India, assigned to manage an opulent officers’ club, my father running the restaurant, his friend the nightclub. As the war drew to a close, they settled into a bizarre and decadent life. Hashish and holiness were common amid the alternating squalor and grandeur of Calcutta, and my father and his friend were initiated into a lifelong quest of heightened consciousness.

While my father was overseas, both his mother and father died, and the family sold their home and dispersed all of their belongings, among which was his pipe collection. Perhaps apocryphally, the narrative went that a few years after his return, a parcel, containing only that old opium pipe accompanied by no return address, no letter, just the one pipe, appeared in their mail, a bit of an omen to the pair of self-described heads

My father usually had to work a night job to support us. As a struggling actor, he kept his days free for auditions and interviews, and would work the graveyard shift as a machinist at the aerospace companies that littered Southern California, and which were booming around the clock in that heyday of the cold war. He would often come home just as the sun was about to rise. Sometimes he would gently carry me to the car still half-asleep, and with our dogs hanging eagerly out the back windows of our mammoth old Buick, I would awaken with the day as we would explore the unknown backroads of Griffith Park, the Angeles Forest, or Santa Monica Mountains in the couple of hours before I had to be in school. I was 10 when on one of these amazing and holy early morning rides we were working our way up to Bee Rock by way of Mineral Springs. I was leaning out the window, watching for golf balls sliced over the fence of the driving range and hiding in the gutter, when he rolled up his window, and asked me to do the same. He took out a minuscule sheet of cigarette paper and one of those old aluminum film cans with the bright yellow screw tops, and quickly rolled a cigarette with one hand as he kept his other on the steering wheel. I had seen him roll hundreds of cigarettes, for although he chain smoked Salems, he often carried a little cotton sack of Bull Durham tobacco that he would roll into little crooked yellow cigarettes as a part of his frequent characterizations of cowboys, the mainstay of TV and his career in those days. I realized that so many young men, weaned on Bogie and traveling, impoveresihed, on the road during the depression must have had similar rolling acumen.

My relationship with him had always seemed to be characterized by his complete and truthful responses to my incessant queries about everything under the sun. But this morning, he admitted that he had lied to me when he had told me that his little film cans contained a blend of Turkish tobacco. He admitted that what he had just rolled was marijuana. He explained that he had a friend, a policeman, whose children had recently busted him with loose talk about the funny cigarettes their daddy smoked. He said he regretted lying to me, but was confident that I was now mature enough to understand the truth. He apologized for his deceit and cautioned me that others disapproved, and that marijuana was illegal, but he also explained that it was a gentle drug. I remembered times when I had seen him smoke that pipe, and recalled how I enjoyed the way he grew warmer, quieter, and reflective. And, I remembered the very rare times when I saw him drink, and how I hated the way he became rude and aggressive – and I felt grateful for that joint he was now smoking. My sisters and I, along with the children of his closest frinds, refered to his pipe as the “peace pipe” and would welcome the laughter that often floated out of the bathroom where they would hide to smoke together in an effort to be discreet.

As our Buick climbed up Mt. Hollywood road, startling the deer returning home in the growing orange light, I rolled up my window, and began to interrogate him about the origins, nature, and effects of this unknown herb. As he patiently answered and explained, he suggested that if I inhaled deeply, I might find out for myself. I don’t recall noticing any effect, but I do recall how proud I felt that he had trusted me with such a delicate piece of his adult world. By the time I felt ready to enter that adult world, he was dead. I deeply regret that I never got to smoke his pipe with him.

I finally did get to smoke his pipe, my first summer (1968) back home after a transformational year on my own at college. Smoking his pipe that first time with my mother, evoked his presence so profoundly, I could almost hear his sweet soft voice. After that day I realized that my relationship with her had been beautifully transformed from that of parent and child, to one of adult peers. A relationship that was always marked by its respect and honestly, until she the day she died almost 20 years later. Another 10 years later my father’s pipe is still a powerful symbol of my parent’s identity to me.

My mother’s bohemian friends, her mastery of the hip dialect that we hippies had co-opted, made my college friends judge her hipitude as almost holy, and I could dig it cause she was pretty holy to me. I easily joined the counterculture. For me, I wasn’t smoking to freak out my mom and demonstrate my independence, I was following in my father’s footsteps, I was exploring my consciousness and seeking truth, and I was exercising a healthy alternative to partying on booze, a behavior that still kills teens by the score. An open dialogue about lifestyles, drugs, and anything and everything else, with her and a few of her friends who had special feelings for me, made my experimentation with these things infinitely safer than for so many of my young friends who were barreling all alone into a dangerous world they knew nothing about. For so many, the only information they had about these things was Women’s Christian Temperance Union educational films that were so full of half-truths, and naive rhetoric as to be counterproductive.

I had a long series of letters with my mother when I was at college, a 1000 miles away, and was contemplating taking LSD. She was against it, but shared what she knew. My father had apparently taken one trip when it first hit the scene, but hated it and never did it again. After his experience she decided not to, but told me about her friends, a couple I knew very well, who had supplied my dad with the acid. She explained that they believed, absolutely, that LSD had been responsible for ending what had been the wife’s increasingly frequent stays in inpatient psychiatric institutions. Indeed, though a very odd person, she has to this day, 35 years after her last trip, remained stable enough to live independently. Of course in those early days they all approached LSD as a therapeutic psychiatric drug.

My parents had an open way with their friends about our home and his pipe. Anyone was always welcome to sit down at our kitchen table and join us for dinner. Afterwards, my father might fill the bowl of his pipe for them and invite them to join our discussion. This openness continued to be offered to my generation. My mother’s house became a haven for all my hippie friends. There, we enjoyed the presence and counsel of some of the old heads that were her friends. The recovering lushes and junkies had things to share that were frightening and enlightening, and most of us were spared the agony of going through their mistakes ourselves, because these people with whom we ate and sat and smoked and talked, had credibility for us. Our long nights of smoking and drinking coffee yielded the beautiful insights and deep understanding that should be so much the hallmark of those years of our youth. Only very few of us who shared those times stumbled off into the oblivion of addiction and excess that was rampant among our less-enlightened peers.

Like them, I would taste anything, but was more cautious of starting on tobacco, though I did, mostly for the high at first. Carefully, I drank a little, then one evening, a little too much and called that one off. Most things, like cigarettes, heroin, or tall glasses of scotch, many of us took once, threw up and just turned away from. But sometimes, when something really hits the spot, and some of us with one drug, and others with others – some of us with sex or shopping or gambling – get sucked in and lost in a pit that seems beyond our control to climb out of. Some substances are more addicting, some less, some not at all, but anything that touches that one spot just right, can become an obsession.

Ironically, my most painful challenges were with caffeine and tobacco, both of which began to have severe affects on my health. After perhaps my 10,000th cup of coffee, my stomach began to ache, my hands began to shake, and my lower back would spasm, my mood would fluctuate and I would become grouchy and sullen whenever it would wear off, but the dark fog I would find myself in each morning cried out for that little cup o’ Joe, and I kept on long after it I knew it was a problem. Finally, I resolved to give it up. I had not been prepared for the powerful withdrawal that I experienced, a nagging headache that was unresponsive to aspirin; blurred vision, lack of energy, and one nasty attitude. I didn’t make the first try, nor the second nor third, but eventually, I succeeded. Though I had to put up with that headache for three full days. Then with a new baby and a hacking cough, I resolved to quit cigarettes too. Another 3 days of agony: nervous and unable to concentrate, then a few weeks of white knuckles, followed by a year of slapping my hand every time the old cues chimed in. 10 years later, after my mother’s death, my second battle with that evil weed, was even more protracted and bloody. trying and failing and trying and failing more times than I could bear to imagine.

Now, I am older, wiser, and less resilient. I miss the artificial mania of coffee and Pepsi, but not the depression. I miss the hypnotic swirling smoke, the appealing accent of that little white baton, but not the hacking cough or the burns. I was too well-informed and cautious to go very far with the other physically addicting drugs like barbiturates or heroin. I easily turned my back on the wild and epic journeys of acid, mescaline and psilosybin, when I had traveled quite far enough. The glowing self-confidence of cocaine and the stumbling numbness of red red wine included such awful corollaries that I quickly ran and never even looked back.  Most of my peers had similar experiences. But too too many, in denial of the dark sides connected to those appealing substances, needed to hit the wall before they could understand and escape. But still, for myself, like so many of us, the comforting and quiet euphoria of cannabis has persisted. Just like the evening cocktail, the soothing glass of wine, and the welcome jolt of cappuccino does for most of us Americans, the communal sharing of our peace pipes is a positive and harmless ritual.

I have often smoked every day, and often not smoked for weeks. I have felt no compulsion, never the constant cravings of tobacco or caffeine, never the throbbing willful battles with addiction. In fact, after I quit smoking cigarettes, one of my most difficult challenges was what to do to finish off a meal. Without the ritual cigarette I had trouble with stopping my eating, and so began to smoke a joint of low grade leaves after every meal, to salve the habit. But despite my love and commitment to the weed, the way getting high at times when I would rather not have been high, actually and automatically broke me of the habit of smoking after I ate, without my even noticing.

Now though, I face a challenge, as my three sons began to smoke cannabis as well, apparently, like most of their friends, smoking in secret. A great many of my adult, invariably boomer, friends still smoke occasionally, or condone it in their friends or mates. My wife no longer does, nor does my sister, we have many friends who just stopped, a few who fought back obsession with it, but they are so rare, and were often struggling with whole suites of substances. Sadly, almost all of us, faced with DARE and SANE and Just Say No as ubiquitous forces in our children’s lives, have hidden it from the kids, have felt compelled by social grace and mortal fear to support the avid witch hunt that they have enlisted our children in. Many of us have looked back on the beer busting, coke crazing, or tripping to the edge, with remorse, most of us have lost friends to the crack pipe, the needle, or a couple-o-toots in the fast lane. And so most boomers have given the appearance of falling into line, delivering the same stupid and dangerous drug-free message that big brother has demanded of all citizens in his self-proclaimed war to save our souls.  The rhetoric has been so broad, and the misery of abuse so clear and so painful, that most of us have fallen in.

But the children are not as stupid as they think. Just like we had done before them, they have seen through the well-meaning lies and denial, and in a horrible vacuum of the truth that we who know so well have assented to hide, they have made the same foolish leap of logic that they can little hope to avoid in their ignorance. If we say “all drugs are bad, they will only hurt you,” and then they see and meet and use drugs that do not seem to hurt, that seem to help, drugs that reduce the crushing anxiety and stress of modern urban life, drugs that make them run faster, jump higher, drugs that make them feel just swell; then that egg metaphor, however clever, is made a lie, which tragically tends to makes the opposite seem true.

But there is an even worse lie, a much broader one that we boomer ex-hippies should know all too well. There never has been, nor will there ever be, a drug-free society. Pepsi is a drug, raspberry leaves are a drug, nitrogen is a drug, oxygen is a drug, tobacco is a drug, white wine is a drug, chocolate is a drug, cocaine is a drug, heroin is a drug, lacquer thinner is a drug, Xylene is a drug, strychnine is a drug, belladonna is a drug. Each of these, and many more, is as much of an individual as are each of us. Each has it own set of benefits and dangers. Each is a little different for each person, some are deadly dangerous, and will leave your brain just like those eggs, some are totally innocuous to one person and deadly to another. I do not want my kids to feel that because the cop who DARED them to live drug-free was a fool, that inhaling the solvent from spray paint is the same as inhaling the smoke from their bong. Those two things are in no way equivalent, and I am angry that someone is out there suggesting to my children that they are. Lumping together the whole panoply of forbidden drugs as acutely dangerous, and the set of legal ones as somehow safe is an absurdity, that while routinely parroted in all quarters of our society, will never fly with the majority of inquisitive adolescents that it is aimed at.

I tell my kids how good cocaine makes one feel and how quickly it can sabotage one’s satisfaction with life. I let them know that it would make them feel strong and happy but not stoned. I let them know that Freud thought it was a wonder drug. I tell them about Conan Doyle’s morbid depression. I explain to them how a friend locked herself in her house for 6 months and thought everyone was out to get her. I make sure they know that for as good as they may feel going up, they’ll feel that must worse, times 3, going down. I explain that crack, coke and freebase are essentially the same drug, worshipped and used practically by the Incas for thousands of years. The kids who can remember her, know that their grandmother’s terminal lung cancer, was caused by her smoking. I point out how every adult I know who smokes cigarettes is desperate to quit, how powerful the addicting effects of nicotine are, and how there are dozens of smoking-related diseases, and thousands of smoking-related deaths. I let them know that ethanol is the active ingredient in beer as well as vodka, and how it destroys brain and liver cells, and fogs your judgment and coordination, how 1/3 to 1/2 of traffic accidents, suicides and murders happen under the inhibition of alcohol, how addicting it can be and how one can die in the grip of the convulsive withdrawal or overdose. I tell them that for many people a few drinks is the only way they can release their inhibitions enough to find the intimacy necessary to fall in love, and how it can reduce the risk of heart disease. I talk about how marijuana makes you apathetic, and the effect it has on short-term memory, but how it helps improve appetite and reduces stress. I tell them how coming down off the caffeine in a couple of sodas or cups of teas can make them paranoid and ill-tempered, just like coming down off of speed or cocaine, and how Xylene can wipe out countless neurons in their brains. I explain how hyperventilating can cause potentially fatal blackouts, and how chocolate can make you hyperactive mostly from the caffeine and not the sugar, how kicking heroin is like a very bad case of the flu, and how gentle it is on ones cells, but how powerful the addiction can be. How over 100 ft. below the ocean, the N2 that makes up 70% of our air becomes narcotic, and how replacing it with helium which is completely chemically inert makes your vocal cords vibrate more quickly so you sound like a chipmunk, but don’t get high. All this and more, all truths and all, too too sadly, hard to come by.

Now my sons smoke my father’s pipe, and I smoke it with them. I tease and criticize them for stuporous afternoons with their bongs and Nintendo, and dare them to give it up for a week. I wont let them drive if they’ve drunk, give them a cup of coffee in the morning if they’ve stayed up late to study, warn them about the crash, scold them for the attitude when they do, and apologize when I do. I am in this with them and I hold my own life, my own regrets, my own triumphs and defeats out in front of them, and we analyze them together. Drugs are a fact of adult life, learning to use them responsibly and in moderation, is a vital task for most young adults. We all seem to know that kids will do as we do and not as we say. We all know that we model our behavior on our fellow members of society, but in this dangerous and important realm, we seem to insist on obscuring the truth of our society’s ubiquitous and generally moderate use of drugs. We leave the kids in a vacuum with only other kids to model, and bombard them with commercial images of romanticized alcohol (read DRUG) use, and then wring our hands and make louder speeches when we finally reap a generation that we have condemned to struggle alone in ignorance with their inevitable drug use. I will not abandon my children to these falsehoods.
 

I cannot imagine not sharing my drug use with my kids, I cannot imagine joining in the confusing lie that I see driving so many of their friends into ignorant abuse. I love them too much to not spare them the pain my parents helped me avoid.

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