The Old Curmudgeon: Pipe dreams Risks – and rewards – in following a passion

July 2015 Posted in Columnists & Opinion

The Old CurmudgeonBy Vern Holmquist

I must have been about 15 when I first learned of the great joy of pipe smoking. I had tried cigarettes, but it was the aroma and taste of tobacco smoked in a pipe that really turned me on. There was a pool hall in my home town of Bozeman, Montana that sold fine English pipe tobacco that came in small tin cans, Escudo, Capstan, Parson’s Pleasure, Baby’s Bottom (nothing smoother than) and an Irish tobacco named Erinmore.  What a joy these compressed, slow burning tobaccos were, totally different from our Prince Albert, or Sir Walter Raleigh we knew ont the drug store shelf.

And then one day I was sitting at a table in Howie’s Famous Steak House in Butte.  A tall, stately looking gentleman in a tweed sport coat and bow tie, who I took to be English, sat at a table across from me, pulled his pipe out of his pocket, took a fine leather roll up pouch out of another pocket, filled his pipe with fine tobacco, lit up, and sat back with a big contented smile on his face. I knew right right there and then I saw my future, and from that day on I was never seen – well almost never seen – without a pipe in my mouth.

Along came WWII and I found myself in England flying around on B-17s with the Mighty 8th Air Force.

With time on my hands, I visited some of the factories where fine English pipes were made and I spent time in London’s pipe shops where I was proudly shown old ledgers proving they were tobacco suppliers to such and such a king, lord, or other famous personages.

When I got back home I could not wait to open my own pipe shop, and I did. My shop in Bozeman impressed traveling men, politicians and tourists, but not the people I needed to make a living.

An executive with Western Hotels offered me a location in the lobby of the Northern Hotel in Billings.

I was well aware of the camaraderie between pipe smokers, but was surprised to find one of my most devoted customers was none other than a man many at the time considered the most powerful man in the United States. Yes, the longest serving Senate Majority Leader, our longest serving Ambassador to Japan, pipe-smoking Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana.

Mike not only dropped by my shop when he could, but others from Washington would drop by to say Mike told them to stop in and say hello.  Well, I could not make a go of it in Billings either, but still having that image in mind I took a job managing Leonard’s Pipe Shops in Portland.

My good wife found a house we wanted to buy, but the Realtor we were using explained that the house was owned by the Veterans Administration and they were very strict on credit and as I had just been forced into bankruptcy, no chance… but did I have anything to show that might help?

I showed him a letter I had received from my friend Mike Mansfield. The Realtor showed the letter to the Veterans Administration. A few days later we bought the house, which turned out to be a good investment. Mike Mansfield, thank you, my friend.

As the years went by I owned three pipe shops, went broke in all three but enjoyed all three.

So much for the pipe dreams.

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