Al Batt: The interest rate is high when you borrow trouble

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

We talked all afternoon and never ran out of things to say. It was a Mayberry moment on a front porch.

A friend talked of his childhood experience of working for a farmer who offered him Copenhagen (smokeless tobacco) with the promise it would make him a man. He tried it and described the noteworthy event as the closest he has ever come to dying.

One of life’s greatest mysteries in a world filled with mysteries is the need of humans to use tobacco.

In the murky past, my wife and I stopped to see a white buffalo (bison) calf named Miracle in Janesville, Wisconsin. The Dalai Lama had visited it, two Teds (Turner and Nugent) tried to buy Miracle and David Letterman wanted it to appear on his TV show. American Indian prophecies said the white calf’s birth would restore harmony to the world. They left tobacco as an offering.

Back when I thought I was the cream of the Batt crop and my financial planner was a pink piggy bank advertising a defunct savings and loan, the movies presented cigarette smokers galore. Doctors and professional athletes were chronic smokers—mostly cigarettes—but there were pipe smokers. I considered pipe smokers like Sherlock Holmes to be thoughtful, unhurried and wise. They filled a day with smoke and insightful comments. Pipe smokers always had something to do. They tamped tobacco with a tamping tool, maintained proper charcoal buildup in the bowl, put tobacco into and scraped ashes out of the bowl. They spent most of their time lighting and relighting the tobacco with matches or lighters. Otto Sorenson was one of those. He sat in the local barbershop with the other loafers and tried to light his pipe with kitchen matches. My self-described job was to engage him in conversation so he’d never accomplish that task. I asked a lot of questions and Otto ended up with a pile of spent matches without doing any puffing. When he realized my treachery, he’d say, “Watch it or I’ll reach up and pull your socks down.”

I and my neighbor Crandall were youngsters when curly (sour) dock caught my attention. Its flowers weren’t showy and had browned at maturity at the end of a long, slender stalk. The seeds were triangular, sharp-edged and glossy red-brown. They looked like pipe tobacco to me. I pointed it out to Crandall and suggested it was time we took a major step toward manhood by becoming pipe smokers. We sprang into action. We were canaries in a coal mine out behind the barn.

We built a pipe out of a corncob with a hollow willow stick for a stem. It was a science fair project gone awry. It was lopsided, but that provided charm. Crandall sped off on his bicycle and came back clutching his father’s Zippo lighter with an image of the Navy aircraft carrier he’d served on. We might have been weak in our upper stories, but we were on the cusp of becoming real men.

Crandall insisted he smoke first. I protested, but he countered by saying he had the Zippo. He had me on a technicality.

I gave him the brown seeds/flowers/sepals I’d plucked from the plant. Crandall stuffed it into the pipe and, lacking the proper tool, tamped it with his forefinger.

This was before crowds began saluting favorite performers by holding up lighter flames. Crandall flicked the Zippo open, slid his thumb down the flint wheel and the lighter was lit.

“First time, every time,” said Crandall and lighter in the air, he touched fire to the poor man’s tobacco in the corncob pipe bowl. It took.

I detected no delightful new pipe smell. Crandall took a couple of big puffs with a smile that soon disappeared.

I’d expected heel clicks of delight and appreciation, but he looked saggy and was the color of painted grass. Life is a winding road. I figured we were growing up on different schedules and it wasn’t Crandall’s time to become a man.

He handed me the homemade pipe, dropped the Zippo into a cow pie and staggered off, walking his bike home in the wrong direction.

I pulled the Zippo from its precarious position and stoked the tobacco fire with it.

I took a couple of puffs and the barn began to spin. I stumbled into the spinning barn, where I had a fitful nap on a pile of hay.

But not before I’d dropped the Zippo into a cow pie.

Al Batt’s columns appear in the Tribune every Wednesday.