It is funny how it takes me some time to finally get around to writing some things down. But today I decided it was time to sit down and write about a special event in my life. I celebrated my fifty fourth birthday December 7, 2008. Periodically I find myself going back and reflecting on all the individual pieces that came together for a perfect smoke that day. It was a combination of planning and serendipitous discoveries that made the event work out better than I could have ever imagined.
I spent the previous year gathering the actors for the event – each of them would play a major role in making the day memorable. Each of them came with its own unique story to contribute to the day. In almost every case their past was shrouded with a bit of mystery and certainly a lack of definitive information about their existence before finding me.
The first character I went looking to recruit was a pipe for the occasion. Not just any pipe would do as I wanted one that really fit my birthday in a special way. The more I thought about it the more I wanted to have a pipe that was as old as me. It would be great to smoke a pipe from 1954 on my 54th birthday. So I began the hunt for just such a pipe. My decision imposed limitations on me to just a few makers. The only ones that I know that can be dated to 1954 with any degree of certainty are those made by Dunhill and Peterson. There may well be others that bear a silver hallmarked band, but in my experience the banded ones I have seen were all made in the late 19th or early 20th Century. That gave me a focus for my hunt – an older Dunhill and/or a Peterson pipe.
I emailed Mike Hagley to see if he had a 1954 in his collection of Dunhill pipes that he might be willing to part with. Of course as is often the case in my experience, Mike had several from other years but not a 1954. We ended our correspondence with a promise that he would keep his eyes open for one. I cannot remember the details but eventually Mike emailed me an eBay link to a 1954 Dunhill Shell Briar in a Canadian shape. It was in decent shape but had a replacement stem that had been poorly made. The stem was not seated properly in the shank and appeared to be at an angle. I decided to bid on the pipe and see what I could do. I entered my highest bid and let it sit. I was surprised to see that I was the only bidder. The pictures were rough so it did not give a clear idea of the condition of the pipe. The short and long of it was that when the auction closed and the pipe was mine.
Two weeks went by and Canada Post finally delivered my birth year Dunhill. Upon inspection it appeared to be in very good shape. The finish and the condition of the rim and shank were very good. The reason for the misfit stem turned out to be an angled tenon and not a misdrilled shank done during the repair. What a relief. I cleaned and polished the bowl and shank and re-bent the tenon to straighten it out. (Though even with this work it still did not fit flush to the shank.) As I held it in my hands I began to wonder about getting a new stem made for it. I contacted Dr. Dave at Walker Briar Works to see if he was interested in making a new stem for me. He was up for the challenge and I sent it off to him. He researched what a 1954 Dunhill Canadian stem looked like, took an old Dunhill stem he had in stock and cut it to fit. This allowed for a properly sized white spot for a ’54. He also was able to match the taper on the stem to the original. Once it was finished he shipped it back to me and I was pleased both with his work and to have the first character for my celebration in place.
My attention shifted to the next character I needed to have in place for the day – the tobacco I would smoke in the 1954 Dunnie on my 54th birthday. I looked through my stash of tobacco and I set aside several potential favourites that I could open. But nothing struck me as the right one. I still had time to work on that so I put the search aside for awhile. I knew something would come up and be just right for the occasion.
While I was on holidays in the US, visiting family in Idaho, I decided to check out an old junk shop/antique mall that I always shop at when I am there. I have frequently found some good pipes to refurbish and some other unique tobaciana items. I walked through the many booths of things for sale – three floors worth – and picked up endless old pipes to check out and old tins that on handling proved to be empty. I did find a one pound tin of old Prince Albert that was unopened and added it to my pile but still nothing that fit the bill for what I was looking for in a birthday smoke. I carried my “treasures” to the cash register by the front door on the first floor to settle up and leave. Just as I was taking my cash out of my pocket I happened to glance over my shoulder at a shelf by the door. A small round tin on the middle shelf caught my eye. I put my money back in my pocket, left everything on the counter and went to check it out.
As I got closer I saw that it was a small round tin. It looked like the older 3/4 ounce tins that were available a long time ago. I could see that it was silver with some green squares. I moved the clutter away that made it hard to see and lifted the tin out to have a better look. It was clearly an old one. It had the label Dobies Four Square Mixture. It was full of tobacco and the seal and the tax stamp were still intact. I examined it carefully and found that there was no rust on the outside. The tobacco on the inside did not rattle around as I shook it. All of these are good signs when buying old tobacco. I then inspected the tobacco tax stamp and found that it was dated 1954! I could not believe my eyes. I took it to the counter and immediately added it to the haul and paid for it. I might have found my birthday tobacco to smoke in my 1954 pipe – I just needed to verify its age. I did a web search on the blend and on the importer that had its sticker on the back. The way the address and zip code were set up it pointed to a date of the 50’s. As best as I could determine I had a tin of tobacco from 1954!
The two major players were in place for the birthday celebration – a 1954 pipe and a 1954 tobacco. All that was left was for my 54th birthday to arrive, or so I thought. It was only a few months until my birthday. I had no idea of what lay ahead for me in the drama of my life. I had no clue as to how the third player in my celebration (me) was to be prepared.
In May of 2008 I was greeted at 2AM one morning with a crackling of fire and the flare of light that comes from flames illuminating my bedroom. I looked out the window to see the three houses next door to us on fire. I woke the kids and fled the house. And yes I left the Dunhill and the tobacco in the house. By 8am that morning we were back in the house and found that with all the soaking of fire hoses our basement had 3 inches of black water in it. Everything was in ruins. This time I dug out my favourite pipes and some tobacco to keep as I knew we were in for a long haul with restoration. I had the foresight to pick up the Dunhill and the Dobies Four Square Mixture. This would turn out to be a smart move in the long run.
In July my position at work was closed and I was declared redundant. I was out of work with our house being an unsellable mess. The restoration company was hard at work contacting contractors to do the restoration. I ended up being the general contractor for the repairs and was in charge of coordinating all of the trades. Those were hard days for me but my pipes helped lend moments of sanity to an otherwise insane time in my life. By the end of November we were allowed back into our basement and settled back into the routine of our lives. Only a few days before my 54th birthday we were able to finally get back to some sense of normalcy.
On December 7, 2008 – my 54th birthday I woke up early in morning and made a cup of strong Ethiopian coffee. I picked up one of my favourite books and settled on my front porch with the 54 Dunhill and the 54 Dobies in my 54 year old hands. The sun was shining and it was relatively warm in Vancouver – not something to be taken lightly in December. I popped the old tin of tobacco with a 1954 dime (I thought that would be a nice dramatic touch), removed the paper disc that was on top of the tobacco and which verbally guaranteed a great smoke or my money back and lifted the open tin to my nose. What an amazing aroma! The pungent smell of well aged Virginias and the tantalizing sourness of Orientals came together in what smell like a delightful mixture.
I pinched together a wad of tobacco and packed the pipe. I loaded it as I usually do and checked the draw to make sure it was the way I liked it. I used an old Zippo to light the pipe and drew the smoke into my mouth. Wow what a smoke! The alignment of 54s was complete! I had the 54 Dunhill loaded with a 54 Dobies tobacco and smoked in my 54 year old mouth. What a perfect way to begin the day of the celebration. What ever happened next would be bonus and I would end the day the way I began it – another bowl for this 54 year old in the old 54.