World War II raged away in neighboring England and on the continent. The farmers who lived in the same townland in North Longford, Ireland would come to my grandmother’s house every evening to sit around the big fireplace and wait to hear the latest war news broadcast on short wave radio.
Grandmother sat in a cosy armchair at the corner of the fireplace right by the large radio which was in a cabinet behind her left shoulder. The news didn’t come on until around 9:00 p.m. so the men engaged in farm chatter, told stories, and smoked their pipes.
I would sit on a small stool across from my grandmother hugging the other end of the fireplace.
As a six-year old, I would be alternately charmed and terrified by the stories I heard the men tell, but by the end of the evening I would be hypnotized watching the repetitive ritual involved in smoking a pipe.
Each man would retrieve from an inside pocket in his jacket a pouch which contained a hefty chunk of tobacco, a small hand knife, and of course a pipe. There was something comforting about this ritual and I came to remember every detail. Jimmy Quinn, one of the regulars who visited each evening, usually settled into a chair next to me. I could observe every meticulous detail Jimmy followed in preparing his pipe and in smoking it.
He would retrieve his pouch as if it were sacred, open it slowly and take out the tobacco and then the knife. He would very delicately cut a few slivers of tobacco from the chunk which he would then store along with the knife back in the pouch and place in his inside pocket. He would place the tobacco slivers in his left hand and with his right hand knead the slivers until they were almost powder. All was done with slow, affectionate care.
I loved the smell of the tobacco and watched mesmerized Jimmy’s every move. The ground tobacco ready, he would reach into his trousers’ pocket and pull out his pipe. It was a shiny
brown pipe and had a curl in its handle. I thought it quite handsome. Jimmy would slowly fill the pipe with the ground slivers and take great care not to let the tiniest fragment fall on the ground.
He was equally careful to retrieve every mite of tobacco lodged between his fingers. With his right hand he held the mouth of the pipe at the edge of his left hand and with the index finger of his right hand deliberately, gently, and fondly press every smidgeon of the tobacco into the pipe until it was packed. He would then look at his pipe with satisfaction for ten seconds or so.
Next came my favorite part. Jimmy would reach for the large thongs by the fireplace, grab a glowing coal and sit back as he placed the coal on the top of his pipe and puffed and puffed until the tobacco was glowing as well. He would put the thongs down in its regular spot and firmly put the cap on his pipe. The hour of contentment had come. Jimmy would puff so peacefully, emit an occasional pleasurable sigh. And I would relax deeper into my little three- legged stool.
The contentment could not be tampered with. These neighbors in the telling of their stories mellowly agreed completely with whatever was said and announced their approval with a long puff of their pipes and a “Oh indeed, yes.” Thoughts of the war and its horrors receded.
I would watch the puffs of smoke rise languidly toward the ceiling and disappear. The room filled with the pleasant odor of the tobacco. It was all so genteel. I loved it. I would begin to nod off as I gazed into the heart of Grandmother’s wide fire and lost myself in the magic of its dancing gold, red, and dark blue flames. For this night and every night like it, war belonged in another world.