17 Dec 2016

Life Magazine Covered Annual Yale Pipe Smoking Competition, 1959

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Andrew Letendre, class of ’58:

Back in the 1950s, smoking a pipe was as much the fashion at Yale as button-down Gant shirts and scuffed white bucks. The pipe smoker set in New Haven was big enough to support two local purveyors: Johnny’s Pipe Shop at College and Chapel streets, and the older and more upscale Owl Shop, around the corner on College. Johnny’s is gone now, but the Owl Shop is still smoking.

Every year, Johnny sponsored a pipe-smoking contest in association with WYBC, the college radio station. The top prize, which usually was an expensive pipe, went to the smoker who could keep his pipe going the longest.”

“I set off for the WYBC studio. By the time I got there, the room was filled with hopeful contestants and a variety of smoking devices. Every imaginable size and shape of pipe was on display, from corncobs and classic clay pipes, to a variety of traditional briars, to a Sherlock Holmes–style calabash and a yellowed meerschaum pipe so delicate the smoker wore gloves so as not to stain the exterior with the oils from his fingers. There even were a few Turkish water pipes!”

“An hour into the match (no pun intended), several green-faced competitors backed out in search of fresh air and a place to chuck.

[Johnny’s] best advice had to do with avoiding nausea, which was sure to well up after an hour or so of puffing. He advised me to take a sip of Coke every now and then to settle my stomach.

So far, I was holding my own. I had used only one match. My pipe was still smoking and the Coke quieted my stomach. More competitors gave up the fight, either from nausea or because their pipes burned out. The field was shrinking.

The guy with the Turkish water pipe was still gurgling away. The last matches were being struck all around me. We were all getting to the bottom of the bowl. Could I hang on? Did I really want to hang on?”

I was getting a bit dizzy. I used my last pipe cleaner and was sickened by what it cleaned out of the stem of my pipe! I was swallowing this gook! I looked around and saw that the room was emptying fast. I was among the last five or six contestants when Johnny showed up, knowing from experience that the contest end was near.

A WYBC reporter returned prepared to interview the grand winner. I was now suffering from a severe headache and a rancid taste in my mouth. My tobacco’s glow was dimming. I tried to restore it with a few deep puffs, only to suck in a mouthful of licorice-flavored tars.

That did it. I got up from my chair and indicated to the proctors that I was finished. They took my name and noted my finishing time, which I don’t remember. All I know is that I was happy to leave the smoke-filled room and get out into the damp New Haven night. I got back to my room, drank another Coke and rushed into the bathroom to barf.

More photos here.

I preferred Johnny’s to the Owl Shop, better tobacco, better priced pipes. I bought my first pipe, a GBD, from Johnny, and my all-time favorite blend was his Aromatic Cavendish. I still have an ancient humidor smelling of the stuff.

Smoking is, of course, in today’s namy-pamby era streng verboten. In my day, we had ash trays in every classroom. I had one Nietszche professor who routinely bummed Luckies from me. I took a graduate seminar on “Structuralist Approaches to a Theory of Architectural Form” one year in which eleven of the twelve males participating had beards (only I was beardless) and everyone smoked a pipe.

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