For several summers when I was in my teenage years, I worked on a large cattle ranch in northern New Mexico with my Grandfather. It seemed like there were only two speeds to working with my Grandfather: all out, “elbows and *butt holes” or complete down time. It was during those idle times when all the wood was chopped, water buckets were full, dishes were washed, horses were shod, and the saddle house was mucked out that I would wander off into the surrounding woods to think and dream of life that was and life that might be.
Sometimes I would be so lonely that I needed to be by myself. One day I found a meadow not too far from the cow camp. I went there to think and when I got tired of that I smoked. I tried one of granddads worn down pipes and some of his Prince-Albert-in-a-can. That wasn’t a good idea. It made me sick.
As long as I had known granddad, he had smoked a pipe. Every time he pulled air through the red glow of that cheap tobacco it reminded me of two lovers embracing. There was much about smoking one of his old pipes that was disgusting. Some of it had to do with the Prince-Albert-in-a-can that burned hot and felt heavy in my lungs.
But the other unpleasant aspect of it was that granddad never brushed his teeth—ever. Not once in his life. There is no record of him ever having gone to a dentist. Granddad’s teeth looked like wet dirt when he smiled. They were worn down to the gums on both sides of his mouth from years of clamping tight on that pipe. From time to time he would carry it in the front of his mouth, but that looked silly and he couldn’t cuss from that position. The thought of putting a chomped and scared pipe stem that had once been in a brown mouth into mine made me shutter.
But I found a way to smoke. I smoked tree bark. The inner bark of a dead Aspen tree was prime smoking material. As a tree decays chunks of the bark would break loose from the trunk and hang suspended by blond strands of fiber. The yellowish brown strands that clung to the trunk were the best.
I would tear off a handful and rub it between my hands to soften and clean it. Then I would roll it up into a piece of brown grocery sack, about the size of a small cigar. And there I did my best imitation of Clint Eastwood in a cheap western, smoking a stub of a cigar. My homemade version burned quickly and the flame on the end would get pretty big, but it didn’t make me dizzy like that Prince-Albert-in-a-can.
I am not sure why sucking a piece of grocery sack filled with tree bark felt good. Some of it was that I felt big when I smoked: Older…adult. Some of it was that I felt a deep comfort every time I breathed that warm smoke into my lungs; it felt good having something outside me going deep inside.
The good thing about smoking tree bark in a meadow by yourself is that you never get sick. You just look big and you feel comfort go inside. I remember wishing I could feel the comfort outside of the meadow. But wouldn’t people laugh at a boy smoking tree bark with singed eyebrows no matter how good it made him feel?
Smart people say that it is one of the signs of maturity when a child begins to learn to comfort itself without dependency on an adult. It doesn’t matter how a child comforts itself, but that he learns to do for himself what only others used to do. But what if the child learns to comfort himself with something harmful? Like say pornography, alcohol, religion, work, tobacco, image management or video games?
Seems to me how a person learns to access those deep places in a young and impressionable soul are vital to the entire trajectory of his life. If he chooses the wrong mode of comfort, it might have dire consequences. How vital it is for a healthy adult to be a guide for this discovery.
I watch my adult sons these days and see that they have found ways to touch those deep places in their souls. Some of their strategies are healthy and but some are saccharine substitutes. I wish I had been a better guide. I pray them better guides.
“…so I will comfort you…” Isaiah 66:13
I have learned that a serious conversation with the Prince of Peace is better than smoking a Piggly Wiggly cigar.
*This is not the word my grandfather would use. But I am trying to keep this PG.