Some twenty-odd years ago Simeon Turner was an American teenager who’d ventured out upon a school trip to the United Kingdom, and who was trying to figure out what he could pick up as just the right souvenir, a physical object which might serve as an enduring anchor for his memories from the other side of the Atlantic after he returned home. He wanted something signally “British”, of course... and what, short of a knighthood from Her Majesty or a bulldog (of the actual canine variety, not the pipe) named “Winston” could have been more English a thing to pick up than a classic English briar? Of course, the gentle encouragement of a chaperoning teacher who happened to be a pipe man himself (oh, how times have changed, even for our generation) didn’t hurt any either. Like the old poem about a single horse-shoe nail changing the tide of a battle, in our personal lives, as in the history of man as whole, these little things can lead to big changes as time, and their influence and consequence, progresses onward.
As things played out, it was actually not until a few years later, post-graduation, that Simeon even got around to taking his teacher’s advice that he might actually enjoy smoking the thing. (“Enjoy” being the key word – he did try the pipe once, while he was still in the UK, but as with many of us the results of his first foray were less than auspicious.) With time and patience, however, Simeon came upon the learning of how to make smoking a pipe a pleasing and satisfying experience. Since it’s a familiar progression, you can probably guess where this next led: Simeon, having learned to enjoy the pipe, eventually got it into his head that he might enjoy making his own, as well. By this time he had become a high school teacher himself, and no doubt the ready access to the school’s fully-equipped wood shop seemed fortuitous. Unfortunately, Simeon was an English teacher, and not a shop teacher, and once again the results of his initial, inexperienced efforts were, to say the least, mixed (and no doubt once again quite familiar to many who are reading this).
There’s an old Japanese tale about a young man who wished to avenge his father, and so traveled to the home of a great sword-fighting master, intent to become a formidable swordsman himself. The master left the young fellow waiting for months, through day and night, sun and storm, before even taking him in - at which point he set the lad to fetching heavy pales of water, every day, for over a year. When the young man finally began pestering him again, the master sent him to chopping wood – for three years. At that point the young man questioned the master again, wondering if he was ever going to be taught the old man’s art at all. At that point, at last, the old man handed him a sword and commanded him to cut a target. And the younger man did – landing a powerful blow with speed and precision, and as naturally as he might have slapped the target with his own hand. It was that at that point that the old man accepted the younger as a student who might even begin to be taught his techniques, including the most important of all – those of how to defend against another man’s cuts.
The lesson that old story was meant to illustrate was that by leaving the young man to wait, the old master tested his dedication and patience, that by setting him to fetch water, he built his strength and endurance, the physical foundation upon which fighting skill would rely, and that by ordering him to chop wood, he gave the young man the chance to teach himself how to use a tool (and a weapon is, fundamentally, a tool) as an extension of his own body, allowing it to do the work it was designed to do with one’s own strength and coordination acting simply and subconsciously to control and stabilize its path.
Simeon isn’t some magical prodigy who picked up a block of briar and, bam, turned a spot-on beauty of a stummel the very first time– I can’t think of any pipemakers who are, even amongst the most renowned. Those very, very few who can claim to have made a pipe that was so much as “passingly good” from the very beginning are also those who happened to already have had years of experience in other fields of design and craftsmanship. It takes a lot of work, and patience, to learn how to make something not only beautifully, but even properly, by hand. And it’s the very willingness to put work and patience into practice, and to listen to any established artisan who will lend him an ear and a bit of advice, that Simeon does show, and he does so to a degree that’s hard to come by. When we first heard Simeon had won the Most Improved Pipemaker Award at last year’s West Coast show, and that he had sought out and studied under Jeff Gracik in order to learn anything he could from the artisan behind J. Alan pipes, it was a good sign. Like professional talent scouts, we picked Turner pipes up not just on what we saw was already there, but, just as importantly, the potential we saw in their creator’s attitude and spirit.
Eric Squires: Copywriter