Rhythm and Solace

It's been 13 years since I went to the Sandbox, and my connection to it distorts with time, twisting like tendrils of smoke. War is many things — hell, famously, being one of them — but it has a certain primal rhythm.

I like rhythm, or recognize it at least, which is more than I can say for the many events that transpire in this world. Perhaps that's why I like smoking pipes; there's a rhythm that transcends each moment, a necessary cadence sustaining the fire within. A bit like life, really.

Emotions surge, unbidden. Puff. Memories wax ominous. Puff.

...there's a rhythm that transcends each moment, a necessary cadence sustaining the fire within.

For eight months, I woke every morning to a menacing rhythm. A Two-Forty-Bravo is a heavy staccato, faster than even my most overzealous puffing. In the pre-dawn light, about 50 feet away from my bunk, the outgoing patrols test-fire their weapons. A Squad Automatic Weapon is smaller and faster than the 240B, like a Dunhill Group 2 Pot versus an ODA Billiard.

The rhythm becomes tangled and too fast. I take a deep breath, then practice smoke rings. Puff. Not too close together; it doesn't work. I let one linger before I try the next, and my pulse slows. Echoes of the devil's alarm clock mellow, and I let my chair rock a little.

They say that a combat tour is months of boredom punctuated by minutes of terror. That's a bad rhythm. An M2 Bravo is a .50 caliber machine gun, the big boy, slower rate of fire, booming, comforting. An Ardor Giant? That's what was mounted on my truck. GUH-GUH-GUH. My heart accelerates at the remembered sound. Too fast again.

I was told that you have to manage the rhythm. Activate your autonomic nervous system to mellow out. The words float upward and I draw them in with a fresh breath from my pipe, hold them in, considering both. Puff-hold.

Tactical breathing is practiced by warfighters and emergency responders. Inhale slowly, four seconds, hold four, exhale four, hold four. The smoke drifts toward my porch roof. It's a better rhythm than a .50 Cal. A slight breeze catches the smoke and it dissolves. It seems a good end to the smoke, a peaceful melding with nature.

Days have rhythm, even the worst ones. Like pipes. I stare at the Tigris river, the lifeblood of Iraq, trying to process the days' events. Then I try not to. I want that bowl to be over, the fire in it to go out. But I keep going. Puff. I am back on my porch, my world confined to the feeble glow of my pipe. I give it a couple of desperate pulls, drawing air through it, the simple act keeping the glow, and me, alive.

Days have rhythm, even the worst ones. Like pipes.

My pipe heats in my hand, unable to adequately control the blaze I am creating, just as my mind struggles to contain the fire of memories best forgotten. The rhythm is wrong, and I correct it, consciously inhaling through my nose as I draw a gentler flow of air through the tobacco.

There we go. I realize my chair is no longer rocking and give a gentle push. Sip. Rock. Sip. The crisp night air mingles with the smell of maple topping, and it smells good. Puff. Burning trash smells terrible, war much worse. Adrenaline surges. Puff. Rock.

The wind stirs, and I subconsciously duck my head. Helicopter blades beat the air. You have to duck your head when you walk to the bird. No one wants their fire to go out like that. WHMP-WHMP-WHMP. The blades spin fast, but somehow the concussion of air comes in a slow, steady rhythm. Puff. Rock. WHMP.

A helicopter can take you to safety or the opposite. My cadence is off, and my pipe is failing. I hastily relight, welcoming the glow of my lighter's flame. Flick. Puff. Puff. The light ruins my night vision. I see flares exploding from the back of a Chinook. The back ramp is open to the night air, making the fireworks the only thing I see. The Crewmaster is yelling, "Missile inbound!" The aircraft shakes and banks back and forth, adding evasive maneuvers to the flares. I wonder if he meant RPG. I wonder if I am about to die.

I am rocking far too fast now, one hand gripping the smooth armrest of my chair, the other crushing the bowl of my favorite Dublin. The plateau of the rim digs into my hand, reminding me of the present. My breath sticks in my throat, my heart along with it. Rock-rock-rock. I focus on the pipe; it needs me. I draw through it and am rewarded with a little smoke. Not enough. I focus on the rhythm, trying to get it going again without my lighter. Puff. Rock. Puff.

My patience is rewarded and the flow of smoke resumes. Four in, hold, four out. Tendrils of smoke trickle upward with the retrohale. I examine my pipe's grain in the dim light, marveling at the striations that are both uniform and different, each precious, each unique. Like lives.

My patience is rewarded and the flow of smoke resumes.

Memories get stuck. That's what they say. It takes a rhythm to get them unstuck, a certain back-and-forth therapy called Eye-Movement-Desensitization-Reprocessing. I have benefited from this treatment but wonder if I have found a variant. Puff. Rock. Think.

My bowl nears its conclusion, the ashes of my porch-adventure a cooling remnant in the pipe's chamber. I feel loss at the memory of fires that will never rekindle. I refuse to surrender to the encroaching darkness. I empty the troubling thoughts from my mind with the ashes from my pipe and refill.

Flick. Puff. Puff. The lighter's flame is the only fire I see this time. Rock. Puff. Afternoon Delight is the only thing I smell now. Puff. Beautiful grain is the only thing I see now. Puff. Calm is the only thing I feel now. Puff. It's a good rhythm. The rhythm of solace.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Pipe Culture


    • Richard Rule on July 7, 2021
    • Well written, kept me moving along, and we all battle our demons.... for sure the rhythm you mention is one sure way to help accept and move them along the way.

    • Tampaholic on July 10, 2021
    • It's dark, I awake in a cold sweat. I believe that I had PTSD before I joined the U.S.ARMY, I told my recruiter that I suffered from depression since I was 13 yrs old...he told me to not mention it( I was his Alpha, and that's gold in recruiting). I remember him calling me about my test scores after I took the ASVAB, "You're a brain surgeon, you can pick any job you want." but nothing that I wanted was available. I had to settle. All my line scores were 110 or above, if I had a college degree at the time then I could have enlisted as an officer. Where am I going with this? 3 combat deployments later, I'm low crawling to my fridge by the pale moonlight with my Tom Eltang basic poker between my teeth; I open my fridge only to screem out in horror "Nooooo!!!", I'm outta Miracle Whip! After reading this article, I had flashbacks of carrying that S.A.W.(SQUAD AUTOMATIC WEAPON). I was a PFC on my first combat deployment(1999), someone had dropped their end of a bundle of pickets( probably over 300lbs) and broke my left big toe for the second time. I had to lug that S.A.W. around on crutches along with a 300 round canister, it caused some neck problems. Being in a combat heavy unit I was able to fire all the big toys, even was blessed to go to the C4 range. While I was on recruiting duty I took the AFAST and passed my flight physical, I needed an age waiver ( being 33 yrs old at the time) and found an old CW4 Vietnam Vet. to write a letter of reference. My incompetent commander turned my packet in late. My heart is racing, I low crawl to my self-made fort under my kitchen table, I pour myself a dram of Wild Turkey...sip, puff,sip,chug,chug,chug. Nobody that I work with is patriotic, there's no 'Thank you for your service" or"Happy Veterans Day". People who have never stepped up to serve or are under educated and couldn't pass the ASVAB are quick to say that they only respect the Vietnam vets. Breathe, I must breathe... I'm surrounded by books on Buddhism for this reason...I must be mindful of my state of mind and breath (thoughts are like clouds, just watch them as they pass). Thank you for your service Joel, you're lucky to have a job that had you take up the pipe for accepting that copywriting job. What vices would you have to cope if you didn't take up the pipe? I think my vices will follow me to the grave. Chug, puff, chug, puff, chug, chug, chug. Zzzzzz...

    • Stamper Tamper on July 10, 2021
    • Same reason I picked up a pipe three years ago. Since then I‘ve made a lot of progress in managing the hyper-vigilance. Ive learned to meditate, 5-2-8 breathing, incorporated the four agreements, EMDR music before bed and by far the most helpful thing Ive learned is about polyvagal theory. If you have PTSD you must look up polyvagal theory. Thanks for sharing, brother!

    • Rick Spence on July 11, 2021
    • THANK YOU for your service! I worked law enforcement, and I can attest to the Rhythm Method of decompression. A very well-written article.

    • Dr. J. B. Webb on July 11, 2021
    • Thanks for your descriptive & colourful theme! ... after a 30yr stint in the USArmy & many a comforting pipes ... I hear you clearly! I’m peacefully watching the clouds pass by, too. Be Well! JBW

    • Dean Brown on July 11, 2021
    • Thanks for sharing. My last tour was afganistan. Lived on cigars, coffee, and piss-warm water (I know, the old soldier cliche, but true nonetheless) A few years after returning wile trying to pick up the peaces of my life, I also picked up pipe smoking. The cigars had helped me focus , had steadied my voice and hands as I held things together for my troops. But once "home" the cigars , like myself, lost there clearily.As you said, pipe smoking leads to a more continplative mindset. A rhythm that helps you carefuly prod the the path through memories.Thank you again for your thoughts

    • Joel B on July 12, 2021
    • Thanks, guys, for reading, sharing your comments and stories, and most of all for your service. It is very encouraging to hear about other people dealing with the same adjustments, and that others have also discovered how pipe smoking can be an instrument of solace.Rick, thank you for your service in law enforcement as well. I completed a 4-year stint in law enforcement last year, and can readily appreciate your journey.

    • Tampaholic on July 14, 2021
    • I also want to thank everyone here for their service, and to thank you again, Joel, for responding to your readers and for those that comment. Sometimes it feels like you're thanking or commenting to a brick wall here at SP. It seems if you correct or criticize the writer, you're more likely to get a response. Go figure. Thanks again, to all.

    • Tampaholic on November 11, 2021
    • Thursday/ November 11, 2021/ 11Nov.21. Happy Veterans Day, Joel. Thank you for your service.

    • Joel B on November 11, 2021
    • Thanks, Tampaholic. Much appreciated!

    • Joel B on November 11, 2021
    • Thank you for your service, Tampaholic and all other veterans. Happy Veteran's Say.

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