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Here's to you, Bill Unger, and all hobby boys

January 7, 2013 12:10 am

FALL RIVER, Mass.

--Even as I write (in the quaint old phrase), some fellow in, say, Oklahoma is planning or perhaps hosting the meeting of his hometown camera club. Some woman, equally sincere, is going over the books of her bowling team, making sure they're on financial track to purchase trophies for the annual banquet. As a guy in his 60s organizes a barroom darts league and a younger fellow hovers over a computer, making sure all is well with a fantasy football league.

Church choir. Bunco. Pigeon racing. Model railroading. Stock cars. A rod and gun club.

Newsletters. Membership cards. Dues.

It's a sweet world that runs beside our bitter world, a world of games and hobbies and small-scale associations of men and women who "collect" everything from old farm equipment to fishing flies or who engage in some kind of small-scale competition suited to beer and bragging and laughter at inside jokes.

For me, it's pipes. Not plumbing pipes or marijuana pipes, but tobacco pipes. I smoke a pipe, and I've got 103 of them, crouching in wooden racks all over my dusty little office.

It's a good collection, and even though it couldn't be sold for much money, I play with it often, polishing the pipes, looking at the pipes, moving them around in their racks, cleaning them, and, of course, smoking.

No hobby is any good if you cannot talk about it with other like-minded loons, and so I belong to Internet "pipe discussion groups," and I've attended a pipe show in Las Vegas, where collectors show off their treasures, buying, selling, and swapping.

And, because I write, I write about pipes.

I'll tell you that I'm a professional writer, by which I mean I get paid or I don't write.

But, for a number of years, I've written for an honest, homely little publication called "The Pipe Collector," a newsletter for the 1,000 or so members of the North American Society of Pipe Collectors. For free.

And in doing so I met Bill Unger, the grave, humorous man who edited the publication and who died on Jan. 1, 2013, of leukemia.

We were hobbyists together; two men who, although we never met in person, shared a passion for a tiny little hobby practiced by a thin skein of men tied together by an interest outside their work.

And you should have an interest outside your work. If you do not, you are just a machine used to make money for someone else. A man who gets off work and goes home to tie his own flies is very much healthier than a man who gets off work and goes home to think about his job.

"Pipe world," as I call it when I'm talking to my wife, is a fanatical place full of men (mostly) who can discourse learnedly about the shapes of pipes, the makers of pipes, the history of the makers of pipes, about pipe cleaning, cleaning techniques, different blends of tobacco, and other silly, hopeful things.

And Bill Unger? Well, Bill was in the middle of it, a man whose name was known in the far corners of the world to which the newsletter penetrated. He was a personage in Pipe World, a presence, comrade to men he'd never seen.

He and I did a book together. It's called "Mill River Smoke" and is a collection of mystery stories about pipe-smoking newspaper reporter Jack Dupont, who, like me, is a fedora-wearing throwback who toils in a small New England city of abandoned factories and heroin.

And Bill and I, with no written contract, split up the profits from that book honestly, to the last inconsequential cent. Money doesn't always create character, but it always reveals character. Bill was steel true and blade straight.

A little hobby. Just a little hobby. Just a small collection. Just a few smiling, quiet hours with some unimportant objects you treasure.

It's not much, that little, happy space between the demands of the boss and the paying of the mortgage, that place where you play with the toys you've chosen as an adult.

But you can go there when you have a little time. You can organize your collection of perfume bottles or Depression glass; you can play with your model trains.

I used to go there with Bill Unger, and I will miss him in those quiet moments of play.

Marc Munroe Dion is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.





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