In the annals of Americana there is a particularly virulent and widespread trope infecting the memoirs of boyhood, the one about the Object of Desire, its discovery, what it symbolizes, the sacrifices one makes to obtain it, and how its attainment falls short of expectation but leads to some brilliantly revelatory insight lighting the path to manhood. Like most recurring themes, it is a lesson in not-soconvincing disguise about deferring gratification, the perils of credit, the virtue of hard work, and misplaced values. Whatever the object in question, be it bicycle, baseball glove, Red Ryder BB gun, or ninja sword, the boy must assiduously squirrel away his allowance and do odd jobs for months to attain his goal. It's always a boy, too; I guess the presumption is that when a girl wants something, she need only bat her eyes fetchingly at whatever male is controlling the finances and it will be provided.
My own childhood was mostly free of the type of yearning necessitating such extremes of labor and sacrifice, usually because when I wanted something, I bought it, being more cash-rich than the average 10-year-old. It's not that we were so wealthy or I so industrious — quite the contrary — it's that life among the drunken provides ample prospects for an opportunistic little sneak to line his pockets and therefore live in the style to which he feels he is entitled.
Whether doubling or tripling up on my allowance (“If you’d given it to me, would I be asking for it?”) “finding” “lost” bottles of wine and ransoming them, or just going through the pockets of passed-out revelers draped about the living room in the morning, [ amassed what were, for me and the time, fat stacks.
I was fully 15 when I finally experienced the aching keenness of unfulfilled desire, by that time considerably less fluid than in my younger years. It wasn't that I was any less assiduous or avid in amassing the dough, it was that one, the adults had gotten wise to me, and two, I now had addictions of my own to tend to. All my available funds went to purchasing Kools, Boone's Farm apple wine, and marijuana, leaving precious little in the way of disposable income for purchasing luxury items like the thing that struck my fancy that day in the head shop.
The difference between the head shops of yore and the smoke shops of today is a little hard to explain. They both had the same basic mission, to facilitate the consumption of marijuana and provide the sort of merchandise intriguing to the stoned, but they were way less boutique-y back in the day, and much more concerned with blacklights, posters, and blacklight posters. There was none of that ornate, fragile, and expensive glassware; pipes were made of plumbing fixtures, minerals, or corncobs, and bongs were of thick ceramic in the shape of dragons and wizards, easily able to survive being knocked off the coffee table (as stoners have been known to do). There was a bewildering array of rolling papers in every conceivable size, color, and flavor, some even bearing printed images like Mr. Natural or a $100 bill.
Our own local smoker's emporium featured a blacklight maze in the back, and after first going to the park for a ten-dollar bag of what would today be considered the schwaggiest of floor-sweepings and smoking a couple of giant-sized hooters rolled up in JB double-wides, me and the boys would giggle our way through the ultraviolet aura and lurid colors of classic posters like “Stoned Agin,” the Freak Brother's timeless dictum of “Dope Will Get You Through Times Of No Money Better Than Money Will Get You Through Times Of No Dope,” and the afro'd nude woman with the black panther.
One day while perusing the shop's wares prior to going a'maze-ing, I saw something in the pipe section that snagged and firmly held my eye. It was a pipe, clearly, but of some entirely different genus than the other rudimentary implements on offer. Resting in its own box and tilted helpfully toward my bloodshot eyes, it was a thing of beauty, finely tooled in brass, at once sleekly futuristic and charmingly retro (though I'm sure I wouldn't have used that term back then). It looked, above all, serious, and capable of elevating the simple act of getting high into something grand and meaningful.
"That's the Proto Pipe, man," said a voice.
I looked up at the clerk. “Can I check it out?”
“Oh, man, this is the coolest pipe ever,” he said. He ran through its many features proudly and thoroughly, clearly as enamored of it as I, and if I hadn't already been gone on its looks that would've done it for me. This wasn't just a pipe, it was a goddamn smoking system!
“How much?” I asked. He quoted a figure I don't recall except as being enough to cause my heart to sink. I believe it was in the $20 range, and while not an unattainable sum, even in 1976 dollars, there were numerous pitfalls and necessities on the way to accumulating that much of the ready, including those enumerated above. However, it was clear to me that I had to have the thing at any cost, and if that meant behaving like some kind of miserly boy scout for as long as it took to get it then by cracky, that's what I'd do. It seemed to me that the Proto Pipe was more than a tool or accessory: it was something that could and would give depth and definition to my personality. It would complete me.
I did the 1970s equivalent of a stoned teenager taking a picture with his phone, which is to say I sketched a picture of the pipe on a rolling paper. I took it home, taped it to a coffee can, wrote "Proto Pipe" above it, epoxy'd the lid on, cut a slit in the top, and emptied my pockets into it. My initial intent was to save in the usual, gradual manner of putting away a fixed percentage of all incoming scratch, but I soon discovered that the very act of spending money felt like I was betraying my ideals and abandoning my purpose. Every available cent went into the can and I badgered everyone I knew into contributing, waxing effusive about the potential of this pipe to improve all our lives and how really, it would belong to all of us (it wouldn't). They bought it, though, and ten days later, so did I, with a few bucks left over. The world had been enhanced by a new, exciting paradigm: Flynn + Proto Pipe.
This is the part of the story where I tell you that I'd built up the pipe so much that it couldn't possibly live up to my expectations and I was left feeling hollow and unfulfilled, ultimately discovering, after some intense soul-searching and self-evaluation, the Proto Pipe inside my own heart.
Bullshit! It was the greatest pipe ever and to this day the best 20 bones I ever spent. Smokers for miles around made pilgrimages to my house for the privilege of putting their weed into my pipe. Lisa Morris, Stoner Queen of the west side, made out with me because of it. Its beauty, utility and efficiency devolved onto me and made me a better, brighter, more self-actualized person. On the list of the favorite things I've ever owned, the Proto Pipe is right up there.
1. 1958 Oldsmobile Delta 88
2. 1967 Gibson Sg
3. Proto Pipe
4. Vintage Cashmere V-Neck Sweater, In Forest Green
5. Samsung Galaxy S
6. Schwinn Stingray
7. Sennheiser Studio Pro Headphones
8. Rotring Fountain Pen
9. Frye Boots
10. Global Santoro Chef S Knife
I carried and used that pipe right up until the time my drug of choice became something far less mellow and its mode of implementation more pointy and invasive. I didn't stop smoking weed but I became more or less indifferent to it and its accouterments, my raison d'etre now being the cranking of all systems up to 11 at all times. Whatever became of ol' Proto is lost to memory and I doubt it crossed my mind twice over the next 30 years, at least until 2005 and I was passed something while killing time in Mendocino Village watching a bunch of hippies bang on shit that made me swoon like Proust's Twinkie. "This is a goddamn Proto Pipe," I said, incredulously, to the friendly longhair.
"Yep, that's right," he said. "Good smoke, too. Take a hit."
''No, man, you don't get it. This is the greatest pipe ever made! The Proto Pipe!"
"I'm hip, bro. Proto Pipe. Love it. Made right here in good old Mendocino County."
He explained to me that not only had the pipe been in constant production lo these many years, it was still churning them out to this very day, just a few miles up the hill in Willits. I made up my mind then and there to make a pilgrimage to the manufactory to observe the process, get a new pipe and possibly restore some luster to my decaying persona, but I've yet to make it. I've sorta been in the same boat I was when I was 15, only more so, all available time and money being devoted to pumping enough poison into my system to keep me upright.
As symbols go, you could do worse than a product so perfectly engineered it hasn't changed a lick in 40-odd years to exemplify happier and better times, and I look forward to feeling its reassuring weight in my pocket again in a better future.