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Blowing Smoke with Father Johnson

This story comes straight from the life and musings of Don Collins. Like our cigars it is rich with life, soulful flavor, honesty, and also a dash of good spirited humor. We haven't changed a word, and it is a personal and fun experience to read!

The truth. It surely does sound scary, gee whiz! This is the Pyrimide, our largest, finest quality cigar is the one I only smoke when Father Johnson stops by. I know this is going to sound corny but, well, that's the way the truth is. The San Juan Cathedral, the center piece of Old San Juan, is right down the hill from 59 Calle Del Cristo where the Don Collins Cigars Distribution and Wholesale Office is located. This is the location from which your requests for information, e-mails, internet orders and other matters are handled as efficiently as our staff can. The San Juan Cathedral is the second oldest Church in the western hemisphere. But it was built after the “Porto Rico Tobaco Company” (now Puerto Rico Tobacco Corporation) was established. The San Jose Cathedral is about the same distance up the hill on Calle Del Cristo in the Plaza del San Jose at the intersection of Calle San Sebastian where the Carnival of Puerto Rico (San Sebastian Festival) takes place each January. The San Jose Cathedral is presently closed and is under restoration by one of the directors of the Puerto Rico Tobacco Corporation, Dr. A. Gus Pantel.

The truth is that my attendance at most religious rituals like Confession has been on the decline for sometime – ok, the real truth being is that I have long since been just too old to sin. That seems to be a young man’s game, and I just don’t have the energy any more. But, one evening, Father Johnson comes into the office to inquire about the cigars and we begin to trade life stories in ordinary conversation.

Let me interject that the truth about Confession is that nobody really likes the idea of telling someone else, even a priest, what they did wrong and really own up to it. Confession has this strange-but-true relationship with a lot of things that humans feel a little uncomfortable with. For instance, telling the truth and deceit (when not in that order), hatred and other despicable emotions, our inability to cope with our lives and the inherent problems that seem to grow larger with every passing day, our human weaknesses, desires promises broken and…well, only Shakespeare or some other renowned writer could ever finish this thought properly. But, you know what I mean.

After all is said in done, Confession (in the Catholic sense) breaks down to a promise to say a long series of Hail Mary’s and a couple of renditions of the Lord’s Prayer. But if you have really done something bad you will have to add on the Act of Contrition. The latter is always a real cerebral workout.

Like many others, as I have described myself above as ‘just too old to sin anymore,’ the ritual has all but passed in usefulness…well, that was until Father Johnson found me late one Thursday night in my office.

This priestly man with large, round, dark, smiling eyes, having been set into a broad, strong looking dark face punctuated with bushy salt and pepper eyebrows and a matching beard that even Santa would envy stated his purpose keenly. He was looking for a very good cigar. The best.

Bounding my way past my desk and down into our display room I reached into the uppermost left hand corner of our great cigar humidor and removed the Pyramide. In fact, for whatever reason, my hand had come out with two of them. Then, holding them before Father Johnson I proudly announced I had just what he was looking for. I invited Father Johnson, as I invite all who enter our business to try the cigar as a gift, and noted to him that it would only be the first Pyramide I would have smoked that year.

The truth: well, I am only five foot six inches tall. Short if compared to the average man. And I just look ridiculous (at least I think this of myself) with an eight and a half inch cigar in my hand, and with a fifty ring at that! At the very least I feel that people look at me with one of these great big cigars and say to themselves, “look at the little guy over there with the great big cigar” and maybe even adding quietly and jokingly, “That cigar is bigger than he is!” So I have to admit that I love to smoke them, but do so privately at home or when I am off on the island alone.

I invited Father Johnson to sit on one end of the couch and I perched myself down on the other end where I could keep a sound eye on the front door. I lit Father Johnson’s cigar, then mine. The flourish in his eyes as he glanced up for a moment to assure me his cigar was lit and I could lean back to my original position and make myself comfortable caught me by surprise. There was some quiet communication there I could not ever put into words. Then and there I realized in that sudden moment that I was getting ready to speak out loud to myself. Or, at least, at the very least I was going to speak to a man who would turn out to show the same personal intellectual signature I had always thought was unique to me. There sat Father Johnson and I, on the couch barely drawing on our Pyramide cigars with an intriguing smile that told me he was virtually thinking the same thought about me.

We talked. For a long time we swapped growing up stories, school stories, social interests, history lessons, and generally do what people do and said what people usually say when they first discover they are both sharing so much common ground. As one word drew onto the next we marveled that we had both grown up on Long Island. Father Johnson had grown up in Brooklyn and I had grown up in Queens. We both fought hard to earn a good education and our parents fought harder to pay for our first opportunity in life. We both had the same number of older and younger siblings who in fact had similar effects on the both of us. So, there we were gently puffing away at the Pyramides that even by this time appeared to be two freshly lit cigars with very little ash to show.

The Pyramide is such a special cigar. During my discourse with Father Johnson I described the way in which the large cigar was hand made and gave him the special details on the way the tapered end of the cigar had been fashioned, the “trick”, so to speak. That tapering end, which makes the 50 ring effortless to hold and draw through once cut at the very tip is actually a series of very carefully staggered leaves set down on the rolling station in such a precise order that when the bundle is rolled the thickness at that end naturally drifts into the tapered shape the cigar is so famous for. A lot of folks think that the cigar is evenly rolled and has the same circumference from end to end and then is crushed into that shape in the wooden molding blocks under pressure. A cigar made like that would not have any draw because there would be no space between the leaves that were crushed into that tapered end. So there is a precision art to making a big torpedo shaped like that. And there are equal intricacies from picking the right grades of tobacco leaf to start with, carefully handling the leaves so that they don’t break, marrying the tobacco, booking the stems, separating right handed from left handed leaves and starting to forge a blend that takes up to three years to get right.

I took special care to explain to Father Johnson how the cigar press, the wooden mold I mentioned earlier, played an important role in allowing the cigar to dry into a rigid tapered end in the bunched state. This drying period creates the spirals down the length of the cigar and those spirals spin all the different flavors of the different leaves into one taste at the business end of the cigar. The flavorful end. I explained that it also takes a lot of skill and experience to put the Puerto Rican wrapper leaf on in just the right way at just the right angle so that it also conforms without force to the natural taper. There is only one wrapper leaf that can be used for this purpose.

Father Johnson changed the subject momentarily and told me a few things I suspect he would have only mentioned to a taxi driver or a stranger in some strange place. There is no doubt the words were coming from the depths of his real sole.

I promptly changed the conversation back to the Pyramide and the cause for its unnatural mildness. I favored the old topic as I noted that Father Johnson’s formerly brightly lit eyes had fallen to half mast and his eyes were therefore partially obscured and decidedly thoughtful and full of sadness.

The mildness, I explained was due in large part to a few key things; the cigar was eight and a half inches long and the further away the burning tobacco the “cooler” or milder the smoke from it would be, the length of the cigar also served to filter out the smoke and mix in more air than would be the case in smaller, thinner cigars, or for that matter a very much smaller cigar. I even afforded him the information that the meticulous aficionado should only want to know. Father Johnson heard me go on about the whiteness of the ash and the ability of the burned ash to remain for a full three and a half to four inches if not blown or tapped away beforehand.

Father Johnson in turn enlightened me, with some new found emotional soundness that he was studying Genealogy courses as his agenda was to obtain a Ph. D. in the field of anthropology at the Institute of Advanced Studies for the Caribbean, a renowned and admirable graduate school directly across the street from our office. He told me of the Taino Indians, the ancestors, largely of the Puerto Rican population that exists today. He spoke of studies done by the biology department of the University of Puerto Rico that found some eighty percent of the people still living on the island today had Taino Indian mitochondrial DNA.

This prompted me to show Father Johnson my corporate pride and glory: The United States Taino Indian Tribal Affairs Register. This book contains the signatures of the descendents of those Puerto Ricans who were Taino Cacique (Chiefs) and all descendents of the families of Taino Indians who are becoming aware of their important role in the history of the new world altogether. I also showed Father Johnson a file the company has maintained for quite sometime where families send in to us their written history, places of origin, anecdotes and stories. I offered him the use of the files at any time that he wished if needed in conjunction with his studies.

Father Johnson bought ten Pyramides. I had that unbearable lightness of being we all get when we feel that somehow we have revealed more than we should have about ourselves; our souls in particular. In short, I felt as I had been to Confession. I gave Father Johnson the cigars conceding that I would allow the one he had smoked with me as a gift. He didn’t want to accept it that way, but he did and he said he would return very soon and he did that too.

By the time Father Johnson did return, eager for more Pyramides I will admit I was more than eager to hear more of his stories, listen to the pain and joy of his experiences, past and present, tales about the old churches in the neighborhood as well as his well educated views on social conditions relating to the island of Puerto Rico and his vivid contrasts with social conditions as they existed at that time in New York City.

On the fourth or fifth visit I had to tell Father Johnson that in between his legends of one kind or another and my ramblings about my times and life that I had slipped in a Confession or two, in the ritualistic religious sense of the act.

I was just a little, I say, a little surprised when Father Johnson told me that he also, since the beginning of our sometimes short, sometimes long discussions about things in general had slipped in his own confessions to me.

Imagine my astonishment. How implausible could it be that a priest, a real priest had confided his most personal self and soul to me, an ordinary person, not nearly ordained in the religious sense and wholly incapable, in my view, of offering any type of absolution whatsoever. I mean, I have had some really heavy moments in my life, but nothing ever quite like this.

Imagine a Priest saying something like that to you. Smoking a cigar with you and simply stating that you have just heard his confession! What do you do? What do you say? What would you have done? What would you have said?

Then Father Johnson actually sheds a tear. A small one, albeit, but nonetheless a tear! I can see through that little bit of moisture his motivation flowing sincerely from his heart. I could hardly hold back the wetness from my own face. I wasn’t feeling his pain, or his grief, but I was feeling my own private but so similar pain.

We just sat there for a very, very long bunch of minutes. We were both staring at the wall opposite the sofa. It was very fortunately filled with fabulous original art pieces, mostly very large, very original and very old paintings of angels. Strangely, it was the first time I noticed that all the angels in all the painting were holding weapons of one sort or another. One held a rifle, one a pistol and the largest a thin and very elegant sword. It had all seem so natural beyond notice before.

This was not a silent or awkward moment. It was a long, fruitful, thoughtful time of mutual relief. We just sat there holding our cigars and looking at that wall full of paintings, letting the minutes go by.

Then, just as suddenly as we had gotten to be quiet we both began to speak, yes, at the same time. We laughed at that. And in just as timely a fashion we both moved to draw anew on our Pyramide cigars. We had to laugh. We noticed each other’s cigars were both holding about four inches of clean white ash. We hadn’t noticed it happening because we were both just sitting silently for such a long while. We laughed and laughed about that. It was one of those moments that you share with someone and for whatever strange reason you just will never forget it.

Like I said, I know that it sounds corny, but this is the truth and the only time I ever smoke a Pyramide, to this day is when Father Johnson stops by. We smoke away a good time and we always enjoy a confession or two.


~ Don Collins

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