Playing with fire : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Playing with fire

By Neill Archer Roan

Adam Davidson stared at his hands. Calloused and blistered with raw, red cracks on scraped knuckles, they ached from gouging grout and cutting tile. It was a bleak winter in Indiana, 2003, and Davidson was working yet another construction project.

“I wasted my time in college. I’m wasting my life, now,” Davidson ruminated gloomily. Although he didn’t like the work, he was grateful for the job. He was happy to help his father in the family business and knew it was better than knocking around, doing nothing. Still, he had expected better things.

Only months earlier, Davidson had graduated from Purdue University with a Bachelor of Arts in industrial design. An enterprising and talented student, he successfully competed to have his work shown. A chair he designed was exhibited in seven different museums as a part of “The Chair Show” when he entered a competition for amateur and professional furniture makers. His winning faucet design was prototyped and photographed by the Delta Company. These and other successes built sunny expectations for his future, yet here he was, relegated to half-built bathrooms and kitchens, cutting tile and affixing it to flat surfaces.

One day in 2005, Davidson’s friend, pipemaker John Crosby, mentioned that Todd Johnson was looking for someone to work with him making a new line of pipes: Medicis, for Smokingpipes. Davidson updated his resumé, assembled a portfolio and shipped it off to Johnson. Not long after, the phone rang.

“Can you be here on Friday?” Johnson inquired.

“I flew down, interviewed, and moved to Myrtle Beach just one month later–two days before Thanksgiving,” Davidson recalled. “I was happy for a change.”

As Davidson coaxed his $1 (he literally paid $1 for it, and says it was overpriced), rusty old rattletrap GMC pickup south from Indiana toward South Carolina, he rolled into new emotional territory, too. His was an 800-mile trek through anxiety, optimism, dread and outright terror. He knew nobody. He would be completely alone. Although his new employer seemed happy to have him, he wondered whether he could succeed. How long would it take him to master making pipes? Would Johnson like his work? Would they get along? Like many young men starting to find their way, Davidson’s veneer of confidence was thinner than projected.

As it turned out, Davidson’s time working with Todd Johnson would prove to be short: five months and a few days.

Davidson’s final visit with Johnson was particularly memorable. Johnson had moved to Charleston, S.C., and Davidson was tasked with delivering a batch of Medici pipes to him. Because molded stems were used with Medici pipes, Davidson had never had to cut stems from rod; he was working on mastering other things. Johnson volunteered to take him through the process while he was there.

“Todd took a rod of vulcanite, drilled a hole and then glued in a Delrin tenon. Then he showed me how to rough out the slot using a Dremel tool and some saws. After he cut the slot, he began roughing out the stem using the sanding disk. You can only do so much with the sanding disk before you start hand filing,” Davidson said.

Sadly, for Davidson, they ran out of time. Johnson was unable to finish his demonstration. Davidson left with the stem at the stage where hand filing would begin.

Though he didn’t know it then, that would be Davidson’s last tutelage from Johnson. Davidson made one more batch of Medici pipes by himself in June 2006. Then it was over. The Medici initiative was abandoned. Davidson had to find another way to make a living.

Fortunately, because the Medici project was a Smokingpipes initiative, Davidson had always been a Smokingpipes employee. When founder and CEO, Sykes Wilford, discovered Davidson had retail sales experience, he reassigned him to work at the company’s retail store, Low Country Pipe and Cigar, and to do various and sundry tasks for Smokingpipes.

“I became one of those guys packing up pipes and tobaccos and shipping them out,” Davidson explained. As he spent his days working in the store, he found himself thinking about his pipemaking days. He missed it.

“I didn’t touch another piece of briar for eight months,” Davidson said. “In March 2007, I decided I would try to make pipes again.”

As Davidson pondered how he might proceed, he knew he had a big problem: He had no idea how to make a hand-cut stem from start to finish. His singular demonstration by Johnson some eight months earlier had receded into a fuzzy memory. By the time he realized how important stem cutting was, Johnson was gone. He had to figure it out on his own.

For Davidson, that incomplete stem Johnson created became a marker in the wilderness.

“I used that stem Todd made for a reference,” explained Davidson. “I left that roughed-out stem like it was, so I would know when to stop some operations and start doing others. I still have it.”

Davidson painstakingly figured out how to finish making hand-cut stems. He completed five pipes–hand-cut stems and all–for the 2007 Chicago pipe show. As often happens with those making their Chicago show debut, sales were not brisk. Davidson sold one pipe.

If Davidson was easily discouraged, he might have given up; but his formative years had toughened him up and whetted his appetite for challenges.

* * *

Adam Davidson grew up surrounded by tools. His father was in the construction business, and there was a workshop at home.

“My dad had all kinds of tools,” Davidson recounted. “He was always very free with our workshop, which was full of scrap metal and hammers. I was doing blacksmithing work at 16. I made candle holders and three-piece fireplace sets. Most of the kids I knew growing up never did this. Unlike them, I was free to play with fire.

“We didn’t have a lot of money. Because we couldn’t afford a Nintendo, I got Legos instead and free reign with scraps in my dad’s workshop. That–more than anything–has made me who I am today.”

His future would also be shaped by other people. The likable young man, possessed of unrelenting curiosity, quirky humor and unusual skills, would find inspiration and a second home in an amusement park.

Incomplete education, scant experience and coursing hormones consign most 15-year-olds to mind-numbing, summer-job purgatory. At a time of life when most of us were flipping burgers, mowing lawns or re-stocking potatoes in the produce aisle, Davidson filled his wallet by working as a carnival equivalent to a performance artist in the storied Indiana Beach amusement park in his home town: Monticello, Ind.

That Davidson learned small-town-boy-makes-good values in an amusement park originally built with Chicago mob money during the Roaring ’20s holds no little irony. Al Capone himself would escape to the lakeside destination on occasion, but the park’s shady roots as a mobbed-up nightclub with beach access gradually morphed into a wholesome cluster of family-run attractions one would expect in small-town Indiana.

Davidson’s first Indiana Beach job involved taking sepia-toned photographs of “Wanted Dead or Alive” costumed cowboys and brothel girls. When tourist traffic slowed during August’s dog days, a bored Davidson found himself wandering the park, dodging the cotton-candied fingers of grasping toddlers to the rattle and clack of sparsely peopled roller coasters. He found himself drawn to The Glass Blower Gift Shop where a man sat beyond massive wooden doors working glass rods over a blow torch. Hummingbirds, boats, giraffes, ponies and other things were born of that blue flame. Almost every day, Davidson found himself among the shop’s gaggle of gawkers.

Davidson hung around so much that his face became familiar to the glass blower, a man who also fashioned cursive phrases like, “My name is Horace,” from heavy-gauge, electricfence wire. One day, the man handed Davidson a piece of wire, and Davidson made his name from it., Playing around later, he conjured a wire-flower bouquet. Not long after, arriving home, Davidson found the shop’s owner, Ira, in his parent’s driveway. Ira wanted Davidson to work at the shop.

“It looked far more interesting than taking pictures of people in dirty costumes,” Davidson recalled. “I started working with them full time when I was 16. I made wire names. I made glass sculptures. I made silver rings where we took a jeweler’s saw and we would cut your name in the ring. I liked to challenge myself so I took a penny to see if I could cut the alphabet all around the edge of the penny with the saw.”

Among other feats of skill and imagination, Davidson also inscribed people’s names on grains of rice. While most of us might have hoped for plenty of Bens or Amys, the young Davidson was unruffled by Alexanders, Methuselahs or Persephones.

“We had a very small felt-tip pen. We would take the piece of rice and put it on a little piece of modeling clay, then write the name on the kernel of rice. Of course people would challenge us. Everybody would ask me, ‘I bet you can’t do the alphabet.’”

Davidson soon tired of the challenge, so he decided to try it one day. He surprised himself.

“After that, whenever someone would ask about the alphabet, my boss, Ira, would show them the one where I wrote the alphabet on a grain of rice five times.”

Ira also monogrammed rice grains with the aid of a big magnifying glass. Davidson would just use feel and his naked eye. Given his love of challenge, his keen eyes and steady hands, it is no wonder that Davidson continued to work summers at the little amusement park shop all the way through college.

“I worked about 80 hours a week, and the people I worked for became my second parents,” recalled Davidson. “I saw them more than I saw my parents. The atmosphere was so laid back and creative and fun.”

For Adam Davidson, summers in The Glass Blowing Gift Shop were a defining experience. The lessons he learned there still echo resonantly into the present.

“It was a great creative environment. It was good for my work ethic. It was also good for my creativity. I developed a lot of different sculptural shapes working with glass. Also, with those grains of rice and writing the alphabet–I really like to challenge myself. I still do that.”

Read the rest of the story in P&T magazine or the online digital edition.

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