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Great Moments

In the Company of Men
Laban Carrick Hill
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

(continued from page 1)

In these places, I began to learn about tobacco and cigar sizes and styles. I learned I liked my cigar end cut with a V. I also found there was a world of difference between a machine-made, mass-produced cigar and a genuine hand-rolled Macanudo. Once you smoked a cigar made from fresh tobacco leaves and rolled in a single leaf wrapper, you couldn't bear lighting up a machine-processed stogie that smelled of chemically treated tobacco.

It was in these stores that I first heard whispers about Cuban cigars. In reverent tones, cigar smokers would stand around a glass counter filled with fine hand-rolled cigars from Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and other far-flung locations and recall those moments when they had gotten their hands on a box of this illicit contraband.

One year, my wife and I decided to vacation in Paris. With great anticipation, I had planned to buy nothing else while there except a box of cigars. Cuban cigars. So when we landed, I stopped at the first tobacconist I found and surveyed the selection of cigars. I noticed the price and was astonished to find that after a quick calculation they cost nearly $20 a piece. Quickly, I retreated, not quite ready to make this kind of investment. Even though it was the one purchase I had been anticipating, as the moment approached I began to have doubts about Cuban cigars. Like the old fishing story where the fish keeps getting bigger with each telling, I suspected that Cuban cigars had grown to mythic proportions simply because you could not buy them Stateside.

Fortunately, I had promised a friend to return home with a box of Cuban cigars and could not go back on my word. So one morning toward the end of our trip, I strode into a tobacconist and bought a box of Cuban Ramon Allones Specially Selected. As I triumphantly stepped out of the shop, I felt slightly dizzy, and went straight across the street to a café for a quick café au lait.

I gently cracked the seal of the box with my thumbnail, tipped back the top and inhaled. My nose was treated to a rich, almost coffee-like aroma. Snug in a row were 12 lovely cigars. Afraid to disrupt their uniformity, I paused. Then, I picked out a cigar from the middle. I held it up to the light. Its coloring was darker than my drink. I squeezed it between my fingers and felt its firm buoyancy. I cut the end. After a moment, I placed the cigar in my mouth. It fit. I lit the end, drawing in the flame with the same rhythm that my granddaddy had used so many years before. For that short span I was adrift in a cloud of warm, spiced smoke.

The cigar was heaven. It was then that I realized something my granddaddy perhaps always understood. A good cigar is one that is unhurried. A cigar should never be rushed. Far from the high-stress corridors of city life, Covington, Tennessee, offered the ideal place for the true enjoyment of a cigar. And in that Parisian café, I longed to return to a town much like Covington, and to a house with a front porch swing, upon which I could smoke my cigar with the leisure, attention and appreciation it deserved.

Laban Carrick Hill now lives in a house with a porch and has written several children's novels for Bantam Doubleday Dell.

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