298. John Coatney DVM on Petes, Military Working Dogs and the Theology of Smoking


System Day—September 3rd—is almost upon us. For a few years now, Pete Geeks have been celebrating the day of Charles Peterson’s 3rd and final patent for the System pipe. For this year’s theme and information on receiving your CPG or a new merit badge, see the end of this post.

I met up with Army veteran and veterinarian John Coatney by chance at the Chicago Pipe Show in May, and as we talked about our mutual passion for J. R. R. Tolkien’s legendarium as well as our love of Peterson pipes, I knew his story would be one everyone would enjoy hearing. A blogger himself, he readily agreed—


Vicenza VTF staff, combat medics and military working dog handlers performing trauma care on HERO, a canine simulator. (Courtesy US Army)

In June 2007 I was serving in the Army as a Veterinary Corps Officer stationed in Vicenza, Italy. I was on temporary duty in Hungary, and we had a free Saturday to wander around downtown Budapest. While exploring the city, my “battle buddy” and I walked past Gallwitz Szaküzlet, a pipe shop that had its doors open, a common practice in Europe to combat the summer heat. As we walked by, the aroma of pipe tobacco was redolent. I was suddenly back at my grandpa’s cabin in the Kiamichi Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma, where he and his buddies would gather to shoot and hunt. All those guys were smokers – growing up in a family of cigarette smokers in the 80’s, I was quite accustomed to being around cigarette smoke. However, there was one guy at the cabin, Joe, who was a pipe smoker. He smoked a huge calabash, and the smoke he produced smelled wonderful. He was also very friendly and was comfortable chatting with this eight-year-old nerdy kid. He was quite different than most of the blue collar guys that frequented the cabin, and we had some great conversations, often very educational for me. One year for my birthday, he gave me a VHS copy of Kenneth Branagh’s version of Henry V and told me to pay special attention to “the speech at the end” (the Saint Crispin’s Day Speech); he even paid me to memorize it and recite it to him.

Back in Budapest, immersed in that nostalgic aroma, I mumbled off-hand to my friend, “I think I’d like to smoke a pipe someday.” I was not aware that my friend, a Cajun from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, was deep in her own cloud of nostalgia: her late father had smoked a pipe. She (literally) dragged me into that shop, and I came out with a Szábo, a few ounces of the house aromatic, and everything I needed to get started on my journey.

The Gallwitz Szaküzlet pipe shop has one of the great old hanging pipe signs, in this case apparently a Peterson System!

I was 26 at the time, and still figuring who I was. Pipe smoking was one of the first indicators of one of my key personality traits: I am a ritualist. I find immense comfort and solace in ritual. Whether it’s cooking, coffee (either pour-over or Aeropress), or the way that I practice my Christian faith, I find the journey to be at least as important as the destination (often more so). I was two years out of vet school, learning how to be a veterinarian, an officer, and simply an adult, and one of the earliest self-discoveries I had made was that outside of school I’m an anxious guy. I need routine and ritual to combat the anxiety, and the process of choosing a pipe and tobacco, packing, lighting, tamping, and smoking is about as relaxing a ritual as I’ve ever encountered.


A couple of months later, my fiancée came over from the States to visit, and we decided to spend a week up in Ireland. Now there are plenty of reasons why we chose Ireland, but if I’m being honest, I had one overarching motivation: Peterson pipes. Our first stop after getting settled into our B&B was at Peterson of Dublin where I spent (according to my fiancée) a ridiculous amount of time deciding which pipe I was going to buy. I left with three: a B10 Irish Harp, the 2004 Pipe of the Year, and being a hardcore Tolkienite, the obligatory churchwarden.

Living in Italy, single (for a little while longer) with a decent income, I explored and collected a variety of Savinellis, Ser Jacopos, Vipratis, etc., all of which I thoroughly enjoy and appreciate. I found myself coming back to my Petersons, however, though at the time I couldn’t have explained why. I’ve since learned some of the history and background of pipe craft, including the stylistic differences between English/Irish pipes and Italian pipes, and I see now that I generally prefer the aesthetics of the former.

If only there were a Danish Pipe Shop in every town and city!

As my time in Italy was ending in May of 2008, my fiancée and I got married in Copenhagen (where I repeated our experience in Dublin by spending a fair amount of time in the Danish Pipe Shop), and I joined her in Chicago, where I was stationed at Naval Station Great Lakes. The Department of Defense utilizes the Army Veterinary Corps in three basic ways: caring for DoD-owned animals (primarily Military Working Dogs), overseeing food safety and security for products procured by the DoD that feed service members, and serving as consultants for public health related issues (e.g., rabies, bird flu, etc.).

Cvoky, a 120-pound Belgian Malinois, who serves as a U.S. Air Force military working dog, was recently rushed to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, with a potentially life-threatening condition (Courtesy US Army).

I was to be the installation veterinarian for Great Lakes for two years. However, the veterinary corps is rather small, and there was a need for a veterinarian to serve in Iraq for a year; I was tagged to go, much to my new wife’s dismay. I spent a year based out of Joint Base Balad as the Officer in Charge and assistant surgeon for the OIF theater’s Military Working Dog triage center.

Spc. Jerome Jackson, patient administrator for the 51st Medical Detachment (Veterinary Medicine), registers a military working dog in the Medical Communications for Combat Casualty Care (MC4) system at the veterinary clinic at Balad Airfield, Iraq. (Courtesy US Army)

I brought my pipes with me and spent a significant amount of time working in the tent that my commander (a cigar smoker) had set up outside his office. Again, the ritual was extremely helpful in allowing me to relax in a high-anxiety environment.

It was during this time in Iraq that my Christian faith changed and grew in significant ways. At that time (fall 2008 – fall 2009) Joint Base Balad was the largest base in theater, and every Sunday there were upwards of a dozen different worship services going on. I had grown up in a non-denominational evangelical church and had taken my faith seriously ever since undergrad, and I wandered from service to service each Sunday for the first few months I was there. One Sunday in February 2009 I decided to attend the Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy, which was attended by a handful of service members and most of the Iraqi Christians who worked as translators on base. I was immediately attracted to the beauty of the worship, and (surprise!) to the unapologetic and intensely ritualistic manner of worship I encountered there. I began to read about the history and theology of the Orthodox Church, and to practice some Orthodox prayers and observances, such as fasting.

When I returned to Chicago in the fall of 2009, we decided that Army life was not in our future, and I resigned my commission in the summer of 2010. I then used my G.I. Bill benefits to learn more about Christian history and theology by attending grad school at Wheaton College from 2010 to 2013. I received an M.A. in Historical Theology (focusing on the first few centuries of Christianity) and a second M.A. in Biblical Exegesis (focused on reading the Scriptures in the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic). While at Wheaton, my wife and I visited some friends in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and while there I was introduced to an American veterinarian who had lived in Haiti for over a decade as part of Christian Veterinary Mission (CVM). While in Italy I had served in several missions in Africa where I learned first-hand about the need for improved veterinary infrastructure in the developing world that would lead to improved economies, food security, and public health. My friend in Haiti was doing exactly that, and I was inspired to look further into this aspect of veterinary medicine.

In 2014 I was hired by a veterinary researcher at Iowa State University for a project seeking to improve veterinary diagnostics and milk production in camels in eastern Ethiopia. We moved to Ames, Iowa, and I traveled to Ethiopia multiple times over the next few years. I was also able to complete the coursework and research for a PhD in Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine and arranged to move to Ethiopia as part of Christian Veterinary Mission, where I would work with an Ethiopian university to help them grow their research program, particularly in the field of infectious diseases in livestock.

In 2018 we raised support to move to Ethiopia (under the auspices of CVM we are required to raise our own financial support), and in December of 2019 my wife and I moved to Mekelle in northern Ethiopia with our four boys, at that time five, four, two, and six months old.  Unfortunately, we had to leave abruptly in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and have since been unable to return due to the subsequent ongoing civil war. I took a temporary position at a veterinary school in the States that allows us an income while we prayerfully wait for peace to return so that we can help rebuild the veterinary school, which has essentially been destroyed during the war.

While living in Chicago and then Iowa, my pipe smoking dwindled to only a handful of smokes a year, due in large part to how difficult it was to find a place to smoke. By the time we left for Ethiopia, I didn’t even bring any pipes with me, as luggage space was precious. However, while in Ethiopia I was invited to join a Facebook group called The Pipe and Pint, which is a sort of online pub, where folks share what they’re drinking and smoking while discussing the kinds of things one discusses in a pub – especially, in this case, Orthodox theology. I desperately missed my pipes, believing at the time that it would be three years before I could return to the States and get them out of storage.

When we returned to the States, I jumped back into pipe smoking with furious abandon.  I discovered the YouTube channels, Instagram, Facebook groups, etc., and suddenly had a community from whom to learn and to share the joys of pipe and tobacco smoking and collecting. The first segment of our return was during the height of the pandemic, a stressful and anxious time for everyone. Around August of 2020 international travel began to open up, but the political situation in Ethiopia was heating up, causing yet more anxiety for me. Combine this with the fact that my wife, our four young boys, and I were staying with family while we figured out our next steps, and the stress level was through the roof. Iraq was a cakewalk in comparison. Sitting on the back porch and trying new tobaccos became my primary respite outside of practicing my faith. I sincerely believe that it made an enormous difference in my ability to work through our challenges during that time.

 I found that my tastes had changed in terms of pipe shapes – I’m much more of a straight, billiard-like pipe now than the bent pipes I had collected previously. The style, however, is largely the same, and my Peterson collection has grown, including an Arklow Sandblasted 150, a 2020 St. Patrick’s Day 106, and a Walnut Spigot X105. I picked up a Dracula Sandblasted 106 last Halloween (because how could you not?).

Recently my interest in Peterson pipes has skyrocketed due to my discovery of the pipe-smoking priest, poet, and professor Malcolm Guite, and particularly the YouTube channel he started during the pandemic, in which he shares books and poems from his voluminous library. He’s typically smoking a pipe in these videos, and it’s nearly always a Peterson. Upon learning that his favorite pipe is the Lestrade, I obtained a PSB with beautiful grain that I probably smoke more frequently than any other pipe. I see myself collecting the rest of the Sherlock Holmes series over time.

John with his PSB Lestrade

As I continue to develop as a pipe smoker, my interest in theology and living out my faith in all aspects of my life has led me to think through the theology of pipe smoking – an area in which I still have a lot of thinking to do. There are many aspects of pipe smoking that lend themselves to theological appreciation. It requires patience to fully enjoy smoking a pipe – both when learning to smoke and in fully appreciating a bowl at any stage in one’s development. It lends itself to contemplation and quietness. In the Orthodox Christian tradition, quietness (called hesychia in Greek) is heavily emphasized. Learning to quiet oneself and “descend with the mind into the heart” is a concept one encounters regularly. Breathing is another component of this practice, often combined with the practice of the Jesus Prayer, also known as the Prayer of the Heart: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Often one inhales during the first half of this prayer, and exhales during the second half. When combined with some iteration of what is known as the breathing method in pipe smoking, this is perhaps the most relaxing, centering, and beneficial practice I’ve ever encountered.

The tradition within the Orthodox Church also includes a heavy emphasis on fasting, which typically takes the form of modified veganism for a set period: most Wednesdays and Fridays, forty days before Christmas, forty-nine days before Easter, and a few other times throughout the year. What is often left out is that these fasts precede feasts and let me tell you – Orthodox Christians know how to feast! Among other things, these cycles of fasting and feasting are intended to teach us to control our bodies and inclinations while also emphasizing that the body was created good and has been made infinitely good by means of the Incarnation. Smoking a pipe is yet another place in which these practices and their subsequent benefits can be manifested.

Another topic I’ve been thinking on and working to better articulate pertains to the use of incense in worship. Orthodox worship uses a lot of incense. It is a symbol of prayer and a fragrant offering to the Lord. I’m still working through this concept, and I want to be careful here that I’m not overreaching. I’m not there yet, but the potential connections to pipe smoking are obvious.

The practice of smoking a pipe has marked many of the milestones of my life to date, and I’m immensely grateful to the pipe community for the peace of mind, comfort, and even personal growth that I’ve found in this remarkable pastime.

When you get a chance, check out John’s blog
at thecoatneys.com


System Day 2022: The Seven-Day Challenge

When Father David sent me the photo below of his 999s, it gave me what I hope you’ll find a fun challenge for this year’s System Day:

Which of your seven Petersons will you smoke for System Week 2022?

The notions of a seven day set and a seven day rotation are one of those things you learn early as a pipe smoker. K&P has contributed to this solid idea in the first two of their Sherlock Holmes seven-day sets. Here’s seven of Fr. David’s 999s:

For first-timers wanting the much-coveted CPG [Certified Pete Geek] certificate (!) and those who are already CPGs to earn a the merit badge on their existing certificate, here’s how to enter:

  • Send an email with a photo of which Petes in your rotation you’d choose to smoke for System Week, Sunday the 4th through Saturday the 10th with a short explanation of your choices.
  • Include your country or state.
  • You don’t have to chose seven Systems, neither do all your Petes need to be the same shape.
  • You can choose the same pipe 7 times or divide up your Petes however you choose as long as you have selected a pipe for seven days.
  • If you don’t have any Petes at all, however, you’re reading the wrong blog!
  • Privacy: if you don’t want your full name to appear, let me know by what name you want your entry to appear.
  • Photo of you smoking your Pete is optional.
  • Send entries to PeteGeek1896@gmail.com.
  • Submissions must arrive no later than Thursday, September 1st to guarantee entry.

It’s for the good of pipemanity.

Continue Reading298. John Coatney DVM on Petes, Military Working Dogs and the Theology of Smoking