by Shawn Crawford
Growing up, a lighter branded you as suspect to any Baptist worth his King James Version. Because really, other than smoking and setting houses on fire to incinerate the family within just for kicks, what did you need a lighter for anyway? If you wanted to light something righteous like a candle or the water heater, you reached for the box of safety matches next to the paprika in the spice cabinet. They had SAFETY written on the box in case you felt tempted to go astray. Lighters should have had Iniquity Equipment inscribed on them as far as we were concerned.
Naturally I pined for one. Especially a Zippo. Oh that beautiful sound they made opening and closing. The glamour of a seasoned pro twirling one absentmindedly while he drank some exotic cocktail whose name you were forbidden to speak. I once suggested Bloody Marys for everyone after church one evening and was interrogated the rest of the night to learn in what seedy environment I had acquired such knowledge. I was eight.
But the absolute, most breathtaking moment of the Zippo Lifestyle occurred in any movie when the dashing hero brandished his gleaming beauty to light the femme fatale’s cigarette. Zippo informs us the lighter has appeared in over 2000 films.
Zippo began in Pennsylvania when George G. Blaisdell perfected his new lighter and christened it Zippo because he thought it sounded modern and new. Soldiers in WWII brought the lighters to the zenith of their fame because they stayed lit in harsh conditions. Today Zippo makes all sorts of things like any conglomerate, from watches to pens to a fantastic hand warmer.
Of all the breaks with my past, purchasing a Zippo seemed the most decadent. One Father’s Day I went to one of those stores that I don’t feel quite manly enough to remain in for long. Brass telescopes, magnifying glasses, ashtrays made of a stone so masculine it probably mines itself. When people get their heads bashed in by an ashtray in a mystery novel, I nod my head knowingly; you could hold off a band of Hottentots with one of those things.
With sweaty palms I asked the man at the counter to show me some lighters. He had a beard trimmed so perfectly it looked like a CG effect. It was an Ur beard that other beards aspired to approach. But I had come to the right beard. He told me to forget about the fancy torch lighters I see young guys with as they light a cigar and then presumably go burn a village to the ground.
You want a Zippo he said and produced one from his pocket. Don’t pay attention to the punks that tell you it takes too long to use, he advised me. What are they in such a hurry for, anyway? And then in a wonderful moment I never expected, he told me the sound of the Zippo and the smell of the wick igniting always reminded him of his father. His eyes moistened, but the glorious radiance of the beard soon got things back under control.
So I bought one, and he showed me how to fill it, which was another delight, and how to keep it clean, and to never get rid of it because all it ever needs is a new flint or wick now and then.
I will probably never light a cigarette for a beautiful starlet or fire up my own as bullets whiz overhead, but having the tool to do so makes you feel you could if the need ever arose.