Zippos light your smoke, save the day

by R. Scott

The smoker cups her hands to her face, bending her neck as if approaching a taco. Pause. Then she grimaces. She flings a burnt-out cardboard stick to the ground, her Camel still unlit.
Another match falls in March’s gusty air. Overcoming the climate requires serious firepower. It’s time to bring a lighter into the scene. And lighters are more than useful. They’re downright cool. Smokers, paleolithic hunters and Prometheus have long carried mechanical firestarters, but today even their tobacco-free modern non-demigod compatriots are packing heat.
Why is flame so cool? At base, because it brings a demon-like visual experience to what might otherwise be workaday practicality. Holes might carry the same cachet of cool, if drill bits were more exciting to watch than, well, drill bits.
Two basic types of lighters dominate the market and the pockets of America’s firestarters. Most ubiquitous are disposable lighters. Many University students can remember when these ovoid plastic tubes were known simply as “Bics,” after the company that revolutionized disposable plastic products in the 1970s. “Don’t flick your Bic,” said the movie theater no-smoking warning.
The other less common — although intrinsically cooler — source of portable ignition is the Zippo. Reusability characterizes these metal lighters, as does the distinctive sound of one being lit. Clink. Scratch. Flame. The purist’s lighter is known by the name of the company which still owns the rights to a lighter design that hasn’t changed appreciably since 1932.
But then, neither has class. Carey Grant was the definition of smooth then, just as he’d be today. And he was a Zippo man, exuding masculine strength and cool. When his flame, say Eva Marie Saint, needed a light, Grant would flick his thumb with the metallic flash of a Zippo. The sound of a refillable lighter, the hefty clink of the cover, is class and style made audible.
How many kids remember their dad’s weighty metal rectangle? Some Zippos even become heirlooms, passed from generation to generation. They’ve been standard issue in every American war since WWII, and every ship in the fleet issues specially engraved Zippos.
Bics, on the other hand, are not about class. They’re bright plastic, for one thing, and how debonair is that? Even a bought Bic is virtually free, and many are stolen straight out. A Bic comes with dirty jeans and wild hair. The date you’d least want your parents to meet — if you value their approval — carries a Bic. Young Marlon Brando is a Bic man. So is the pre-shotgun Courtney Love.
When it comes down, the self-extinguishing top is what gives Zippos the hipness edge over Bics. For safety reasons, lighters need to put themselves out after use. Lighting a Bic requires turning a flint wheel. Beneath the wheel is a button that opens a butane valve. While the button is pressed, the Bic will burn. But remove a pressing thumb and the button lifts, closing the valve and starving the flame.
Zippos, on the other hand, stay lit until they’re closed. That scene in “Return of the Jedi” where Darth Vader throws his shining lightsaber across a dark room, bringing a catwalk down around the junior Skywalker? Zippo. A Bic lightsaber would have gone out as soon as it left the dark lord’s hand.
Without its owner’s digits, then, a Bic is just a colorful plastic stick filled with low-grade butane and a three millimeter peg of flint. A Zippo, however, offers a flame free from human interference. Like the forest fires that only you can stop, Zippos light and stay lit. A burning Zippo, like Vader’s saber, can be thrown. Or left to burn.
Imagine the scene. You’ve survived the shoot-out at the gas station. You make it to your car under the covering fire of your partner, the Men in Black pinned behind the cash register inside. As the gasoline puddle spreads on the concrete ground, you see your chance. Ignite the gas and flambe the suits until well done.
But obviously you can’t be there when the explosion happens. If you’ve got a Bic, it’s time to surrender peacefully. You’d have to hold the plastic stick to the spreading gas to get it to light.
But that Zippo in your pocket saves the day. Clink. Scratch. Flame. Now you can either throw the lighter at the gas pool as you peel away or you can leave it burning on the ground so that when the gas spreads to it, the whole place goes up — preferably just as the baddies are running across the slippery concrete cursing your flight.
Farfetched, perhaps. But like the MacGuyver-inspired Swiss Army Knife, you don’t carry a lighter because you think you’ll want a flame. You carry it for when you need something to burn.