"Look at these lighters, man, I haven't seen these for a long time, really a long time. S---, I lost mine or it was stolen, difficult to remember, but I do remember the inscription I had on it: `I Love Hoa,' was on one side, she was my girl for a while, and on the other it said: `Water? Don't Drink the Stuff — Fish F--- In It You Know.' I wonder where that damn Zippo is now."
Le Loi Street. Saigon. 1992. Bradford Edwards meets a Vietnam vet named Dan. Wide-brimmed brush hat. Burly build. "He just smelled like a vet," Edwards recalls. "He was in that age range, and he had a safari outfit on. He just looked like a vet."
The street vendors on Le Loi had piled their tables high with artifacts. Dog tags. Watches. Goggles. "Just all sorts of stuff," says Edwards. "Anything that they thought tourists might be interested in. Everything that they could get their hands on.
"Inevitably on these tables were stacks of Zippos," Edwards continues. "Literally three, four, five vertical stacks of Zippos."
Edwards is an American artist who spends more than half the year in Hanoi. Until he met Dan, he hadn't given much thought to the Zippo, the standard-issue, chrome-plated, brass lighter that GIs could buy at the PX for $1.80.
He hadn't considered that tens of thousands of Zippos would have been left behind in a country which, in 1992, appeared right out of The Twilight Zone with, as Edwards says, "almost no Western references to anything post 1975."
He had no reason to be aware that within the Zippo archive one could find the occasional counter-culture Zippo.
"Most of the Zippos that I found – this is after 10 years of collecting them seriously – most of them are uncarved. The ones that are carved are mostly with straight military emblems. And then you have the group of what I call alternative-sensibility Zippos ...What I was interested in were the black humour, the alternative, the disgruntled, discontented Zippos."
Many of them say F--- You.
Or spout Black Power slogans, or are stamped with the peace sign – "Why Me?" – or feature Snoopy cursing the Red Baron and a pregnant Lucy cursing, "Goddam You Charlie Brown."
Uncle Sam points beneath a peace sign saying not, "I want you" but "I screwed you." God, of course, grows His own. "Ours is not to do or die, ours is to smoke and stay high."
"I looked at a lot of lighters," says Edwards. "100,000 at least. And I just started culling the best of the best. I have about 300."
At first, Edwards wanted to source as many Zippos as he could for his mixed-media artwork, "portraits of Zippos," he calls them.
But the historical and cultural significance of the lighters has now led to a book: Vietnam Zippos: American Soldiers' Engravings and Stories 1965-1973. "Vietnam Zippos became the ideal protest vehicle," writes author Sherry Buchanan in the book's foreword. "They escaped the brass's attention more easily than Afros, Buddhist swastika medallions, Tibetan prayer beads and the Make Love Not War slogans on helmets that incurred the disapproval of the powers that be."
Edwards deconstructs his favourite. On one side is an acid-etched image of the ace of spades – the death dealer's card – and "No Quarter," as in, no mercy. The words Chu Lai are imprinted alongside the etched emblem. Chu Lai was a marine air base about 80 kilometres south of Da Nang, and the Zippo's owner was a member of Coastal Division 16.
"Here's what I think happened," says Edwards. "Zippo did a lot of acid etching." (The Zippo Manufacturing Co. has been customizing Zippos almost since its creation in the thirties.) "That lighter was probably passed out to everyone in that unit."
The flip side is hand-stamped in stout capital letters: "You Can Surf Later."
"That was just so cool," says Edwards of his discovery. "He stamped those letters into that lighter. That's a home-made one, and that's rare."
What could be the story behind the lighter? "This guy, whoever he was, was on a riverboat. You've got to remember the riverboat was one of the most dangerous duties. You're a sitting duck. You're just getting shot at à la Apocalypse Now. So here's this guy on a riverboat and he's lighting a joint or a cigarette or whatever he's doing. An opium pipe. Who knows?"
And he's a surfer, no less, an undoubtedly small sub-culture of GIs.
In Vietnam Zippos, Sherry Buchanan writes of the China Beach Surf Club and the alleged daylight ceasefire deals between the North Vietnamese and the wave-riders. The image came alive for cinema goers via Apocalypse's Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore: "If I say it's safe to surf this beach, Captain, then it's safe to surf this beach."
"It's just too good," says Edwards of this favourite totem of his. "You can surf later. In other words, you can surf after this is all over. I've just got to get through this. I've got to `get short,' which means little time left. I've got to get off this boat and I can surf later."
Half a dozen years ago, at a barbecue in Santa Barbara, Edwards ran into Sam Bottoms, who played the acid tripping surfer dude Lance in Apocalypse. "To have gotten one of the few surfer Zippos in the war and from one of the few to actually get on a boat and then to meet `Lance' and then to tie into this pop culture circle. It's the most amazing coincidence of my life thus far."
Vietnam-Era Zippo Lighters As Works Of Art
SANTA BARBARA, Calif., Oct 20, 2007
(CBS) In one Santa Barbara gallery, the portraits bring back memories for Vietnam vet Hap Desimone. But they're not portraits of soldiers, they're portraits of Zippo lighters.
CBS News correspondent John Blackstone asked him if it seems strange to see the lighters depicted as art.
"No," he says. "It doesn't seem strange at all."
In Vietnam, every soldier, it seemed, had a Zippo.
"I carried one," Desimone says. "I had it engraved."
With the engravings Zippos became the one place soldiers could express themselves.
"A lot of these sentiments I heard before, 'We're the unwilling led by the unqualified doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful'," he says. "It rings a bell."
Zippos by the thousands were left behind in Vietnam. Fifteen years ago artist Bradford Edwards began collecting them at Vietnamese flea markets.
"Here's an interesting one," Edwards says, "a broken peace sign on a bracelet."
In a new book chronicling his work, Edwards explains that each Zippo tells a story - the disgruntled soldier, the lonely soldier, the bored soldier. Edwards became captivated by the engraved Zippos and began recreating them in his own art: larger than life portraits in metal, in stone, in lacquer and mother of pearl.
"When they're done in this artistic fashion, I think they celebrate and extol the virtues and highlight the carving," Edwards says.
Just the sound of a Zippo opening is iconic, and Zippos sparked controversy in one of the most famous images from Vietnam.
After Morley Safer reported in August 1965 that a village was lit on fire with lighters, the Zippo became an image of a war going the wrong way. But to Edwards the Zippos are not about the big issues, but about the individual soldier.
"You had people who were discontent people who wanted to express heartfelt emotions," he says. "And here was a small canvas."
"They look like a collection of tombstones," Edwards says. "And they maybe the last thing some of these guys had to say."
While some of the soldiers may never have made it home, now their Zippos are here illuminating the past.