Although modern vehicles still retain the round 12-v holes in which to plug in adapters for power, people of a certain age all recall the magic of the spring-loaded cigarette lighters of yesteryear. Back in the day, everyone smoked, even people using oxygen, priests, the doctor who delivered you (while delivering you, no less), and the irritated waitress bringing you overcooked hash browns at the Waffle Hut. (There were no food returns, only “Get the hell out!” requests if you complained about your food, or ashes in your grits.)
Adults, however, could not be without a cigarette lighter for over ten minutes. Before we removed the clause from the Declaration of Independence, all adults were required to smoke at least a pack of cigarettes a day. My mom, for example, showed her patriotism by sometimes smoking a literal carton a day. It seems impossible. She often rose from the bed with a lit cigarette, bathed with a cigarette, and smoked all day as she sat in the operator’s chair for Southwestern Bell. There were times when our house on wheels looked like the polluted skies over an industrial factory. If we were in the car, the windshield seemed opaque from all the smoke. Having the windows down was a bit of a relief, but we all remember the clotted gasp of discovering that a butt thrown out the window had reentered to find itself in our mouths and throats. My mom didn’t believe that throwing a lit cigarette out of the car was a problem. If Smokey The Bear had been standing beside the road, she would have flicked it directly into the pocket of his shirt in an attempt to catch him on fire.
Adults who smoked treated the car cigarette lighter as if it were a religious relic, one to be admired, worshipped, and never touched by the undeserving hands of a child. (Unless we were told to light the cigarette for the adult, who undoubtedly was struggling already to pop the beer can open, the one cradled in the cheap koozie used to hold it.)
Unrelated to the story: the word ‘koozie’ is one of the ugliest words in the English language.
I don’t know how old I was for certain. My cousin Jimmy and I were in one of my dad’s and his cousin Tom’s jalopies for sale. Jimmy was spoiled, but sometimes lit up with mischief and humor. We sat in the front seat of some aged old car, honking the horn and ducking below the dash to avoid being seen. I’d get a beating if caught. Jimmy would have received a smile. Jimmy kept pressing the cigarette lighter in, waiting for it to startle him as it popped out, its insides glowing red. He acted like he was going to touch it with the tip of one of his fingers. “Don’t!” I yelled, despite my extensive Shakespearean training in the vocal arts. Jimmy laughed.
“Oh, it won’t hurt so bad.” He seemed sure. I was 100% certain he was wrong, having been stupid enough to do it myself. More than once and probably fifty times up to that point. I noted that my burned fingertips didn’t smell like pepperoni, either.
“I’ll give you 5 bucks if you touch it to the tip of your tongue,” he told me, smiling. 5 bucks was the equivalent of a fortune for me.
I considered it. I pulled the lighter from the sheath and watched it as it glowed red and hot. When I got it closer to my mouth, I could of course feel the heat radiating off it it.
“Get it hot again,” Jimmy insisted, so I popped it back in the ashtray that contained the plug in.
In a few moments, it popped back out. Jimmy grabbed it and handed it to me.
I unwisely brought it up to my face and stuck out the tip of my tongue. The heat was too much. At that precise moment, Jimmy slapped my left hand unexpectedly and the hot coil hit the tip of my tongue. Luckily, it came away immediately as I reacted and pulled it away. A bit of my skin came away with it. I could smell it burn and hear a slight hiss and sizzle as it cooked my disconnected skin.
I didn’t scream, but I did whimper as I coiled my tongue into my cheek. I could feel it burning. I think it was saying “Idiot” to me in the only way it knew how. Jimmy was doubled over and laughing. His eyes were teary as he peeked to look at the horrified expression on my face.
Because I was poor and my mom refused to let us use the excellent insurance she had through her work, my concern was the possibility of needing medical care. Dad would have opted to slice off the tip of my tongue with one of his hunting knives, or push me into an open septic tank.
Sidenote: the house I lived in, one off of Powell and near Hatfield Street, and opposite the old City View trailer park, had a secret. There was a round garage on the property that Dad used for his mechanic business. The property had a well and a septic tank instead of city water and sewer. We had been bathing in – and drinking – water contaminated with sewer waste from a faulty septic tank for over a year. We kept complaining that everything tasted like sh*t. We weren’t wrong.
This is a true story.
Without going into the details, it’s why to this day I have to concentrate to take the first bite of ramen noodles.
Jimmy finally stopped laughing. My eyes cleared up enough for me to tell Jimmy I was going to sneak up on him while he was sleeping in his waterbed and put a snake under the covers with him. The idea of snakes on him while sleeping terrified him. He begged and pleaded for forgiveness.
My tongue hurt for several days. I had to play the French Horn. Each time my tongue punctuated a note against my lips or the mouthpiece, I’d cringe a little. I felt like a little poodle on the verge of wetting myself.
I never put a snake in the bed with Jimmy. But I thought about it. A million times.