Look at these lighters, man, I haven’t seen these for a long time, really long time. Shit 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? On some other table for sale or maybe a cyclo driver has it in his pocket, never will know, will I?
Dan was a war veteran who had been in Da Nang between 1968 and 1969 with a minesweeper unit and had come back to Nam during the first trickle of tourism. Dressed in an abbreviated safari suit, rivulets of sweat trickling from his damp collar, he stared back at me in a challenging, almost menacing way, and then invited me to sit town on a small stool next to him. I obeyed and sat there, equals parts curious and intimidated. He proceeded to tell me about the lighters and then unfolded his own story. He told me his reasons for returning and his reactions to being back, back with an awakened memory about what had been a defining and intense experience.
This is how the Vietnam Zippo entered my life in the fall of 1992 as I was walking down Le Loi Street toward the center of Saigon. I saw this massive burly man with a wide brimmed bush hat hunched over just a tiny table of a street vendor, looking at pipes, coins, photo albums, watches, stamps, badges, figurines, jewelry, dog tags, and stacked neatly behind them, columns of shiny metallic Zippo lighters.
That afternoon was the beginning of more than a decade of my fascination and obsession with the Vietnam Zippo. Few objects have the status of a twentieth century consumer icon. The Zippo lighter is one such object and it also happened to be in the pockets of most soldiers who served in Vietnam. A symbol of American toughness and reliability, the Zippo was the lighter of choice for the GI fighting in a distant tropical land. The military has favored the Zippo since it was introduced in the early thirties. It can withstand significant amount of punishment and work with a wide variety of fuels—the perfect source of fire in the battlefield. The basic chrome-plated brass-hinged rectangle was an instant success with the American public, especially with men, as it embodied machine age machismo.
“The Zippo was almost like basic issue in Vietnam,” Warren, a rifleman from Macon, Georgia remembers. “They were always around, like a pack of matches, and used for a thousand purposes. It seemed like everyone had one. No one thought of them as anything special—use ’em and lose ’em.” It has been so closely associated with the military that many people still think that the Zippo is actually manufactured by the U.S. government.
I wanted to find the Zippos with soul. I began searching for inscriptions that expressed the hearts and minds of the average grunt, the infantryman, the GI in the middle of it all. Largely carried by enlisted men, this collection of Zippos contains abundant evidence of countercultural sensibilities. While the Zippo had been used during World War II and the Korean War, the Vietnam conflict produced a different kind of lighter than before. Military emblems had embellished the surface of Zippos from the beginning, but with the number of reluctant draftees in Vietnam came a new approach toward adorning the small rectangular space. The soldiers began expressing themselves—directly and honestly. Unlike previous Zippos used by the military that had authorized badges, unit crests and division insignia, many of the lighters reflected personal and cultural sensibilities. You can see poetry, drawings, witticisms, social commentary, protest statements, and personal endearments. Some have the soldiers’ names or the names of people they loved or missed—they served as personal totems. Some are touching with liberal doses of locker room bluntness and clever insight. Zippos were portable utilitarian objects that provided a miniature forum for the GIs’ thoughts and feelings during the war—sex, drugs, frustration, longing, hope, anger, love. The sentiments on these lighters were genuine, uncensored and heartfelt.
As I began my search in 1992, I wondered where were all these Zippos now? Who has had them since the end of the conflict in 1975? Why were so many left behind? Weren’t they the Zippos of dead soldiers? Weren’t they war booty taken by the victors, the notoriously savage Viet Cong?
After speaking with numerous Vietnamese and American Veterans I have determined the following rough account. Over 3 million individuals spent time in Vietnam over the course of the war and most of them had at least one Zippo. They were all imported through the base PX (Post Exchange store for U.S. goods) and available for $1.80, Zippos were personalized at sidewalk kiosks by special machines that could do metal engraving. They had a wide selection of designs and templates— The sentiments on these lighters were genuine, uncensored and heartfelt. the customer could choose one or have their own made, just like a tattoo parlor. The soldiers initially made all the designs, as the Vietnamese could not reference American pop culture. A number of them were acid-etched at the Zippo factory in the U.S. with official military emblems and crests. Others were crudely hand etched with hand tools, drills and metal-stamping rods by the GIs themselves. Even if a soldier didn’t smoke, a Zippo could always come in handy for a variety of needs while fighting in a war. Some guys went through a few, losing them, having them borrowed, stolen or giving them away as gifts. After the war, many Zippos were left in Vietnam, others went with their owners back to the States.
None of the Zippos with engraved names featured in the book are from fallen soldiers. The Zippos by all accounts remained in southern Vietnam where the ground war was fought. When word got out that they were valuable and coveted by tourists, they drifted from the countryside toward Saigon. Dealers and street vendors created a market for them and they soon surfaced from under beds, drawers, cupboards and boxes. Anything that could be sold for cash to tourists in Saigon was. Driven by acute need, this effort was done with zeal and motivation. Loc, 28, explains: “When the Western tourists started coming they seemed interested in souvenirs from the war, especially dog tags and Zippos. Lots of people had some of these things. Everybody needed money and were willing to sell whatever they had—antiques, art, furniture. My friend had a stall in the Russian Market in downtown Saigon and I started collecting lighters and other things. It got bigger and bigger and then we were successful. Soon it was a big job hunting for more and more Zippos.”
During my first trip to Vietnam in the fall of 1992, I had met Loc and his family. Their house was directly across from Ben Thanh Market, the central Saigon marketplace. It had a cast cement Deco period sign proudly displaying the address above the doorway. A cramped and airless long rectangular space, the house was fitted with Italian and French electric fans in various states of repair and restoration. Loc’s family also sold other vintage collectible, but mainly fans and lighters—dealers in wind and fire. He soon became a close and trusted friend and my guide into the Zippy underworld of Saigon.
Loc, who is one the main distributors for the lighters in Ho Chi Minh City, elaborates: “People know me here and constantly bring me stuff to sell, many Zippos. Some of them call me Mr. Zippo and I am always trying to find more. They come in from the provinces, up from the Delta and from the Central Highlands. I try to get to them first.”
From him, I learned who to go to for what and was able to get the first look at many of the lighters that hit the market. I became a white-skinned Zippo hunter skulking down the alleys and streets of Saigon. After spending countless afternoons in sweltering stale corners of markets and private houses looking at piles of lighters I began to understand what these Zippos were: art without ambition, a real and honest venting of feelings, invaluable evidence of an experience, heavy juju. I knew that I had to do something with them. Collecting them was obvious, but then it soon became clear that I must make installations and artwork with the Zippos, to celebrate and highlight their beauty and importance.
Over the next five years, I steadily began making many distinct series of Zippo portraits. Finding Vietnamese craftsmen, the best in their fields, with the idea of using traditional, classical and some uniquely Vietnamese techniques, I commissioned dozens of artworks. Designing every detail, I collaborated with workshops and individual artists to realize my concepts in lacquer painting, metal etching, stone carving, silk-screen printing, mixed media, I became a white-skinned Zippo hunter skulking down the alleys and streets of Saigon. photography and graphite drawing. Often the finished pieces would exceed my expectations and the artisans were always curious about why I would want to pay homage to such strange objects. It was important to me and seemed appropriate to collaborate with Vietnamese artists and to use Vietnamese craft methods when making the portraits. Obsessed with the Vietnam Zippo, I was pushing the market to gather the best of the best examples, aggressively exploring the methods of making portraits, going deeper and deeper in the pursuit of making sense of the Zippo. It was just a lighter, but to me it had recorded the collision of an American sixties youth culture vibration with the brutal pain and suffering experienced by these young soldiers fighting in a confusing distant war.
A natural extension of my interest in the Vietnam Zippo was to want to hear the personal stories of the men who actually carried them in their pockets. I was soon looking for guys who appeared to be veterans, a certain age range who looked heavy with history. What does that mean? Men who just had a way of looking, of being, of moving through the world with a different experience than most of their peers.
Gary was having a fit of anger and frustration with a young woman teller in a Nha Trang bank when I met him in the fall of 1994. He was certain that he had been given the wrong change back and was yelling and cursing in a violent storm of self-righteous protest: “Damn country! Nothing ever goes right—never did before. Nothing’s changed in this f***in’ place!”
I went over to see if I could help. After calming down, Gary agreed to meet me for dinner later. We had a beer together and he unfolded his Zippo story: “Yeah, had a few Zippos during my two tours and I can remember one clearly, I had my girlfriend’s name on one side I Love Sweet Chi and on the other side I had them carve They Call Us Special Forces For A Reason, We Always Get The Job Done, above the unit crest. Man, I was gung-ho there for a while—yeah and that faded fast. Lost that one on a night recon right before leaving—I was getting short. In fact, lost all of them and have no souvenirs now—didn’t want anything that would remind me of that time.
“Later that night,” he continued, “I was in Special Ops near this area and stationed out toward the Highlands during my first tour here in 1967 and 1968. We didn’t wear uniforms. It was a lot of dirty work—abduction, interrogation and even assassination. I have many regrets over my actions here—sure, I was obeying orders, but who was giving them and why … that is the real question. You know what bothers me most about being back—it’s the sounds and smells, the small things that bring it all back, I can’t sleep well and I’m on edge all the time … maybe it was too early for me to return here. I’m freaking out.”
He left early the following morning and I didn’t get a chance to see him again.
The night before he showed me his portfolio—he was now a successful stained glass artist based in Florida who did large hotels and corporate commissions. A real man’s man who had morphed into a sensitive craftsman—he had taken a curious path from slicing throats to cutting colored glass.
The most competing story of a single Zippo begins in Saigon in a tiny stall on the edge of the Russian Market as I was sorting through hundreds of lighters. As usual, I had my sober poker face on when examining the Zippos—rule number one for a buyer—never show enthusiasm or interest, as the price will inevitably go up. I spotted this one lighter that had a river boat insignia with a skull and the phrase No Quarter from the American Revolutionary War engraved on it. These were always valuable because of their rarity and the danger associated with gunboat duty.
But this one was different, very different. After touching so many Vietnam Zippos, I had never seen a reference to surfing … until now. On the reverse side of the military insignia was the simple but powerfully revealing phrase, You Can Surf Later. In Apocalypse Now, the epic Coppola film about Vietnam based on Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, there is a memorable night-time firefight scene. Lance, the spacey surfer and only survivor with Captain Willard at the end of the journey, is tripping his brains out on LSD and marveling at the piercing lines of brilliant light left by the tracer bullets in the midst of a heavy battle. The fictional Lance, played by the actor Sam Bottoms, was a surfer pulling duty on a river gunboat. There was not that many surfers, even in California, in the sixties, and few of them, if any, volunteered for the military. It is generally accepted that the majority in that small and dedicated surf subculture went to great lengths to avoid conscription. Yet here in my hand was a bizarre example of life imitating art imitating life—this Zippo had belonged to a real live version of Lance. Undoubtedly as he was floating down a tropical river getting fired at and firing back, this unnamed surfer would glance at his lighter and try to get through the next dangerous and horrible day.
In 2001, I was at a friend’s July 4th barbecue in Santa Barbara and someone next to me said, “Hey, look there’s one of the Bottoms Boys.” The Bottoms are a well-known local family, the brood of the sculptor Bud Bottoms that has produced four actors of varying fame. Sam is still mostly defined, two decades later, as the one who played Lance in Apocalypse Now. I strolled over and told him about the Zippo and we both marveled at the coincidence of it all. We met later and he held the real world prop in his hand, the Zippo that should have been his in the movie, but that was actually someone else’s: a real surfer soldier who had been on a real gunboat.
From the discovering, to the collecting, to the making of the artwork, to the telling of stories and, finally, to this incisive documentation, the Zippos are the witnesses and I am simply a messenger. The young Americans who carried and embellished these lighters were the bearers of mistakes carried out under the banner of a misguided and myopic real politik. The survival of these stainless steel lighters is a gift. The Zippos give us now, decades later, a small glimpse into what these reluctant accidental soldiers were thinking about so very far away from home.
“Collecting” is an excerpt from Vietnam Zippos: American Soldiers' Engravings & Stories 1965—1973 by Sherry Buchanan from the collection of Bradford Edwards. Published by the University of Chicago Press, copyright Asia Ink and Visionary World 2007.
BRADFORD EDWARDS is an artist and collector of Vietnam Zippos.