I saw this just a moment ago on wired.com:
A San Francisco man learned the hard way that littering — especially burning objects — is not a good idea. Jonathan Fish was driving across the Bay Bridge on Thursday when he tossed his cigarette out the window. But the cigarette blew back into his $30,000 Ford Expedition, igniting the back seat and filling the SUV with smoke. Fish pulled over and leaped from the flaming vehicle, which kept rolling and crashed into a guardrail. “It was in flames by the time he got out,” said CHP Officer Shawn Chase. “He had some of his hair singed on the back of his head. (The car) burned down to the frame.” Fish likely faces a misdemeanor charge for littering, which carries a fine of up to $1,000.
It’s a sort of funny, ironic story. Except for me, now over 20 years a non-smoker, it hits home.
It had to be 1969, wintertime, and a Saturday night. I was living in Boston, making believe I was attending Emerson College and working as a talk show producer on the Steve Fredericks Show at WMEX.
Being a talk show producer sounds more glamorous than it really was. WMEX was a second rate station with an awful signal. It was owned by Max Richmond, a larger than life caricature of himself. Everything he did was done with an eye to cost. That’s fine, but reward should be factored in as well.
We were in a building originally designed by a movie studio for their Boston operation. That’s probably the reason it was built of cinder block with no insulation.
I answered calls and watched the door to the outside. I didn’t even screen all the phone lines. Some came to my little booth – others didn’t.
The show ended at (I think) 2:00 AM. I found my car, a faded green 1960 Volkswagen Beetle¹ and headed toward the Mass Pike. I was going to Albany, NY to see my friend Larry Lubetsky, a student a SUNY Albany.
Back then I was a smoker. My cigarette of choice was Tareyton. That was the brand which showed smokers with black eyes and the caption, “I’d rather fight than switch.”
This was the time when a pack of cigarettes in a machine cost 40¢. I remember going to WHDH-TV (then Channel 5) for a conference and seeing cigarettes in a hallway machine for 35¢!
I’m sorry. This story isn’t going in a straight line. Back to what I’m writing about.
As I drove, I smoked. And, as the cigarette would burn down toward the filter, I’d roll down the window and flick it outside. Looking back, that was wrong and I apologize to society in general for my selfish attitude.
Somewhere between Worcester and Springfield the car seemed a little smoky. Of course I had been smoking. So, I rolled down the window, let in some fresh wintry air, and then rolled it back up.
You didn’t want to keep the window down long in a 1960 VW. The heating system was vigorous enough to keep you warm through early September. After that it was a losing battle against the elements.
I continued driving, though the toll booth at the eastern end of the turnpike and through the Berkshires into New York State. The smoky conditions were getting worse. The window was going down more frequently.
It is only in retrospect that I realize I should have stopped and looked.
I merged off the Berkshire Extension of the New York State Thruway onto the main line. Even at this late hour there was truck traffic and my VW’s lack of power (the car topped out at around 60 mph… and took around a minute to get there) made me check my mirrors constantly. It was then I spotted the red glow from behind the back seat.
The 1960 Volkswagen had bucket seats in the front and a bench seat in the back. Behind the bench was a rectangular, deep pocket where you could store things. When I bought the car, there had been covers on the front seats. These fabric covers were in that pocket and they were on fire. One of my flicked cigarettes must have been blown back into the car.
I pulled to the side and jumped out. I didn’t think about safety at the time as I reached back in, flipped the front seat forward, pulled the slipcovers out and began stomping on them on the shoulder of the New York State Thruway.
I left them there, on the side of the road where they could commiserate with lost shoes and socks and the other things you find at the highway’s edge. I was shaking, now realizing what had… and what could have happened.
Still, I had to make it to Larry’s apartment before dawn. I hopped back in the car, lit another cigarette and started to drive.
Some people never learn.
Blogger’s note – I have been smoke free since the winter of 1984-85. This event had nothing to do with quitting. Of all the things in my life that were smart, quitting smoking was one of the smartest.
¹ – I couldn’t find an actual photo of a green 1960 VW Beetle. I did find a yellow one and with Photoshop, made it green. Helaine took a look and said the color was unnatural. Actually, the color is pretty close. Though this was glossy paint when it left Germany, it was a very dull green during my ownership.