"You better watch out ..."

Friday, December 14, 2007

In the spirit of public service during the Christmas shopping season, we offer this cautionary tale, complete with lyrics that should have been sung.

A woman at a popular Lewisburg retail store checkout counter tried a cigarette lighter that plays music and, while holding the device near her ear to hear electronic music, she pushed a lever and ignited a flame, thereby setting her hair on fire.

Three employees of the chain store where this reportedly happened made statements substantiating the information, but did not identify the woman. A Marshall County Emergency Medical Service official also substantiated the story repeated in greater detail by other officials in Lewisburg, but declined to release the woman's name, citing provisions in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Carla, a sales clerk at the Fred's Store on Mooresville Highway in Lewisburg, declined to give her last name, but confirmed that she called 911 on Dec. 4, when an ambulance was summoned at 9:14 a.m.

Steve Callahan of the Marshall County EMS said Paramedic Bobby Isley and Emergency Medical Technician Steven Williams responded to the call about a burn victim and took the woman to Marshall Medical Center, where it's believed that she was treated and released.

In the store early this week, Carla paged Samantha, the store's interim manager, who also declined to give her last name. Sam referred questions to Fred's corporate headquarters in Memphis.

While Sam walked from the back of the store, a cigarette lighter on display for sale at a checkout register was found to be "Made in China" and capable of emitting electronic sounds recognizable as the popular Christmas carol "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." The melody was understandable, but the lyrics, which start with the words "You better watch out," were not part of the entertainment.

The Techno brand product was priced at $2.99. Its display box described it as a "wind proof turbo." Fuel for the lighter is under pressure and apparently won't be dissipated by anything short of gale force winds. It's just the sort of lighter a sailor might need when lighting up on deck under adverse conditions.

The product's label also says it's refillable and has "electronic ignition."

There's a fire extinguisher hanging on a metal pole several steps inside the store, but it was clear the clerk and her superior weren't going to say whether it was used that Tuesday morning.

Fred's telephone switchboard operator referred calls to the company's advertising department, where Tommy Burkley said he didn't know about the incident and thought perhaps a company attorney ought to speak.

Earl Taylor, regional vice president of Fred's, called the next day, Tuesday, Dec. 11, and a summary of the chain of events -- similar to what's been reported here -- was provided with a request for comment.

"I'm kind of familiar with it," Taylor began. "The events surrounding the incident are unfortunate. Fred's, as a company, is concerned about our customers. That's why Fred's lighters are certified as 'child proof.'"

There are no cigarette lighters bearing a Fred's brand name, he said when asked to clarify that point, but he emphasized, "These are certified as 'child proof.'

"I cannot make any further statement," Taylor concluded.

A source for this staff opinion column includes someone who knew a couple of guys who are believed to have worked with the son of the woman who tried the product and suffered injury instead of entertainment. The source was asked to ask the two guys if they could talk to the former co-worker about asking his mother if she'd be willing to speak to the newspaper about what happened.

The request was made without expectation that it would result in a call from the woman. In all likelihood, if she was asked about it, the question would have been phrased something like this: "Hey Ma, you don't want to call the paper about your hair catching on fire, do you?"

And so this is a seasonal cautionary tale about Christmas shopping as we Americans go forth, performing our patriotic duty to support the economy and find things that warm the hearts -- if not the heads -- of our loved ones and bring some joy to our friends.

We might suggest that after Christmas more people make a New Year's resolution to quit smoking, an effort that might help avoid hair fire and an injury that is regrettable, probably painful and certainly worth avoiding.

The gray metallic-colored cigarette lighter has a yellow relief-like figure on one side that resembles a saxophone.

Such detail is provided here to advise the public of the product. To hear the music, one must flip open the top of the lighter. That activates the electronic sound, which approaches the quality of sound played by one of my Christmas neckties (a gift from my mother in law) and a birthday card from a niece and nephew. They sent the very best, "Made in U.S.A." by Hallmark Cards Inc. of Kansas City, Mo. The music emanating from the card includes recognizable lyrics in the song "Conga" written by Enrique Elias Garcia as performed by Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine.

If only Techno's wind-proof turbo delivered the lyrics: "You better watch out."-