Jim Wilson’s white GMC pick-up had logged more than 40,000 miles chasing Mitt Romney from coast to coast, the truck festooned with so many “Romney for President” posters and stickers it has become a rolling landmark and unofficial emblem of the campaign.
But as Wilson was driving home Wednesday afternoon to Virginia after nearly a week following Romney’s campaign bus across the Midwest, his truck burst into flames on Interstate 70 in rural Pennsylvania. The blaze occurred shortly after Wilson stopped at a Wal-Mart to buy fresh underwear and disposable razors,and moments after he was heckled by strangers at a convenience store. He said he did not suspect any foul play. .
Wilson, a 69-year-old salty-mouthed Vietnam veteran from rural Virginia, has been one of Romney’s most zealous and visible supporters. The Romney super-fan was the subject of a lengthy profile last month in The New York Times, and he has displayed similar devotion to past candidates, including Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) in his 2009 race.
Wilson parks his truck, adorned with six American flags and huge refrigerator-sized signs, at the entrance to Romney’s campaign events. And he often stands in the back of rallies smoking a pipe and, if the weather permits, sporting short shorts and knee-high white socks.
The fire occurred Wednesday, shortly after 5 p.m., and Wilson said he escaped with no injuries. He said in an interview with The Washington Post that he had been en route from Holland, Mich., where Romney held the final rally of his bus tour on Tuesday night, to Virginia to attend a friend’s funeral on Friday.
Wilson said he rescued the six flags from the back of his truck, where the fire started and burned ferociously.
“I guess campaign paraphernalia -- banners, signs and stuff – is highly flammable because it really took off,” Wilson said. “The tank was about to blow, but I got all six flags out. One got a little scorched … Tomorrow morning I’m going up to the wreckage lot and will get terribly dirty and sweaty and will see what else I can salvage.”
Wilson said the fire occurred as he got back on the highway after making a pit stop.
“Shortly after I stopped to get a soda – having just come from the Midwest, you call it a pop – and I looked in the back and there were flames everywhere,” Wilson said. He added that he pulled over and emptied two coolers of ice on the flames. “The locals did their damndest to get out and squirt water in it,” he said, but the truck was destroyed.
Wilson said that even though he was heckled at the convenience store, he does not believe the fire was started by an arsonist.
“There was certainly an opportunity,” Wilson said. When he parks his truck, he added, “two kinds of people come up. One kind wants bumper stickers and the other kind wants to taunt me. This was a taunting event.”
But, he added, “I smoke a pipe, I don’t have air conditioning. It could’ve been something off the road. I doubt it’s global warming, because I don’t buy that.”
The New York Times first reported news of the blaze.
After the fire, Wilson said, he e-mailed the Romney campaign’s director of operations, Will Ritter, to tell him what had happened. “I notified Will and sent him a picture of the truck burning and said, ‘You know, I’m out of signs now,’” Wilson joked.
Romney campaign officials offered to help Wilson make his way home, but he simply rented a car.
Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams said, “This is terrible news. Jim Wilson is a friend of the campaign and a friend of Governor Romney. We’re glad that he is safe. That was our biggest concern.”
Wilson said he is going to get a new truck soon. “It’s one of those things that you have to sit back and say, ‘Well, that wasn’t in the plan.’ But I now have an all-points-bulletin out for a white pick-up truck.”
Asked if he would return to the Romney campaign trail, Wilson left no doubt.
“This is important,” he said.