(c) Earl L. Haehl Permission is given to use this article in whole as long as credit is given. Book rights are reserved.
Following is the first in a series of articles based on experiences as a surplus scrounger. The story is fictionalized to the extent necessary to pull facts together that happened at different times. Ruark did this in The Old Man and the Boy. This first installment is fairly light weight and family friendly. I will try to make these okay for general audience consumption. Suffice to say that what happened in the fifties does not happen now.
The sign on the cash register in the surplus store said, “In God we trust. All others PAY CASH!!!” I was maybe 11 when first I wandered in unattended by adults. Back in suburban Denver I had to get rides to surplus stores and that meant adult supervision lest I bring home a moldy pup tent and try sleeping in the yard. It was a new world to me and I walked through aisles of stuff I never knew armies had. I knew about the ammo belts with the pockets that held en bloc clips for the Garand—we were up on our World War II movies and a little sad that Korea was over before we got old enough.
For 98 cents you could get a military hatchet and it was 35 cents more for the canvas pouch. This was WWII stuff in the days before well heeled re-enactors. Canteen with cover – 98 cents. Mess kit the same. Up front there were real steel tools. A size small wool shirt almost fit me at the time—and I would be wearing a large soon enough. The CPO shirt went for 2 bucks and I had something to wear under the parka my folks got me to wear.
But it was a world of fantasy—mine was the F-86 cockpit canopy for $29.98 that I could get when I was fourteen and I could earn real money at the grocery store. And it was my first outfitter. With ten bucks I got my first tackle box, some hooks, a real bobber and a South Bend reel. I also picked up 200′ of casting line. Cash payment. I knew that my folks had an aluminum JC Penney card that they used once a year if they did not have the reserves in the bank for school clothes.
Praceically everything in the store was priced two cents shy of the next dollar. You got the feeling you were saving money when you went home to stash it in craft paper tubes. And if you used a couple of those 50 cent rolls the proprietor—we called him Mr Ace because it was Ace Surplus.
It was late December in 1956. My dad had to come back from Denver and I rode the bus with him. I had 35 bucks and I knew that it would not be long before I would no longer fit under the canopy. My thoughts were now of next year’s buck season. A cousin of my aunt had a ranch and I had spotted the muley buck I wanted. And Mr Ace had dropped the price on Mausers.
Now, back in the mid-fifties there were no Form 4473 requirements. The Model 95 I wanted had dropped from $14.98 to $12.98. I lived two blocks west of Broadway, then it was a block south to the Chevy dealership and another block to Gambles which was a third of a block to Ace Army Surplus.
Mr Ace knew exactly what my mission was as I stood looking at the “Mauser barrel,” an old beer keg wih four or five slats missing. The weather was warm and I wore the white sombrero with the “Wyoming” crease my aunt had given me.
“So you’re going to hunt up by Alliance next year?”
“That’s my plan.” This may have been the first adult conversation I had that did not involve books. My interactions with adults were generally on a level of myself being somewhat less than 100 percent human. I might, at some point in the future be worth their time, but for the time being I should keep quiet unless asked a question. My father, a Shakespeare scholar, and the children’s librarian who decided I was a little too advanced for the Landmark series were the only adults it was safe to have a conversation with.
Then came the inevitable question. “Does your mother know you’re here?”
“No. She’s in Denver.”
“Do you have $12.98.”
“I have 17 bucks on my person. Gotta get some ammo too.”
“You know you’ll only get $8 if you bring it back?”
“My advice is to keep it at Henry and Blanche’s for a while.” Aunt Blanche was my grandfather’s sister. Uncle Henry was her second husband. And that way we could keep it there and I would go out to his farm and really learn to shoot.
I got my eight bucks when we made the decision—that’s the way parents would speak—to move to the promised land of California. I had a plan to fix up my bike as a three wheeler and the money could buy the necessary lawn mower engine to power it. But they, my extended family, would not be there and my dad’s tool box was lacking in wrenches. And like the dream of the buck, the dream of the powered tricycle faded into time.
In 1997 I drove south on Broadway. The Chevrolet dealership had moved. Gambles was something else and Ace Army Surplus was no more. It was like time had erased the small town and the location of the interstate had made it smaller.
Mr Ace is gone now. In 2007 my mother, the last of her generation on both sides of her family passed. There are fewer surplus stores to fire the imagination. And many of those left deal in the colorful cheap imported outdoor gear that does not raise images of blood and sacrifice—no, kids get the image of blood without sacrifice from video games.
And then came the response to “terrorism” and now the key to purchase at a surplus store is a debit or credit card. Proprietors are warned to take note of persons using cash and demand identification. Also to beware of persons buy bulk ammunition, MRE style foods, etc. Okay, so as a clerk I would give anyone buying MREs in bulk the business card of my heart specialist. But I wonder jf, in the pursuit of a safe society we are forfeiting a free society.