St. Louis is a patchwork of municipalities and neighborhoods, each sporting their own personality and speed traps. Lemay is a vintage section of town that runs along the Mississippi river. The area’s not exactly run down, but it’s not quite gentrified either. As you drive down Lemay Ferry road, you enter the nostalgia district: resale shops, pawn shops and other “quirky” retail establishments. The storefronts trace back to the 1930s. Most of the business are on their fourth or fifth incarnation. Each new shop owner has built onto the remnants of the last. Stores like Alamo Military Collectibles, sitting at the intersection of Reavis Barracks and Lemay Ferry . . .
Alamo Military Collectibles is stuffed with the usual mountain of mil surp supplies, reeking of the dry musty smell of standard issue kit. I look for guns. I usually stop by just for a few minutes, perusing the firearms, looking for a bargain. So far, I’ve bought two: a sturdy Romanian Kalashnikov and a Smith .40 Sigma.
The day I stop in, the place is as usual chocked full of woolen greatcoats, saucer caps and black leather boots of widely varying vintage, from ancient cavalry boots to modern desert footgear. Perched atop one rack of Class A Army greens is a pack rig for an Army mule.
I look at it closely; there are canvas pads and a wooden “A” frame reminiscent of something Lawrence of Arabia would have used on a camel, at least in its immediate design. A German officer’s saddle sits on the floor, its elegance still visible though it is decades upon decades old.
One wall is filled with books, many not much more than Xeroxed booklets. There’s one beaten-up book about Brownie the Army dog, likely written by a GI. It’s a tale of canine companionship that must have delighted his unit, that’s lost even to Google.
Tom Knox is one of the partners who owns the shop. He’s speaking with a man in an overcoat wearing an old fashioned cloth fedora looking for his regimental crest. He’s hoping to share it with the members of his church who are setting aside a day to honor veterans.
Tom flips a book around to show the man, “Here it is, this is Ten Corps.”
The World War Two veteran’s smiling demeanor hides his hardship. He served in a segregated unit, a physician in the 93rd infantry, a member of the 318th Medical battalion. He’s excited to see the patch once sewn to the uniform he wore in his youth.
“I served in the South Pacific” Tom’s customer offers after we speak for a few minutes.
“You were a Doctor?” I ask, since Tom had introduced him as ‘Doc’, even though ‘Doc’ is a nickname for medics as well as physicians.
“Yes I was, and still am.”
As we speak, Tom works diligently through another book, looking for the old soldier’s regimental crest. He offers Doc another tome, marking the pages showing the medical unit’s insignia.
The atmosphere is hushed, as it sometimes is in Alamo Military Collectibles and other shrines to America’s gun culture. Throughout our history, guns have been used to defend liberty and adventure overseas. Our nation’s military, whether riflemen or navy gunners, are inextricably and obviously intertwined with the pistols, rifles, shotguns and artillery pieces used to project that force.
Doc’s job was to patch up men in war on the distant shores of the Solomon Islands and beyond. Tom’s job is to put the artifacts of war into the hands of those who might care for them.
“I’ve been collecting guns for years” Tom says. “Almost exclusively semi-automatic guns.”
“How did you get into this?”
“I was running a family business, and collecting on the side. My partner was really good at finding the other items, the military collectible stuff.”
Tom lights a cigarette, and continues. “When the business came to an end, we agreed to open up this place. We emptied out our own personal collections of stuff and filled up the store.”
“How long ago did you open?”
“Twenty three years ago” he answered.
“That’s longer than some marriages.”
Tom is something of a stoic. I think that was the only laugh I got out of him.
“Well, we have a pretty good ‘marriage’ here.”
Tom is a lifetime member of the NRA. He knows about Dick Heller. I mention how Dick seldom gets to shoot. Tom nods. “I have a big gun collection, and I probably don’t shoot more than once or twice per year.”
“When we got started, I did not know nearly what I needed to, though I have learned over the years. I knew about the guns, but things like uniforms, history and the like, that’s been very interesting.”
Behind Tom is a series of reference posters showing hundreds of shoulder patches and insignia. The display cases are filled with trench knives, mess kits and bits of the ephemera of life in the field or in garrison.
Folk art made of expended artillery casings sit on top of the glass case. On one, the open end is scalloped, and an eagle has been tooled into the side. It is very intricate, possibly done by a nameless GI on foreign soil.
A brown speckled plastic mug, saucer and bowl with “US” molded on the bottom sit nearby, an artifact from a mess hall. The tableware is a familiar ugly, institutional color. Few were ever tempted to swipe them for their own home, I imagine. Behind the case are vintage military rifles from France, Russia and Israel.
“What are customers looking for when they come in? Are they just here out of curiosity? Collectors?”
“This time of year we get a lot of Halloween trade, people – kids – wanting to be a soldier.”
“How do you feel watching a war artifact leave the store to be some kid’s costume?” I ask, thinking about an Eisenhower jacket issued to a WW2 veteran being worn by a twenty-something who will get party gravy all over it.
Tom shrugs, “They are just getting camouflage stuff, BDU shirts and hats. It’s nothing special they want.”
“What’s interesting is how people come in here looking for Air Force uniforms. They want to go as Major Nelson and Jeanie from I Dream of Jeanie. We get gay folks in here from time to time looking for the Navy bellbottoms – I think it has something to do with that musical group…”
“The Village People?”
Tom smiles a little through a thin cloud of smoke “Yeah .”
A shiny stainless steel revolver has caught my eye. He takes it out of the case. “This is a police .38, stainless steel.”
I open the cylinder. It has six chambers. “Is this a Colt?” I ask. I look at the barrel.
“Smith and Wesson Model 10.”
“What’s this guy down here?” I ask, pointing to a rough looking pistol with plastic grips. It looks like a toy, except it has the NAZI swastika device molded into it.
“That’s a ‘Non Gun’ from Japan” Tom explains. “Apparently they went through a fashion trend where they were wearing military uniforms. They manufactured these non-guns to put in the holsters.”
Tom sees the incredulity on my face. He shrugs. “Weird – some of them would click, at least until they broke. They would walk around in German uniforms, or dressed as GIs.”
I thought paying $500 for used Levis was strange.
Tom earlier mentioned his work with other gun collectors. “I edit a newsletter for the National Automatic Pistol Collectors Association.” Tom offers me a copy. It’s a tidy Xerox, not unlike the booklets scattered along the wall of books. It sports images of punch marks that allow a reader to decipher the manufacturer of Lugar pistols. “I send it out to about a thousand members – some as far away as Germany.”
“They get to collect guns in Germany?” I ask.
“I suppose” he answers.
We talk a few minutes about the gun culture in America, comparing how firearms are viewed in Missouri as compared to Chicago or Europe.
“My wife is from Munich” he offers “She couldn’t believe how much we are into guns here in America.”
“She’s a post-war baby?” I ask.
“Yeah – she never saw the immediate aftermath of Germany’s fall, but she grew up in a Germany that had a much different gun culture than ours. I think they hunt those poor beagle-size deer over there, but most of the shooting they do is with air guns.”
I look back at the shop, stuffed with the clothing and accoutrements of a nation’s military that had never known defeat – at least not like Germany or Japan. Men of Doc’s generation poured into the Pacific and Europe, men of Tom’s generation flew to Korea and Vietnam. My generation glared at the Russians until they fell apart and my nephew’s generation has the long war on terror.
We all have lived in a nation where tens of thousands of men and women left behind sporting arms and picked up military arms. We left the ranks having trained on exceptional firearms.
Once upon a time, the government would send civilians an M1 Garand so that its citizens would voluntarily keep their marksmanship keen. Today we can buy AR style weapons of our military, though there are plenty who work to undo that right. They would, I believe, cleave the bonds between warriors and the populace.
Alamo Military Collectibles is a place of confluence between the military and civilian worlds, a place where you can meet with the quartermaster and armorer of our armed services on your own terms. I think it is one of many places where men like Tom Knox help maintain the connection between our warriors and those who sleep under their vigilant eye by allowing them to see, touch and own the tools they use as they protect the country.
I think I need to bring my grandsons here for a field trip.