Repurposing artifacts of the American past
by Sam Tezak; images from Dragon Man
Sixteen-and-a-half miles due east of campus and crawling through mid-winter, our gold minivan purred through empty two-lane highways lined with farmland and the occasional field full of junkyard cars from a by-gone era. We swung a left off the CO-94 E and onto Curtis Road, and the white signs began to surface: “Personal Protection,” “Home Defense Weapons” and “Be Prepared” leapt out of the hill banking the left shoulder of the road. In 70-foot long letters spelled out by black rubber tires in the hillside: “Dragon Man’s.”
We pulled into the ragged dirt drive that extends for almost a half-mile and were welcomed by a series of signs forewarning trespassers, gangbangers and Democrats alike. Installed during the 1980s when Dragon Man’s first opened, were a series of mannequins splattered with fake blood beside a couple dozen disposed cars, riddled with bullets. Each scene is accompanied with a posted sign that served as an epitaph and warning for visitors. One after another, both sides of the road read: “Robbers Welcome: I Need the Target Practice,” “Warning: Killer Dogs Let Loose After Dark,” “This Gangbanger Played Rap Music Too Loud,” “This Guy was a Registered Democrat” and “This Woman Tried to get Dragon Man to Pay for Her Childcare.” Each scene is complete with a unique artistic touch that reminds the visitor not to fuck around on the property. The man behind the bloodied mannequins and shot-up cars hails from a tradition of DIY collectors and larger-than-life figures long since alienated to our periphery, a place often despised and forgotten in the age of political correctness and information.
But a half hour east of the Colorado College campus, the 260-acre plot of land known as “Dragon Man’s” pulses with life and steel. Mel Bernstein, better known as “the most armed man in America,” erected Dragon Man’s Gun Range, Firearms, Moto-X, Museum, Paintball and Machining 35 years ago. Armed to the teeth with a shop full of firearms that span from Ruger pistols to .50 caliber machine guns, four tanks and a chain gun, Dragon Man has achieved celebrity status amongst gun enthusiasts and critics alike.
Dragon Man found his pseudonym in 1967, when he was 20 years old. Forging a chopper motorcycle with a snarling, fire-breathing fiberglass and a metal basilisk wrapped over the driver seat, Dragon Man became legend. He built another within the next two years and served in the United States Military during the Vietnam War. Bernstein, a former Brooklynite, found his way to Colorado, where the gun climate is mild. Working everyday for the next 22 years, Bernstein erected a multi-warehouse $5 million World War II museum.
With lightning blaring overhead, I found myself inside Dragon Man’s gun dealership and metal shop. I brought with me a few issues of Cipher, as he requested, and little else save for a sense of curiosity. The walls, plastered with black steel weapons, seemed to rival the Internet photos of firearm stockpiles attributed to many of the gangs in Central and South America. Brittney, one of Dragon Man’s assistants, greeted me. She told me that Bernstein was at his house, but that he would be back soon, adding that she hoped he was in a good mood, because I wouldn’t want to meet him if he was in a bad one. I was nervous.
With the weather worsening out on the range, only a few customers browsed the Gun Show room. A woman from North Carolina waited to purchase a sizable lead puncher, and some younger kids decked out in Fox racing gear and camouflage eagerly browsed the walls. A man to my right joked with me that he would like to go fishing with “one of those,” pointing to one of four rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) dangling from the ceiling.
To my relief, Dragon Man pulled up happy to show us the complex. Despite having lived in Colorado for the past thirty-some years, Bernstein’s Brooklyn accent and cadence seems uninfluenced by the slow speak of Midwesterners. He propelled us through the machine shop, stopping to admire one of his 23 hot rods. Brisk February wind bit us on the way out the back door. As we made our way to the warehouse museum, we passed four tanks and a truck with a quad mount.
This mesmerizing project began with World War II memorabilia and now spans U.S. wars through the present day. Beneath the camouflage green netting that hangs from the ceiling, 2,600 United States military helmets line the floor. To the left and right lie artifacts including every uniform from every warsince World War I, every variation of American gas mask used since the dawn of the 20th century, half a dozen half-tracks, or armored military vehicles. One of these half-tracks that witnessed combat is scarred by a German bullet that pierced the hood. He also has a bar of soap confiscated from Third Reich era Germany that he claims is made of human fat, a sequence of photos of Saddam Hussein taken by a colonel friend that begins with the runaway dictator’s capture and ends with a noose around his neck. Other artifacts include photos of Hussein’s bullet-riddled limo and 400 dead Iraqis, armor piercing RPGS and a bomb of the same model that the United States dropped on Hanoi in 1972.
The industrial-size museum didn’t seem to end. In between the half-tracks and the chocolate chip pattern uniforms the United States used during Desert Storm was an exhibit serving as both his mother’s and Elvis’ museum memorial. Following the samurai swords and flags of countries from the past, we arrived at a small corner sanctuary committed to Bernstein’s mother. A mannequin wears the outfit she wore before she passed away, and the exhibit contains countless photos of her, along with trinkets. It seems an odd but sentimental addition to include in a massive war museum. Once we visited the Elvis rooms, her exhibit seemed more appropriate. It seamlessly tied together the spaces of World War II and Elvis.
Bernstein flips a few switches outside the door and we begin to hear Hawaiian rockabilly music playing in the other room. Behind the door and in a rose-lensed paradise: some 23 hotrods, 48 vintage pumps, a jukebox from 1947, bicycles never ridden and brand new out of the box from 1958, a 1954 plywood pinball machine and poodle skirts, the newest one clocking in at 55 years old, all wait to be admired by visitors. Bernstein has collected Elvis tokens for over 40 years. This three-room space seems to put time on hold. Dim lighting, candy red, yellow and green in every direction and a sheet of vinyl records drawn around the perimeter of the hotrods reminds me of Christmas and tropical summers. The rooms capture the past, in all its youth and innocence. Bernstein, with a softer tone, said, “It brings back the time when I was a teenager, it brings back a lot of memories.”
The rest of the museum he considers a hobby and a way of honoring the nation’s soldiers. In one month, he will be adding on the museum’s 21st extension, complete with more than 100 tanks, armored personnel carriers and half-tracks. As he says, “there’s always more.” With a one-page ad in the World Wide Military Magazine and three collectors in Europe with whom he works, Bernstein is sure to remain open and expanding. But as time wanes and Bernstein’s collection grows it seems that less “stuff” will be available. Already he notes that, “because unfortunately the WWII guys are passing away and in Germany they can’t sell that stuff in a newspaper or at a flea market, these guys go to funerals and ask the family—if the guy’s 92 years old, he’s probably a Nazi—if they have anything in the basement or attic they want to get rid of.”
The exhibit that kick-started his museum threatens to slow and, though Dragon Man can acquire a whole smorgasbord of artillery and uniforms from the more recent wars in United States history, his central exhibits will suffer by the passing of an era.
In many ways, Mel Bernstein is a much more complex individual than he first appears. The 69-year-old man is very personable, and to his critics he says, “There’s always going to be people like that, anybody that doesn’t like me or says something bad about me is jealous. See the way I am to you? That’s the way I am to everybody, there’s no reason not to like me.” He knows himself and his beliefs concerning gun rights. As for guns he says, “a law-abiding citizen over 21, with a clean record, should be able to buy anything in the world that he wants as long as he doesn’t break the law with it.” This may seem oversimplified, but his unapologetic and honest language is persuasive. He can afford this belief because he lives out in the rocky plains of eastern Colorado Springs, where gun violence hasn’t penetrated the land in the same ways it has in cities and youth across the United States. Still, he jokes about ISIS infiltrating his property: “What would happen if they came over and took over my place? And took over the museum, and use all that to take over the town? That would make a good movie.”
Bernstein didn’t begin in the same gun-nurturing environment as his compound now promotes. He grew up in a Jewish household the generation after WWII, and owned his first B.B. gun at age nine. His mother was an Ally nurse, and Bernstein dropped out of high school to explore working with machinery at a trade school. It is easy to identify Bernstein with the NRA, conservatism steeped in 2nd Amendment rights or even mass consumerism and commercialism. Bernstein’s five million dollar museum cost him $300,000 in shipping fees and 22 years of “hard work and no holidays,” a work ethic adage that is the rallying cry and motto for people of his generation. But with that in mind, Dragon Man’s collectables are only “stuff” insofar that we allow it all to be “stuff.” Each item belongs to a collection, and each collection reflects passions and eras in our history that we cannot write off.
Dragon Man himself is a relic. His WWII collection dwarfs that of his Vietnam collection, suggesting that he places much more significance on the artifacts that represent his age of innocence as opposed to his his age of experience—the time following his teenage years when he entered into the service. His collection of guns might be a hobby, and his bloody mannequin display might be a joke to ward off “gangbangers,” but the Elvis sanctuary lends a sense of place and passion. In every room draped with green gauze and on every wall covered in firearms, Dragon Man exists. Bernstein has created a larger-than-life figure, one who represents what he perceives as a unique moment in United States history. We can dissect this period in time and disagree but, regardless of our jargon, Dragon Man will continue exist on our periphery, repurposing artifacts of our discarded past.