A little Army Surplus

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By Jay Cason

I don't remember exactly when I first visited an army surplus store, but I do remember where it was located and what I purchased. It was an old knapsack, the ones that were prevalent in the first couple of decades after WWII and the Korean War ended.

In those post-war years, tons of U.S. Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force surplus gear and equipment were available for purchase by the general public. At least one store specializing in selling the surplus goods could be found in just about every American city. Generically, they were known as "army" surplus stores even though they carried materials from all branches of the military. A few even carried items from both our WWII allies and enemies.

The old stores moved a lot of inventory. Combat jackets, replacement medals and rank insignia, knives, boots, ammo cans, ammunition and other memorabilia were popular.

But a lot of the inventory, especially outdoor gear like packs, ponchos, sleeping bags, boots, canteens and mess kits remained on the stores' shelves for years. After returning from the wars, most veterans had little interest in recreation that included hiking and sleeping out in the elements. They'd had their fill.

By the 1960s though, many of the sons and daughters of the veterans became part of a wave of renewed national interest in the great American outdoors. And army surplus stores were just about the only places where necessary gear could be purchased.

My first pack, sleeping bag, canteen, knife and mess kit were purchased at a place on Madison Avenue in downtown Covington. I believe its name was The Army-Navy Store. For years, it was the best place to find outdoor gear.

Army surplus stores have largely become a thing of the past. Most have gone out of business, as old-time military gear that included heavy canvas packs and wool-lined sleeping bags have been replaced by ultra-light gear constructed of synthetic materials that are sold in mega-stores like Dicks, Sears, Eddie Bauer and L.L.Bean.

Like most others who got into backpacking in the 1960s, my gear changed with the times. Unlike many of my peers however, I never lost my affinity for Army surplus stores. But since moving back to Kentucky several years ago, I had not been able to locate one in the vicinity of Lexington where I reside. Until last week that is. That's when I chanced upon an advertisement for the Army Surplus Warehouse.

When I visited the warehouse a few days later, I learned that it had been open for business since Aug. 1, 2007.

Located on East Loudon Avenue in the Wood Energy Warehouse, is a treasure trove of old as well as not so old military stuff.

Its inventory includes military clothing in all sizes, boots, gloves, small tools, various kinds of hardware, solvents and oils, camping cookware, tarps, tents, helmets, canteens and mess kits, knives and several sizes of ammo boxes. The store also has a large supply of military badges, insignias of rank and medals.

"We have a lot of 50-cent stuff," said the store's manager, Ron Riedyk. "You can go out of here with a lot of things for a little bit of money. People like digging through our bins for things like mini screwdrivers, scissors, pliers, tape."

Nostalgically, I was tempted to purchase a well-used Smokey-the Bear hat like the one my dad sometimes wore as a sergeant in WWII or a helmet of the same era, but exercising a little bit of self-restraint, I limited myself to three MREs (meals ready to eat) and a tiny can opener. The MRE's will be welcome additions to the boring freeze-dried menu I'd planned for a two-month hike I'm starting in June.