Gear Heads

Collectors of survival equipment have a craving for flight helmets, life vests, ejection seats—even shark repellant.

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Many collectors with whom LeBeau deals are intensely private about their hobby. “A lot of guys are hesitant to talk about it on the phone,” he says. “They won’t leave a message. I tell them it’s okay to talk about it and that seems to open them up a bit.” In 1997, Nashville-based collector Rich Mays tried to start a newsletter for ejection equipment collectors. “For others who have the mutant gene that causes us to spend good money (often LOTS of it) on the strangest things, YOU ARE NOT ALONE!” the masthead read. He sent the first edition of the newsletter to hundreds of collectors, but it became apparent that they wanted to enjoy their hobby in solitude. The newsletter folded after the first issue.

“Except for those guys in California, collectors of this stuff keep it quiet. It’s something they do in their basement, by themselves,” LeBeau says.

Patterson’s collection begins on the walls of the stairway to his basement. “That’s where Cindy draws the line. That’s probably a real good idea,” he says. Mattsson, ascetic for a bachelor, imposes the same rule on himself. LeBeau, who has never been married, is much less restrained. As a dealer, he often buys his stock by the truckload at DRMO sales, and he has filled three you-store-it sheds and two warehouses. His home is nearly filled with survival gear stacked as high as he can pile it, including one room that contains his personal collection, in which there is just enough room to place one’s feet while keeping elbows tucked in and viewing thousands of objects. “This room is full of priceless stuff,” he says.  “Actually, I could put a price on it, but it would take somebody like John Travolta to buy it and keep it all together.” LeBeau keeps pathways cleared between the kitchen, bedroom, office, and bathroom. It looks like he could, in good faith, write the whole house off as a business expense—just another warehouse.

When Patterson explains that his collection is priceless, you believe him. “I don’t know what all this stuff is worth,” he says. “I hope to donate it to a museum someday, a place that could display all of it.” In the meantime, most of Patterson’s collection is stored in “correct” gear bags in a large, secure room in his basement. “I could put a price tag on each piece and sell it off, but intact, it’s invaluable,” he says. He pauses and laughs. “If something happens to me, well, Cindy will sell everything and be rich.”

Mattsson recalls moving his growing collection from one apartment to the next until he bought a house six years ago. He doesn’t relish the thought of another move, and can’t predict what the future of his collection will be.

“I can tell you,” LeBeau says. “Someday he’ll get married and six months later he’ll be trying to sell the whole collection. I guarandamntee it.”

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