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August 2020

THE LOSS OF A TRUE HOBBY ICON - COL. THOMAS M. JOHNSON

Tom was one of my closest friends for 40 years. His passing is a very sad time for me and I shall never forget him. I was a collector beginning back in 1965 and had built a small collection in those days running ads in local newspapers, sometimes driving 50 miles, only to secure a rusty bayonet. But, the chase pumped-up my adrenalin and I loved it, initially spurred-on by the famous Jim Atwood book. Then in 1976, a reference book was released by someone named Maj. Thomas M. Johnson, "Collecting the Edged Weapons of the Third Reich". It was the first book to detail the swords, daggers and bayonets of the period and it was intoxicating to me. After studying the book for months, I realized that there might be a marketplace for these crazy things I was collecting, and sure enough I found that there were a few people selling militaria at gun shows and I began to take a table and try my luck. I was very honored to give a eulogy at Tom's funeral on July 31st, and told Tom's family and attendees about these days. My father was constantly on my back about "wasting" my money on these "silly" war relics and constantly annoyed me to put my money in the bank, a much sounder investment. Well, one day in 1981, there was a show in the famous old Greenbelt Armory and I asked my father if he would like to go with me, as I had a table there and a number of daggers to sell. He agreed, and there we were under the auspices of none other than Charlie Snyder, who usually put me in the "rifle range" in the back of the hall, as I guess he was worried that I might succeed. About 10:00 o'clock that morning, who walked into the show but Col. Tom Johnson and his wife, Tink. When I saw him come in, I recognized who he was and was hoping that I could meet this genius who had written this book that I so dearly loved. Tom and Tink sauntered around the show and somehow found their way into the rifle range. I introduced myself as Tom proceeded to look at a number of daggers on my table, while he talked in his friendly gregarious manner about the dagger hobby. The next thing I knew, he had picked out several daggers and proceeded to write me out a check for $5000 - a lot of money in 1981. When Tom and Tink left, I looked at my father and said, "What do you think, Pop?" He was in shock and all he could say was, "When is the next show!"

Over the next three years, I became very friendly with Tom and we often had lunch together at shows and talked about the "business". In 1984, Tom expressed the thought that he felt the hobby had come to the point where a large show could be held just for militaria, not just guns. I thought he was right and he said, "instead of us just talking about it, why don't we do it". Tom was indeed always a doer and not just a talker. We knew the best chances for success were to have the first show in the middle of the country. We talked to Ron Weinand, a dealer/collector, who way back in the 1970s had a relationship with Tom, selling him many of the things that Ron had secured at "Motel Buys". Ron knew the area somewhat and knew of a hotel in St. Louis that might be a good spot. Tom and I went to St. Louis and met with the hotel staff and they were quite excited about our proposal. In fact they were so enthused, they told us that if we could fill-up their hotel, they would give us the two ballrooms at no charge. Well, since Tom and I had only thrown-in 2500 bucks each to start the show, this was music to our ears. As hobby history is now aware, this was the beginning of something that absolutely captured the attention of the international collecting community and the MAX Show was an immediate success with thousands of attendees, We not only filled-up that hotel, but several others in St. Louis. The annual MAX show continued to grow and by 1990, it was the largest and easily the best all-militaria show in the world. Tom and I, with the help of countless people, ran the show for 30 years, and due to our ages, we finally sold the MAX to OVMS about 5 years ago. During those MAX years both of our edged weapons businesses grew leaps and bounds, along with the show. Tom had the magic touch!

During all of those years, the relationship with Tom and myself continued to grow. Despite the fact that we were dyed-in-the-wool competitors, we always got along famously and I must say, the two of us made for a good team. The show, like any business, was not without its problems, but we both had our own special skills and always seemed to solve whatever catastrophe was pending. In fact, no matter how difficult the problem, Tom always looked at trouble as an opportunity, and he was usually right. Together we had the pleasure of traveling throughout the country visiting hotels and convention centers, always looking for a better place to have the MAX. Tom loved these travels and the amenities that accompanied them, as there was always the best of hotel rooms and the greatest of meals, all usually on the comp ticket of the cities or facilities where we were meeting. Tom liked free stuff and the two of us became very skilled with the negotiations that went along with securing hotels, convention centers, security staffs, table rentals and everything that went along with having a MAX Show.

Tom was an extremely intelligent man and had a remarkable business sense. Along with it, he had the ability to immediately charm anyone he met. He went on to write some 32 edged weapons reference books which literally put our hobby on the map. Today, there are many dealers in the industry that can count much of their success on the work that Tom did to bring this hobby to the market it is today. For, if it were not for Tom's great books, I do not think there would be a militaria market. Everyone that enjoys this hobby and has invested much of their hard-earned money in the artifacts, indeed owes a large thanks to Tom. He was a very gracious man and a true Southern gentleman with impeccable manners. A lady never approached our table without Tom jumping to his feet and helping with a chair. He was always the first to open a door or to help someone with their coat. He was the most thoughtful person in the world. During our multitude of dinners over the years, Tom would always drink Margaritas - but only two, as he never wanted to lose control - he was good at that. He also had the most infectious laugh in the world. Although I heard many of his jokes and stories several times over the years, he just enjoyed them so much himself, that he would nearly fall off the chair with laughter, and me along with him.

After the funeral, there was a little get together at Tom's magnificent home for his friends and family. Although I have been there many times, I always thought the home was Tom personified. He owns an incredible estate in Fredericksburg on about 25 acres, with the French chalet-style home sitting back about 1000 feet from the road. The home included a choice guest room over the garage where I stayed many times. In the garage is his 1934 Ford coupe with a rumble seat. It still has the original black paint and mohair interior. And, always he would take me for a ride in the Ford around Fredericksburg. Anytime I was visiting Tom's sensational home, Tink would always complain that she hated this house and wanted to move to a Georgetown townhouse in Washington. I would watch Tom's face during these conversations and he would never say anything and just kind of change the conversation, as he very much loved his cherished home. I always got on fine with Tink, but she did complain about almost anything. You could not go to dinner without her having the waiter change the table or complain she couldn't read the menu, or always the prices were too high. I remember she once sent back a glass of orange juice because it was $1.30 - highway robbery to her. But none of this ever bothered Tom, as he absolutely loved her dearly, always calling her "Tinker". I'd ask him about it sometimes when we were on car trips together and he'd say it did not bother him a bit and that "it was water off a duck's back". It was like he enjoyed the constant complaining, but again, he indeed was such a great man, that he took it as a normal part of his day and it never affected him adversely. Tink developed severe dementia in her last five years and eventually had to go into a nursing home. Despite his own condition, Tom visited her every day and had dinner with her. She passed in February. A great lifelong love affair.

It has been a God-given gift to have been associated with this wonderful man during my lifetime. I shall fondly remember him always. As a true icon of the militaria hobby, he will be sorely missed.

I AM BACK AFTER AN OPERATION

I guess a lot of you know that I have had my share of prostate problems over the years, as I have talked about them before in some of my Banters. Well, a month ago the problem became unliveable where I spent about three weeks in terrible pain trying to pee and then after a weak effort jumping up and down to try to get rid of the pain. The urologist has been telling me for years that not only did I have a giant prostate, but he kept saying that I have a couple of large stones in my bladder that were probably blocking the urine track. I just half-listened to him and never did anything about it. But, after this last episode, I had to do something, so I went in for an analysis. You guys out there with prostate problems probably know the drill, but when a pretty young thing comes into the room and tells you to take your pants and diaper off, because she is going to numb your whizzer, you know you are in trouble. It ain't sexy at all, in fact embarrassingly, your thing shrinks inside your body at the thought of what is coming next. They then set up this assemblage on the examination table that looks to me like something they change brake shoes with in a garage, and that baby is going up your whizzer. Man what a painful examination. I hate the usual "finger wave" exam, which is bad enough, but that brake shoe tool has to be the worst. So, after you're yelling and screaming when you somehow survive that exam, the doctor schedules your surgery. Again. I wasn't listening, and had no idea of what was going to happen. When I went into the hospital a couple of days later at 4:30 in the morning, they get you prepared with the usual gown that you can't figure out which way is front and which is back and then get you laid down on a gurney and off you go to the spot where the hospital is going to make some money. First you get the hoses put into your arm and then a guy comes over to me dressed in an undershirt with a few biker tattoos and starts feeling around. I thought he was the trashman, but to my surprise, he said he was the anesthesiologist. I guess after that, I don't remember anything until I woke up in a bed in a hospital room. I wasn't feeling quite right and was wondering what the change was and starting looking around my body. Damn, I looked down and there is a baseball bat shoved into my whizzer with a hose coming out of it and running into a plastic bag on the floor filled with lots of red liquid. My balls were shoved up over the baseball bat and were so red, they looked like balloons going to a retirement party. All they needed written on them was, "Hail to the golden years". The only way to pee is thru this hose attached to you all connected to this baseball bat shoved right on thru to your bladder and held in place with a blowed-up balloon inside you. Man, talk about a shock. Then I realized my abdomen was all full of holes where they operated on my prostate and apparently internally, they removed a large part of ole Wittmann. I had no idea how all of this happened. While I am trying to imagine how I permitted all of this to happen to me, the next thing my surgeon comes into my room and hands me what I thought was a large egg. He said, "you had two on these inside you", and then kind of laughed and said, "I'm giving you one of the stones and I am keeping the other one to put on my desk, as I have never seen stones this large!". If it weren't so scary, I would have thought that I had won a prize or something.

Well, I spent three days in the hospital and the last day they strapped a bag on my leg connected with a hose to the baseball bat and said "you're going to have to empty this every hour". Yikes, what had I gotten myself into?. Marie picked me up at the hospital and when I got home, she got me into bed. I have to admit I was in tears, as I was just not ready for this. She hired a caregiver who we knew, that had taken care of my mother a couple of years ago before her death. All night long for days, Marie and the caregiver took turns emptying that damn bag. True love, I guess. The pain to pee through that baseball bat into the hose, I got to tell you was excruciating. But, at least, between Marie and Jennifer, I had someone to look after me, make my breakfast and give me a shower in the morning. I was kind of embarrassed to be butt-nekkid with this nice lady giving me a shower, but believe me, if you go into the hospital with something like this, after a while with every nurse on the floor looking at your privates, you start to lose some of that vanity that we all have. At least Jennifer would save some of my dignity and hand me a soapy wash rag and say, "Here do your butt and between your legs". She'd make me do it again if she didn't like the job I did.

I put up with that rigging for about two weeks until finally I was able to go to the doctor for the removal of that baseball bat, hose and bag. Believe me, that is one appointment no one is ever late for. I was afraid when the nurse was going to take that damn thing out, as I thought it was going to hurt like hell. But she said she has done it 10,000 times, and as she was talking she never gave me a chance to think about it and it was out. God, I thought the weight of the world was off me.

A very weird and tragic thing happened at my urologist's office last week. A guy who was a prison guard was in the office trying to get an appointment for his father with the receptionist. She was giving him a hard time. The guy went out to his car and came back with a 40 caliber pistol. He killed the receptionist and the bullet went through her and into the leg of another patient. I am glad that I don't have to go back there until October, as I hope the smoke has cleared by then.

I have been getting my strength back now and am starting to feel pretty good. I still will have the diaper problem somewhat, but I am used to that as with my prostate problem, I have been wearing one of those for years. So, I think now that I have finally done something about my condition, I have some years ahead of me, for which I am thankful. I love my business and all of my customers, and I want to be there for you for many years to come. I hope I didn't go into too many details about this mess, but if some of you guys are facing the same thing, best to bite the bullet and get it done. It ain't fun, but there is no question it will add years to your life. I am also lucky that there is no malignancy in my situation. So, I am back into the office everyday and can't wait to find you guys some more great daggers!

IN CLOSING

Let's all hope all of this virus problem will be over soon and we can get back to normal. I wish everyone the best and please stay healthy. At least we have the Internet to look at and I will continue to do my dagger seminars on U-tube. So you guys can look for a seminar on Kriegsmarine daggers in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, if we can help you with anything, we are here and have plenty of good stuff!

MY BEST WISHES TO EVERYONE

THOMAS T. WITTMANN