Peter Suwak describes himself as a maverick, and most people would agree after knowing just a few details of his life. He began as a trucker, working for the family firm.
Then, he happened to have an empty rig one day, and there was a guy in New York who had some things to sell ...
Well, to shorten the story, Peter Suwak went into the surplus business and he's been rambling ever since. Trading his way around the country - swapping what he has to suppliers for what they need, in exchange for what he needs- Suwak keeps his Chartiers Township surplus store stocked, and his desire to travel satisfied.
In the beginning, Suwak said, he traveled and traded until he built up an inventory. In 1960, he opened his store, Pete's Surplus, on Route 18 a few miles north of Washington. For 24 years, that store has been his base. But Suwak, a stocky 61year-old with longish gray hair, is still on the road, traveling across the country in a van and trailer.
He goes to Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, New Jersey - anyplace in the country where there's a barter, bid or bankruptcy sale for the pickings.
He apparently has only one rule.
"If it's too heavy for my wife and daughter to pick up, I won't handle it," he said with grin and a twinkle in his blue eyes. His wife Tillie and daughter Penny run the store.
His most recent trip offers an example of Suwak's bartering instinct. He bought caulking guns in West Virginia, took them to New Jersey where a hardware dealer bought some, bought some hardware from the dealer, and came back with, among other things, brushes, single-serving cans of soup and caulking guns. What he brings back to Chartiers Township from his is varied enough to attract buyers from West Virginia and Ohio.
Fred Schoppe of Steubenville is evidence. For an hour, he and a friend, Army veteran John Long of Scio, Ohio. walked the aisles of the sur-Plus store, stopping to star*, poke, laugh and buy.
Among the items to be seen were samurai swords, 200 pound anvils, huge industrial pintle hooks, C-rations, machetes, gas masks, and anything anyone would want in their pocket - pocket lights, pocket magnifiers, Army issue can openers the size of a quarter.
Finally, after satisfying their addiction ("We get into Army/Navy stores and junk yards," Schoppe said), the two made their purchases - a trailer fender, a camouflage hat, a campaign hat. Holding the campaign hat limply by its string, Long joked, "The first guys you ever see with these on, you learn to
hate." They are traditionally worn by Army drill sergeants.
Surplus, they said, has lots at uses, particularly for hunting and fishing. You can't beat an Army coat, Schoppe said, not for the money. There are surplus stores around home, he added, but "they don't have much (and) what they have looks like it's been through a couple of wars."
Some surplus stuff has been through at least one war. The Suwaks know. Back in the 1960s, when the store was still a fledging, they purchased a load of used duffel bags. One caught the Suwaks' eyes. - On the front, in black letters, was: PETE SUWAK 3341-8253 Suwak's duffel bag, turned in at Fort Lewis, Wash., after his stint with a tank destroyer battalion, was home.
It is such contact with the unusual and the offbeat that endears the surplus trade to the Suwaks. Suwak and Penny, 26, said freedom is another aspect of the business that they love.
"When I went to college," said the slender blonde, "I worked for other people. You were told to do so much. " In the surplus store, she is one of the bosses and therefore doesn't have the regimentation conventional businesses would demand of her.
Right now, she shares the store with her parents, and when they retire, she will take over. And then she'll probably be as unusual as rubberized face protectors with a drawstring around the nose hole. Just as you don't see too many people with drawstrings around their noses, you don't see many women in the surplus trade. But Ms. Suwak is no neophyte. Since she was a tot, she has traveled with her father. Every family member tells the tale of toddling Penny being wrapped up in a surplus sleeping bag to hit the road with her dad. Walking up and down the long aisles, Ms. Suwak pointed to the_ most unusual items and told a tale • about how each was to be used.
The rubber gas masks - two varieties - of course were used by soldiers to protect themselves during gas warfare. Now, "people go crazy for gas masks." They use them while painting or working around anything with noxious fumes” she said.
The machetes have slightly bent steel blades ranging from 14 to 24 inches long. Although many are made in Taiwan and South America, they are favorites of hikers and surveyors who must beat their way through the wild bush of the United States, Ms. Suwak said.
Perhaps one of the oddest uses of surplus occurred a couple of years ago when the Suwaks had unconventional parachutes on hand. The perforated chutes were used to drop supplies for troops, Suwak said. The perforations helped ensure accuracy since the holes kept the chutes from billowing up and floating off target. The chutes were the only thing Suwak remembered that didn't move initially. "We had them here and I didn't think we'd ever sell them." he said. "Here,, they turned out to be the best turtle
traps you could buy." Turtle trappers from Lake Michigan loved them, he said, and the chutes sold.
Conventional parachutes do, too. "I just had a call this morning from a lady about a parachute," Ms. Suwak said. "She wanted to use it on her bed.
Later, leaning over the counter with a tiny piece of sharp metal in her hand, she said, "This is one of our most popular items."
Known as a P38, or a GI can opener, it sells for 25 cents. but it elicits much more than money. Many a veteran will see them on the counter, she said, and take their own, beloved P-38 out of their pocket to show off.
Often, too, the veterans will tell their tales of Army life. Characteristically, Peter Suwak has a few to trade - tales of his days with the tank destroyer battalion. It is not the Army so much that he loved, he said. It was the people he met and with whom he still keeps in touch.
If he doesn't talk to them personally, they're bound to see him sooner or later. One of the vehicles he drives is a one-piece rig done in camouflage and painted with his old Army company numbers ( see above). He tools around in it for relaxation, although that generally doesn't last long. "It's impossible for me to go 50 miles" without finding a buy, he said with a slight grin.
Although military surplus is what most consumers think of when they think of surplus stores, the stuff isn't the sole bread-and-butter of the industry anymore, the Suwaks said.
After World War II and the Korean conflict, surplus stores overflowed with Army extras. But then people began collecting the stuff and the trend for Army clothing came in. Now, it is difficult to keep Army issue on hand, Ms. Suwak said.
Her mother, Tillie, recalled the boom during the Vietnam War when, non-conformists abounded. "They were buying anything old, she said.”They bought all the Army coats and the O.D. (olive drab) coats - anything rebellious that their parents wouldn't approve of."
The boom continues, although differently. While weathered field “jackets were once hot, now neat and natty is. The people buying Army clothes now want new items - neatly folded olive drab, heavy duty pants, spit-and-shined boots. Camouflage gear -- shirts, pants, jackets, hats - sells particularly well, Miss Suwak said. "Camouflage is really hard to get because of the demand," Ms. Suwak said. Army veterans frequent the store, sometimes coming in to refit themselves for special occasions. Once, in preparation for a march in Washington, D.C., a contingent of veterans came in to suit up. They also wanted a South Vietnamese flag, which the Suwaks provided.
Flags, in general, are hot items. On St. Patrick's Day, the Irish flags sell like Irish coffee. The most expensive flag at Pete's Surplus is the one from the Suwak's home country - Czechoslovakia, $40. The cheapest? The Confederate, $12.
The Suwaks live above the store, close to the surplus bolt cutters, tires, reconditioned clothes, dog. tags, insignia pins, rope and rubberized face protectors - all the stuff on which they've built their lives.