Dragon Man's Military Museum
Colorado Springs, Colorado
The road to Dragon Man's compound is lined with bullet-blasted cars and bloody human dummies. "STAY ON THE ROAD This family just hit a LANDMINE," warns a sign next to one burned-out hulk. "THIS GANG-BANGER was playing his Rap Music TOO LOUD!" cautions another. "This guy was a REGISTERED DEMOCRAT!" advises a third.
Mel "Dragon Man" Bernstein is a Vietnam-era vet from Brooklyn. He runs several businesses from his compound: a paintball park, several firing ranges, a go-kart track. He's also a licensed machine gun dealer. We were unaware that we could buy machine guns, but Mel assured us that if our records were clean, we could. He showed us an assault rifle while a monitor displayed his brother roasting a car with a flamethrower. "I'm really living my dream," Mel said.
We were at Mel's compound to see another of his projects, the Colorado Springs Historical Military Museum, entered through a small door in a nondescript building. Its name and exterior give no hint of its wonders. "I had some people who came back from the World War II Museum in Louisiana," Mel said. "The government spent $38 million on it. They said mine's ten times better."
Mel is a big reason why. His museum is vast, but he moved us through it faster than Patton across France, flicking lights on and off as we advanced from room to room. Mel has every Army Jeep, every German belt buckle, every land mine from World Wars I and II. Exhibits flew by: a complete field hospital from the Gulf War; a pyramid of 500-pound bombs from the Vietnam War; 70-year-old sticks of dynamite in the "booby traps" exhibit; gas masks for babies. The sounds of gunfire and explosions from Mel's firing ranges filtered through the walls, adding to the atmosphere.
Mel knows exactly how many displays he has, how many vehicles, how many guns, how many uniforms. He seems to know the history, specs, and price that he paid for every item, and he'll tell you about it. Mel's wife Terry put it bluntly: "You can't shut him up."
"You want to see the Hitler room?" Mel asked. He flicked a switch and our eyes were dazzled by red Swastika flags. Mel has Nazi bicycles, Nazi beer steins, Nazi potato masher grenades. He has a mustard yellow uniform owned by Hitler. Part of the room is reserved for horrific Holocaust artifacts: prisoner uniforms from Auschwitz, corpse tongs from Dachau, soap made from human fat.
"The Holocaust Museum in Washington doesn't even have something like that," Mel said. We asked him why he had so many gas chamber Zyklon B cans (empty). "When I find something, I buy all of it," Mel answered. "Why buy one or two? Where you gonna get 'em? If you don't buy it now, there is no more."
Mel has lined the pathways between exhibits with over 2,000 helmets. Camouflage netting acts as room dividers. Every vehicle still runs, every gun still fires (Mel restores everything, and he has the compatible ammunition). "The government won't even allow one real bullet in their museums," he said.
Hundreds of custom mannequins stand everywhere, most of them holding real weapons, each draped in a dry-cleaner bag to keep it clean -- a cocooned zombie army of nurses and soldiers. "Last year," Mel said, "the guy that I order [the mannequins] from said, 'Mr. Bernstein, you must have one big department store.'"
The transparent dry cleaning bags reduce dust and cleaning on the mannequins, and the Dragon Man only unbags them for important events, because it takes hours to get them covered again. This creates an eerie effect, especially as he flips lights on and off in rooms filled with nurses, Arab men, German soldiers. Mel showed us Hitler unbagged -- a white styrofoam dummy head, the dictator's trademark mustache added with a black Sharpie.
Mel invites the troops at nearby Fort Carson to train at his compound. They've generously responded with "souvenirs" from Iraq for Mel's museum. Mel is thrilled. He showed us photos of Saddam Hussein's gold-plated AK-47, and a suicide bomber beheaded by an American sniper bullet. Saddam had 100 generals; Mel has six of their uniforms. "I got these from an officer, but I'm supposed to say I found them," Mel said of a display of soldier snapshots of Saddam, from his capture to his hanging. "Isn't that something? That's a whole history book, right here."
Mel took us into his D-Day bunker, where everything dates from World War II: hand grenades, newspapers, stainless steel cans of unopened water. Mel flicked a secret switch and the air suddenly exploded with strobe and disco lights and the sound of strafing airplanes and gunfire. "Holy mackerel, we're getting attacked!" Mel yelled. "Hit the ground!" When the show was over and the lights came up, Mel was sheepishly wearing one of his 2,000 helmets. "How did you like that? I should be in Hollywood!"
Mel's politics may not be for everyone, but Mel himself is a very likeable guy. He really loves showing his stuff (including his surprising Elvis collection) and is a born ham. "Okay, look at this," he said, over and over, dazzling us with yet another marvel. "Isn't that something? You don't get any realler than this."