Nothing to lose but their chains: The Americans are selling up their surplus military hardware. John Windsor, Essex man, went to auction, clutching his copy of Catch-22

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LAST WEEK I met Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder. He operates a global sales network in United States Air Force property from a windswept RAF base. If you want to bid for ammunition boxes, casualty bags, wheeled hospital stretchers, meat slicers, deep-fat fryers, steam cleaners, dumper trucks, bomb racks or an F-111 in 'H' condition (the lowest, 'used, unserviceable' classification - the one I saw was a crash wreck), then he is your man.

I also met one of his customers, Mick Collins - Essex man, son of a building site ganger who toted a pickaxe handle as emblem of office and named his son after the Irish


They came face to face in the village hall in Old Weston, near RAF Molesworth, Cambridgeshire, when Lt Minderbinder - real name Tom Wilgus - stepped up to the rostrum to auction some of the 245 lots of military surplus among 158 bidders.

Mr Collins, aged 55 and a former plasterer, car dealer and removals man, is now into ladies' tights. There were none at the auction, but for pounds 375 he came away with a Dodge extended- cab pick-up truck. He usually gets what he wants.

Mr Wilgus, 37, a graduate in business administration from San Diego, California, is not a military man. He is an American civil servant, general manager grade 13, which means that his appointment to the plum job of property disposal officer at Defence Re-utilisation and Marketing Office, Molesworth - 'DRMO of the Year 1992' - was fought over.

By September, the last of 4,000 American servicemen and 5,000 dependants at USAF Bentwaters and Woodbridge, Suffolk, will have gone home, a big withdrawal in the gradual removal of American airpower from Britain - leaving Mr Wilgus to dispose of neutralised military hardware and the unwanted paraphernalia of supermarkets, schools, clinics and churches.

The women's group of Old Weston receive from the Americans a pounds 50-a- month rental for the village hall and sell teas and coffees to aid the local church. For the first time this month they will have two auctions a month to attend to - on second and fourth Thursdays - instead of one. 'During the next three months it's going to get pretty heavy,' said Mr Wilgus.

Unlike Lt Minderbinder, the outrageous character in Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22, Mr Wilgus has no intention of inviting the enemy to bomb his airfield in return for bales of unwanted cotton. But his computer network gives 'worldwide visibility' of his wares to any American civil servant capable of keying in a four-digit code number in search of metal gates, ships' anchors and chain, vinyl floor tiles, cardboard baling machines, barbed wire, cold drinks dispensing machines or rotary lawnmowers.

Whatever cannot be economically exported to federal agencies or given away in a Congressionally approved 'donation programme' ends up in vast airstrip and hangar 'accumulation areas' at RAF Molesworth, ready for auction. The only sign of Minderbinder-style wheeler-dealing I got a whiff of was the macadamia nut coffee bubbling in Mr Wilgus's office. He gets it from the mother-in-law of his Hawaiian sales branch manager.

Outside, braving the rain to view the auction lots, were some of the hard core of 20 or 30 dealers who regularly attend the auctions. Some complained that private buyers were beginning to push up prices. 'The Independent?' said one. 'Tell your readers they'll get only rubbish here.'

For Mr Collins, no stranger to auctions, it was his first time at RAF Molesworth. I had spotted him the previous night at The Cross Keys, the local Routier inn where dealers from far afield stay on the eve of auctions: a skinny 6ft 2in, stubbly lined face, sale catalogue under his arm and a baggy grey sweater concealing a bulging wad of banknotes in the back pocket of his jeans. His consortium of five fellow traders had instructed him to spend pounds 800- pounds 1,000 on a decent pick-up truck.

He stood at the bar in T-shirt and jeans before agreeing to share a dining table with me, in collar and tie, and a chance guest, Philip Berrill, the television 'flying artist' who wore a dickie bow. Mr Collins was revelling in the Hotpoint Iced Diamond fridge- freezer he had bought for pounds 1 at auction in his home town of Colchester. The frustrated auctioneer had invited a 'clearance bid' of pounds 1, at which the porters, traditional saleroom scavengers, had bid that amount. Mr Collins gave them a two-finger sign - palm outward, of course - indicating his willingness to bid pounds 2. The porters withdrew and he got what he wanted for pounds 1.

In Essex, he told us, traders still seal deals by spitting on their palm and shaking hands. I told him that my great-grandfather, an Essex man, had reason to resent the practice. Before the First World War, more drunk than usual, he sold his painting and decorating business for a fiver to a man in a pub. The following morning, horribly hung-over, he found his handcarts, paints and ladders gone. His mates had witnessed the spit-and- handshake contract. So that was that.

Ladies' tights? 'I can undercut anyone,' Mr Collins said. They were ideal for home sales: 'Women are always laddering them and there's always people who want to earn a few pence by selling them.'

The following morning he and I drove to RAF Molesworth in his ex- Post Office van, its dashboard ledge strewn with dog-ends of roll-ups, like dead moths. The vehicle park, with its auction lots of buses, trucks and army vehicles, looked for all its neatness like the aftermath of the Iraqi retreat from Kuwait. 'Ford Transit diesel,' Mr Collins muttered as we toured the lots. 'There's never anything good about a Ford Transit diesel.' Fiat? Yes, he would go for a Fiat.

'A spares job,' he said of a Chev rolet pick-up with no engine, and 'a poser's wagon' of lot 173, a Dodge left-hand drive extended-cab pick-up missing only the windscreen and half its manifold. He clearly fancied it.

By 10am at the nearby village hall, bidders had filled in their registration forms and lot 1, a high voltage capacitor, was about to be sold for pounds 55 - without reserve or premium. As we drove up, Mr Collins glanced at a pick-up truck parked ominously outside, a fancy respray job with trendy lamps. He sniffed.

Dealers, mostly in regulation T- shirt, jeans and windcheater, dominated the bidding. One spent pounds 2,805 on 18 lots of plant and machinery - including a pair of metal goalposts, pounds 5. Three Africans bought an automatic wrapping and labelling machine for pounds 95. Three trailer-mounted air conditioners went for pounds 600, pounds 750 and pounds 875, a medical incubator for pounds 65, a 'spares job' Ford Cortina for pounds 14. A tractor truck fetched pounds 5,200, top price in the sale - which realised a total of pounds 113,706, a 100 per cent sell-out.

Pick-up trucks were fetching up to pounds 875. When lot 173 came up, Mr Collins stuck his sale catalogue in the air and kept it there. The bids rose to pounds 325, pounds 350, pounds 375, then stopped. He raised his plywood bidding paddle. The pick-up was his. Its eventual buyer - Mr Collins knows him already - will tour the Continent in it with his family. Will he pay pounds 4,000? pounds 7,000? Only Mr Collins knows.

Earlier, he had slipped away to find the owner of the souped-up pick-up parked outside - Russell Saunders of the Transit City company in Lydney, Gloucestershire, resplendent in red windcheater. Mr Collins had, as he put it, 'had a word with him'. 'Did you ask him not to bid?' I asked.

'Of course not,' he said. 'I just said I was interested and asked his


'But you must have agreed something,' I persisted, backhanders in mind.

'No,' he replied, offended. 'It was just one of those things. Mutual


'Good of you to step aside for my mate Mick,' I said to Mr Saunders as we left the saleroom.

He smiled: 'He seemed a decent enough chap, and anyway, I've been in the business for 40 years.'

Which all goes to show that not every man of honour wears a tie.

DRMO Molesworth (0480 842633/5), next sale 10 June. The Cross Keys (08014 283). Ladies' tights: Mick Collins (0206 575500).

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