The Plastic Polish Story
A true surplus story
Written 4/4/2015 and rewritten 05/23/2016 unedited
In the mid 1990’s our company, CME was located in Miami Florida, and one part of our business was the buying and selling of all kinds of military surplus items. Every day the U.S. government auctions off tons of excess material that they want to dispose of, and
Anyone can bid to buy it. Today, buying surplus is easy because you can now even do the bidding on the internet. The way the bidding goes, it is possible for you to inspect the items that you are bidding on, but usually it is not practical because the material is almost always located in some far away location.
It is the Government’s intention to get rid of excess and overstock items, by simply auctioning them off, and they have always encouraged small businesses to bid on, and buy the surplus material. It was always the government’s intention to sell the material with the idea that if they ever needed it again, whoever bought it could sell it back to the government.
So, many companies just like ours, bought government surplus items, hoping to sell it back to the government or possible sell it into the commercial market. Unfortunately many of the items the government auctions off has no actual civilian applications, they are items made for use only by the military only, and we knew this. But that didn’t stop lots of people from bidding and buying military only stuff from the government anyway. Over the years, I observed many people bidding to buy government surplus for no reason other than the fact that they can buy it cheap, and once they realize that whatever they bought, can’t easily be sold, it ended up in the dump, and that happens to be the nature of the government surplus business. I found that there were always lots of people like farmers or trucking companies that bid on stuff with very good intentions, all of them thinking they could use the material they bought, or they think that they can sell it for a lot of money, but in the end it all usually all ended up in a dump somewhere.
When I first went into the surplus business, there was a joke circulating regarding a large lot of government surplus canned tuna fish that was sold to a surplus dealer. After WW2, he eventually passed away and the surplus canned tuna fish was sold another surplus dealer, and then he sold it to another dealer. This trading and selling of the tuna fish went on for many years. So when finally one of the surplus dealers opened up a can of the tuna fish for lunch, he found it was all old and inedible. The point of the story was that the tuna fish could never be eaten by anyone, but that didn’t stop it from continually being sold from dealer to dealer, and eventually it would end up in the dump.
One day there was a bid open for several pallet loads of plastic polish. It sounded like a good deal, everyone uses plastic polish, so we bid on it, and we were awarded the entire lot. We paid our bid price, plus a ten percent fee to the auctioneer, and we paid the freight to bring all the plastic polish from Columbus Ohio to Miami Florida. In the end, we had quite a bit of money invested in the cans of plastic polish. When we received the shipment, we found it to be six pallets of about sixty cartons each, with each carton containing eighteen 10 ounce cans of plastic polish. The cans were painted military olive drab, with the government’s part number was clearly printed in black letters on each can.
The plastic polish was used only by the military, to clean the plastic cockpit canopy on F14 fighter jets. The moment I saw what we had bought, I had misgivings, because who the heck would buy plastic polish that comes in a military metal olive drab colored can, stuff that was for a F14 fighter jet, and those were planes that were mostly all now in the country of Iran, a country we can’t do business with.
For over two years, I tried selling the several pallet loads of plastic polish, but it never sold, so eventually I started giving cans away for free.
One Sunday, my wife and I were invited to attend a flea market that was being held in Zolfo Springs Florida, a friend of ours was setting up his booth there. My wife and I thought it would be a fun trip driving to Zolfo Springs, so we headed up there by way of Lake Okeechobee. As we reached Lake Okeechobee, it started to rain, and we remembered that we had forgotten to bring raincoats, so that’s when I spotted what appeared to be a small government surplus store. The Store was small but it had a big sign that said Government Surplus. As we drove up, you could see that there was what appeared to be lots of spare Jeep parts and pieces of various other military trucks laying around. Behind the small building was a giant shed with a fiberglass roof and what appeared to be crates full of military surplus.
We made a dash for the door, and once we were inside the store we met the two owners. Turns out they were a couple of real nice country fellows, and they said that they specialized in buying government surplus that could be used by local farmers and hunters. Once hearing this we started talking to them, and we told them what we did in Miami, and in the course of conversation I mentioned that we had a large quantity of surplus plastic polish that was taking up a lot of room in our warehouse, and did they have any idea as to what we could do with the stuff. It took a few minutes, as they were thinking, but eventually the two fellows determined that even though we were city folk from Miami, we were not there to take advantage of them.
The rain was letting up, so we bought a couple of yellow plastic ponchos from them, just in case the rain started up again. Just as we were leaving the store, one of the partners said, “I bet we could sell some of that there plastic polish you have.” I was stunned, here I had tried to sell the stuff for over two years and never had anyone interested in it. So I thought for a moment and then I said, tell you what, you guys look like honest guys to me, so if you pay the freight from Miami, I will ship a load of plastic polish up to you and we can split the profit after you sell it. Well, it took a minute for the fellows to digest what I had told them, and then they both happily shook their head in agreement, after all, here I was practically offering them the plastic polish for free. One of the partners came over and shook my hand. “Yes sir he said, we are as honest as the day is long and we can sure sell that polish”.
When we returned to Miami, we loaded up the entire shipment of plastic polish which was still on the original six tall pallets, five of the pallets were still covered in the original plastic wrap, so I sent it all up to the Lake Okeechobee surplus dealers, freight collect. I know that they must have accepted the shipment, because I never heard another word from them ever again.
Now it was several years later, in the year 2000, my wife and I were again on another road trip, and we were driving back to Miami from a visit to Savanna Georgia. We were driving back to Miami, trying to use as many of the rural back roads that we could in upstate Florida.
As we drove down one rural highway, it was lined with live oak trees with Spanish moss hanging from them, we noticed on the side of the road there was a small building with several used 2-1/2 ton used army trucks parked in front, so we stopped.
We met the owner who was working under the hood of a car, and we introduced ourselves to him. Then we had a nice conversation, telling him we were in the surplus business in Miami. He then told us that the trucks he was selling actually belonged to another government surplus dealer named Jessie who we just happened to know very well. The fellow said he was recently retired and since he owned several acres in upstate Florida, he had gotten involved in buying some government surplus. He said that the first thing he did was buy out another surplus dealer who was located near Lake Okeechobee
So then we all walked over to his building and I looked inside. The building was perhaps forty feet wide and sixty feet long with a roll up door.
There inside the building was all our plastic polish, and the pallets were still in the original plastic wrap, just as we had shipped it many years ago.
I casually mentioned that we had once owned that plastic polish. He told us that he had it for several years, and has never sold even one can. He asked me if I wanted to buy it back.