At the Front
At the Front is a company located in central Kentucky, specializing in recreating clothing and equipment worn by soldiers in the Second World War. For over 25 years we have supplied reenactors, films, costume houses, veterans, military and government historical projects as well as people who simply like vintage clothing and accessories. We have our own factory on site which produces two hundred products, and over a thousand other items are contracted with companies in the USA, China, Germany, India, Pakistan, Belgium and England. We also offer an ever changing range of authentic items. Rollin Curtis, the owner, has over 35 years experience with WWII militaria and living history, as well as 6 years in the "real" Army.
ATF's roots go back to a gang meeting in the early 1970's. The boys in my neighborhood divided themselves up into two groups- ours consisted of 5 first graders, while the one on the other block had about 10 boys, most a year or two older than us. Although outnumbered and undersized, we normally held our own by using our heads a bit more effectively. Early on, we had mutually agreed that if we were going to have wars, we needed to make it official and have armies. The other gang, being more plentiful, older and thus physically stronger declared themselves to be "the Americans" while we had to be "the Germans". From that point on, we literally referred to one another as such. We endeavored to make the best of the situation- plus we already knew Tiger tanks were far cooler than Shermans so this couldn't be all bad. My friends and I studied Rat Patrol, Patton, and Kelly's Heroes carefully and over the next few years, things gradually escalated as both sides acquired bits and pieces of uniforms, helmets and weapons. Crab apples and snow balls eventually gave way to sling shots ("wrist rockets"), pellet rifles and even my grandpa's bring-back Arisaka rifle (no ammo- but it looked mean with the bayonet on it). The fact that packs of grade school boys were stalking one another around the neighborhood wearing helmets, fatigues and armed with actual weapons never caused a problem. The neighbors apparently took it all in stride. The local police remained equally oblivious to our war- until we acquired the two grocery bags of fireworks in the Summer of 1978. That ultimately led to a meeting between the police chief and our parents. We were strongly encouraged to take up sports or hobbies other than ambushing his officers when they were snoozing in their cars with barrages of bottle rockets and roman candles...
Since the age of 5, I had always built models, mostly military. A couple of years after our war was shut down, I was at a meeting of the Louisville Military Modeler's Club, when one of the other members brought in his real uniform and equipment from a reenactment. That was the end of plastic models- I wanted the real thing. I attended my first military show in November of that year, and my first event in the Summer of 1981. Although I wanted to join the LSSAH, they wouldn't take anyone under 18, so initially I joined a "GD" unit which was based around Ft. Knox. Three years and dozens of events later, Fred Poddig finally relented and allowed me into the 1.SS with my parents' approval. Why German? Simple. That was what everyone in my area did.
Events in the 1980's were somewhat different than those today, with the vast majority being "tacticals"- the public spectacles, WWII Weekends and dog & pony shows were a rarity. Military issue grenade and artillery simulators were often handed out like candy during the safety & authenticity inspections, and many events had active duty military personnel acting as referees. We were flat out playing WWII and no one was in any way ashamed about that fact. Running through the woods at Weldon Spring chasing an M4A3 with an original Panzerschreck that actually fired rockets (balsa wood powered by F engines) was heaven for a 15 year old. Events began Friday afternoon and ran until about lunch time on Sunday. Miles long road marches and extensive field time were the norm, and many participants were combat veterans (Vietnam, Korea, and some WWII) and their tutelage proved incredibly helpful when I joined the Army a few years later.
The Army: When I was 17, I had enlisted in the Marine Corps with a reserve tank battalion at Ft. Knox. This was called "split option", meaning I went to Parris Island my junior Summer, then tank school after graduation. Fortunately or not, when I showed up at the processing center to ship out, I had mononucleosis. The Gunny congratulated me on having found the only way other than "being a queer" to get out of going to PI that day. I didn't consider this all bad at the time- I had recently discovered girls and cars which seemed more fun than getting yelled at by R. Lee Ermey lookalikes for three months. However, two years later, I was bored with college and an Army recruiter promised being a paratrooper would be fun. She was right. After basic, I was shipped to the Presidio of San Fransisco...next to the beach....in coed barracks. And contrary to the rumors, Army girls weren't fugly at all. For 6 hours a day we learned German, then we were free to do about anything we wanted so long as we didn't get arrested. We had a ball.
The military was for me, as it is for many young people, a transitional time, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. However, I refuse to use the phrase "I served". I wasn't sent to Korea, Alaska, Ft. Polk- much less Iraq or Afghanistan. To the contrary, I got paid to work out, parachute, blow things up, and chase girls. During the run up to the Gulf War, we all cringed at the idea of dying for Chevron...(aka the freedom of Kuwait). When the cranky colonel at Ft. Bragg realized that no one in our unit (11th SFG's MI detachment) spoke Arabic, we were left stateside. Patriotism had nothing to do with my decision to enlist. I was young, lacking direction, and desperate for a change of pace- and that I got plus some great life lessons. I take issue with using one's service as an advertising tool (unless it's directly applicable such as companies making sniper rifles, body armor etc). There are plenty of jackasses in the military and having a veteran involved in a business is no guarantee of legitimacy. For those of you who were in the military you know exactly what (and who) I'm talking about. So, that's why I don't harp much about having been in the military. Lastly, the post-Vietnam, pre-9/11 military was much different than today- we weren't lauded as heroes and thanked for our service everywhere we went.
After the Army, I returned to college to see if I could figure out what to do when I grew up. I also needed some sort of employment, and Tom Arter (Axis & Allies) agreed to let me work gun shows for him. This I did for a year and it taught me (some of) the ropes of running a small business. In 1993, with Tom's encouragement, I decided go off on my own and only deal in WWII items, still mostly German.
The real beginning of ATF was when I got a burr in my pants for a good reproduction A-frame- no good reproductions existed at that time. I spent months scrounging for the right webbing- I finally found something close at G & K Shoe company in downtown Louisville, but it was pale yellow. With trial and error I figured out how to dye it with RIT on my Mom's stove. Then I bought a Pfaff heavy duty sewing machine that could handle the webbing and leather- hoofing that monstrosity down the basement stairs was an event in itself. After Lord knows how many hours, dollars, headaches and false starts, I finally had a pretty good reproduction A-frame. I proudly strapped it on at the next event....and HATED it. I never wore one again.
Up until this point, most vendors custom made everything, and very little was actually stocked- items were not made until after they had been paid for. Waiting weeks or months was the norm, not the exception. Early on, I decided not to take money from anyone unless I had the item in hand, ready to deliver. This wasn't a well thought out part of my business plan (plan? what plan?) but simply a result of my being somewhat lazy and easily annoyed. As soon as people give you money, they start pestering- "I know you said 3 weeks, but it's been 3 days and I'm just checking" etc, etc. The wisdom of this policy made itself rapidly apparent, with fewer complaints and more sales.
In 1997 I inherited some money from my grandmother (Kate Kirkman- sound familiar?) and I went to Los Angeles to see SM Wholesale. $50,000 later I was driving across the desert in a purple Dodge Caravan packed full of "nazi stuff"- UPS was on strike, Fedex was too expensive so I drove it home. I rented a 1500 sq ft. building in an industrial park, hired my first employee (Phil Kellar) and put out the first catalog. In October 1998, I was talking to Stevie (the owner of SMW) one morning and he mentioned having just been by Dreamworks' warehouse and seen the stuff from "that movie" they had just made and were taking bids on. After a phone call to Los Angeles to verify this info, I went to the bank, secured a line of credit, and we faxed over an offer. 4 days later they called and asked when we would be picking it up. In early November, two semis arrived, and soon the warehouse was piled 12ft high with boxes- it looked a bit like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
About this time, "The Rants" came into being. As with nearly everything else I've done, they were an accident. Like any business, we encounter certain, select customers who can ruin your day with a 5 minute phone call, or nasty email. When we screw up, criticism is warranted, even if people go a little overboard, and I'll usually tolerate it. However, there is that percentage of special types, the ones who like to send their food back 5 times at restaurants, make the staff cry, blame their wife for bleaching their uniform, put their boots in an oven, make ludicrous demands and so forth. Having no background in customer service, and newly equipped with a website, I did what I deemed appropriate. I went off on some nitwit- on the main page of our website. I can't remember what the original "rant" was about, but I clearly remember the look on Phil's face (my web guy) when he read it. "You can't put that on the site!". The hell I can't. And I did. The response was immediate- and mostly positive. Apparently this was like no other business, and much like this last election, many people appreciated me speaking like a normal person (an annoyed one) rather than a salesman. Over the years, I penned dozens of "rants", mostly dealing with some issue related to Re-enacting/ Living History, but occasionally deviating to current events when it struck me.
(Where did the Rants go? A few years ago, I began to have trouble making time to write them. Secondly, our world has gotten bigger and many new visitors were unprepared to see the owner railing about some chuckletard who microwaved his helmet and almost burned down his house. Lastly, it's gotten hard not to repeat them as there are only so many topics to cycle through. I do plan to create a blog and an archive of the old rants in the future- when time permits.)
During 1999, it became obvious that US militaria was as popular as German and I gradually started adding it to the product line, but a very large obstacle soon became apparent- the unreliability of suppliers. Chinese ebay didn't exist yet, and the Indians and Pakistanis hadn't found the internet yet. The few guys in the US were horridly flaky at best. So, my naive ass decided to start our own sewing factory- we had been making fieldgear for almost 10 years so why not clothing? This nearly killed us...
Initially, we tried to do it in Louisville, but a couple of help wanted ads in the paper produced exactly one phone call- from some lady who was like 110 years old and sewed teddy bears. In the Summer of 1999, Larry the paint-ball loving preacher stopped by, and we discussed my struggles with the factory idea. He pointed out that the Lake Cumberland area in central Kentucky was full of unemployed sewing workers due to Fruit of the Loom and OshKosh closing plants the year before and moving to Mexico. By December, we had rented a building, hired half a dozen ladies, opened the first sewing factory and the new adventure had begun. A few months after that, I found a vacant 15,000 sq ft. slaughterhouse (true story) a few miles away in Columbia for a very reasonable price. Over the next year we had that building renovated and we left Louisville in the Summer of 2001. The move had just been completed when the planes hit the towers.
Making garments in the USA in 1999 was sheer folly. The girls we hired actually had a pool going on how quickly we would go under. Luckily we were retailing our products, we still had a lot of "SPR" inventory and I was terrible at tracking my expenses so we managed to putter along for a couple of years. The event that ultimately saved and made us was making contacts in China in 2002. We were doubly lucky in finding three well run, honest manufacturers who actually care about what they make. The owners of two of the firms are now personal friends of ours, and we all get together every year or two. In the end, the foreign companies ended up saving our jobs here- allowing us to offer a mix of domestic and imported products.
Although I have toned down some of my descriptions and commentary on the site, it will always maintain the tone of an NCO rather than that of a concierge. I personally despise mealy mouthed sales pitches and cringe whenever something I write sounds too cheesy. We will give honest, no nonsense assessments and descriptions, and sometimes my caustic sense of humor may show through. Our goal is to provide the best products possible, deliver promptly, handle refunds immediately, and fix our mistakes all with the least amount of BS.
What's next? Over the next couple of years, I plan to increase the amount of educational information on the site, with photos of the authentic items we actually copy. It seems like every company states that everything was "made from an original" but you never seem to see them. We are also making an attempt to enter the vintage apparel market, both with exact reproductions as well as tweaked and modified variations of period items.
Now, 25 years on, we are still growing, and adding products nearly every week. Although I had no idea at the time, it was a lucky choice I made in 1992 to "do some gun shows." It's been a long, winding and bumpy road, and I doubt it'll be much different for the next quarter century- but four wheeling is fun right?