"Hey, friend. Wanna buy a surplus Army jeep for only $50? How about a classic pre-war motorcycle, still in its shipping crate - for a song? Or maybe a mint Model A Ford, discovered recently in a long-lost boxcar?"
If a stranger gave you a pitch like that, you'd be unlikely to believe it. But a great many people repeat such stories, and thousands respond regularly to ads like these two, which appeared in the classifieds of a popular magazine:"Is it true you can buy jeeps for $44 through the U.S. government? Get the facts today!"
"Government surplus jeeps $30 . . . 5,000,000 items! Complete information."
What people get if they pay the requested fee - from $3 to $25 and up - is dry information about auctions conducted by the government's General Services Administration or Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service.
The pamphlets and booklets issued by these agencies are distributed either free or at nominal prices, and the promised or rumored vintage-vehicle bargains it's implied they contain aren't there.
In fact, one DRMS publication, "How to Buy Surplus Personal Property," contains this disclaimer:
"All M151 series vehicles, including jeeps, have been determined to be unsafe for public highway use by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. . . .
"From time to time, false stories appear in publications advising the public that jeeps are available for unusually low prices if bought in quantity or `disassembled' in crates. Such stories should be brought to the attention of the DRMS Public Affairs Office in Battle Creek, Mich."
A reader who wrote anonymously claimed he had been a registered surplus bidder for years. "I visited many surplus locations and sale sites," he wrote, "and I have yet to see a crated jeep or motorcycle."
In the late 1950s, while growing up in Yakima, Wash., a reader named Charles J. Peterson heard about mint-condition Indian motorcycles, long forgotten in a government warehouse, and still in their original crates. Price: $50.
Thirty years later, Peterson, now an astronomer at the University of Missouri, overheard two young oil field workers in a Wyoming cafe discussing Harley-Davidson cycles said to be available for the same low price, but only if bought in quantity lots out of a warehouse in St. Louis.
In widely told variations of this rumor, people say that the motorcycles are disassembled and packed in grease, or that they were overlooked for years on a loading dock, or that they turned up in a boxcar that had been shunted aside and forgotten on an obscure railroad siding somewhere out West.
The missing-boxcar theme is also very durable, spanning the years from Model T and Model A Fords, through 1930s and '40s motorcycles, World War II jeeps, early model Corvettes and beyond.
I've even heard it said that the original model of the first home computer - referred to as "the Altair" - was lost in shipment somewhere between Albuquerque, where it was built, and New York City, where it was being sent to be evaluated by an electronics magazine.
Find that lost package, I've been told, and you have a classic - if obsolete - piece of computer equipment. This story could be true, but it sounds to me more like a variation of the vintage-vehicle legend.
Closer to folk tradition is the oft-told story about someone finding a "pre-war Martin D-28 Herringbone guitar still in its original wrapping paper" offered for sale in some backwoods general store.
Among boat builders, it is said that there is a treasure trove of perfect teakwood in an abandoned school somewhere. Years ago, during a shortage of domestic oak, aschool board ordered imported teak to use on a gym floor. But the school closed not long afterward when district boundaries were redrawn. That wood is there for the taking - if you can just find the site.
There must be dozens more.