Bob Mills unzipped a suitcase full of World War II souvenirs in front of Ronald Distelhorst. "Here I have something I think is interesting," he said. "These are . . . . "
"Hermann Goering cigars," they said at once, except Distelhorst said it softly, with awe. Mills had hardly removed the box from its clear plastic wrapping when Distelhorst, who describes himself as "one of the world's best-known experts on Nazi-related material," reached for the box and gently lifted its fragile cover.
There they were, 10 fat cigars.
Distelhorst, 44, a Chicago area physician, had come to the Fair Oaks Holiday Inn in Fairfax to add to a collection of war memorabilia that, he said, numbers more than 20,000 pieces, most of it from Nazi Germany. Having advertised in a local paper that he would be in town Friday and Saturday, he said he had seen a steady flow of people with items to sell.
He said he has been collecting war memorabilia since he was 8 years old, and the box of cigars was an unusual find.
"Sonderanfertigung Reichsmarschall Hermann Go ring," read elaborate script inside the cigar box -- "Made especially for" Goering, the chief of Adolf Hitler's air force. Clearly Distelhorst was interested.
Mills, 70, of Alexandria, who had pushed across war-ravaged Europe with an armored unit, said the Nazi daggers, insignias, photographs, flags, propaganda leaflets and other memorabilia he collected along the way have lost their value to him. He was selling and Distelhorst was buying.
Distelhorst said he stores his collection in an underground vault at his home. "Someday I hope to have a building, my own museum," he said. "But right now it's only me. I'm the museum."
Of German ancestry, he is second-generation American. He became interested in German history as a child, he said.
Distelhorst's hobby has not gone unnoticed.
"I was written up in the July 1984 Life magazine," Distelhorst said. "There's a big picture of me in there with my son holding a little storm trooper doll with a music box in it. It plays 'Die Fahne Hoch!' It means 'Raise the Banner.' It was the anthem of the National Socialist Party.
"And I was written up in a West German magazine. They implied I was some neo-Nazi with an underground, steel- and concrete-reinforced bunker. All I have is an underground vault . . . . I don't have swastikas down there with spotlights on them. I'm just a collector."
He sat yesterday surrounded by helmets, daggers, badges, ammunition pouches and assorted other items, including one ankle-length, black-leather Gestapo officer's overcoat. And he waited.
Sellers came with swords and flags, unit photographs and beer steins, rank insignias and Nazi documents. Most of them he turned away.
But not Mills.
"And this is a unique item here," Mills said, producing a toy German staff car.
"Not unique," Distelhorst corrected, without looking closely at it. "Elastolin or Lineol," he said, naming two German toy manufacturers, certain that one of them had manufactured the piece in the early 1940s. He peeked at a manufacturer's stamp on the bottom of the toy.
"Yes, Elastolin," he said.
He handed Mills $1,200 and took the toy car and the cigars.
"Well, thank you," Mills said.
Distelhorst held the cigars and smiled. "A pleasure, sir."