Before he became Dragon Man, Mel Bernstein was a boy, skinny and bespectacled, the easy target of bullies on the mean streets of Brooklyn.
Here he is as a toddler in the Jewish neighborhood where he grew up, sitting in his pedal car and beaming at his adoring mother for the photo. Here he is in another grainy frame, now 15 at the start of the 1960s, wearing those dark-rimmed glasses and a white T tucked into high slacks. He's straddling a bicycle with flame decals, the bicycle he'd ride to escape the toughs or else pay a quarter to avoid a beating.
"Yeah," he says now, looking back at himself, the sleeves of his leather jacket covering the tattoos up and down his arms. "Yeah. What a p****."
He puts down the photo from his hardened hands, oil-stained from a life of motorcycle tinkering. And he continues on his stroll through his kingdom, Dragon Land, his dusty 260-acre home on the plains in eastern El Paso County.
For 30 years, people have come to his ranges to shoot guns of their pleasure, from Magnums to AK-47s to machine guns. They head down Dragonman Drive, the long dirt stretch lined with bloodied mannequins in shot-up cars and written warnings for anyone thinking to cross Dragon Man, who has a Class III federal firearms license that allows him to deal high-powered rifles.
The eccentric overseer has himself become an attraction.
"You know I have 28,000 followers on Facebook?" he says. "Twenty-eight thousand!"
Some of the hundreds of weekend visitors come for Bernstein's highly impressive military museum; It takes him two hours to guide vistors through the Wal-Mart-size complex stocked with a collection he says is worth upwards of $10 million, with memorabilia from World War I to Vietnam.
There's an authentically reimagined World War II bunker. "Isn't it somethin'?" he asks, showing off the bullet-riddled pots and pans and uniformed mannequins stationed at anti-aircraft bazookas.
There's a Nazi room. "Isn't it somethin'?" he asks, showing off a SS belt buckle concealing a pistol.
There's a hangar of tanks and 80 other war vehicles, including a machine gun-mounted vehicle he drove to get bagels the other day.
"Isn't it somethin'?" he says over and over in the hangar, as if searching for approval.
Hiding on the shelves are black-and-white pictures of who Dragon Man used to be, and he's looking back at them now. He turned 71 on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day.
"I don't look it, eh?" he says, and indeed, his muscled build and full silver goatee give the illusion of someone younger. "Yeah, I've stayed in good shape. You know why? No drinking, no smoking, no drugs, and I've worked like hell every day."
If not for sheer will and determination, he asks, how else was he to realize this, his kingdom?
"Mel built his own world," says his admiring brother, Michael Bernstein, 65. "How many people can do that?"
At night throughout the '70s in New York, the younger Bernstein would finish work at his brother's motorcycle shop as Mel would start, switching over from his day job with the county's public works department. Business at the shop was good as his reputation as Dragon Man blew up. For people around the broader neighborhood, he'd pop wheelies on the Harley that he fashioned with a fire-breathing dragon head.
He built that bike and started his shop in the years following his return to the city in the late '60s. At 18, as Vietnam raged, he'd been drafted and stationed in Texas to work on weapons. He hated the war that he considered senseless, but those were a formative two years for the young man who had dropped out of high school.
"I went bad," he says, "because I got tired of getting pushed around."
Still, he had a long way to go. In the photo of him atop a M42 Duster at Fort Bliss, he is still skinny, still baby-faced, still bespectacled. But now he was learning about big guns. Now he was blueprinting the dragon bike he would build when he got home, with the skills he'd gained from his handyman father and with the money he'd earn from any job he could get in order to afford his own business. "Be your own boss," his mother always said.
Then came the tattoos, 138 of them. Then came his joining a bike gang. Then came his wishing to get out, along with bigger dreams to escape everything, to swap these crazy city streets for the peace of the open West.
Then came a girl.
The rocket screamed down, the dust cleared, and for the first time, Ava Flanell saw her father in emotional distress. Laying on the ground, the full picture came into view: Bernstein was frantic, yelling for help, his wife, Ava's mother, dead in his arms.
"Experiencing that, it's hard getting through," Ava, 30, says through tears five years later, reflecting on the freak accident at Dragon Land that ended with the rocket hitting Terry Flanell. "I know that if I wasn't there, I would always wonder if she suffered; I don't think I would've believed anybody who said it happened instantly, or that nothing could've been done. At least I don't have that question in my mind."
She and her younger sister, Melissa, continue to live with many other questions. Like this: How could their father, seemingly unfazed the next day, give on-camera interviews?
"He's not a machine, not a robot, but he is in a sense," says Melissa, 28, soft-spoken like Ava. "He doesn't see any rationale for talking meaningfully about things. He just goes on. ... All he knows is to keep going and keep going."
In the larger-than-life saga of Dragon Man, it was a most stunning and tragic episode: The woman he'd been with for 33 years, was killed in what was supposed to be the promotional scene for a Discovery Channel reality show. Terry Flanell was to walk through smoke alongside Dragon Land's other stars.
The media widely reported the event, Bernstein sued the production company for his wife's death in a case that would be dropped in federal court, and all the while, his daughters felt lost in despair. Ava and Melissa grieved as they watched their father immerse himself deeper into his business. Working - that's all they knew him to do as they grew up at Dragon Land. But now, as they needed a father more than ever, they wondered desperately how he could seem so detached.
The deepest cut came in the months after their mother's death when he remarried. The woman was one of the three with whom he'd previously had children.
While at college, Melissa called in tears to ask him how he could do such a thing. "So I'm a crappy dad, I said it," he responded. Then: "I have customers up front. I have to go."
He has since divorced the woman. "Maybe (he remarried) out of fear and loneliness," Ava Flanell says now, having recently started talking with her father again. "Maybe he freaked out he would die alone. Either way, I don't think that fulfilled the loneliness he had."
For the confusion she still harbors, she believes this firmly: "He loved my mom, and my mom loved him," she says. "I can truly say they were the happiest married couple I've ever met."
The Dragon empire emerges
Dragon Man met Terry Flanell at a time when notorious bikers were frequenting his shop. Living in a building across the street, Flanell wasn't about to go inside the shop, but she left him notes. She was in college, studying to be a medical researcher.
She was the one he wanted to run away with, having gotten out of his gang with bruises and knife gashes still visible on his arm and back - they wanted his dragon bike, and no way were they about to get it.
In 1981, he took it and the rest of his shop to the El Paso County land he found while vacationing - 40 acres for $200,000, he recalls. The blankness initially alarmed Flanell, then 22. But she went along with Bernstein's dream for his kingdom.
She became the brains of the operations, managing the books and keeping up with permitting, liability and compliance. He wanted to sell big guns. He wanted to build up his military collection. He wanted a dirt bike track and a paintball arena. She made it all happen.
While he obsessed about more and more, about interviews and TV specials and the fame he was accumulating, Flanell's attention was on Ava and Melissa. She urged the girls to focus on education while he advised them to make money now, to sweep around the place for cash or get a job elsewhere. She took the girls on vacations while he stayed at Dragon Land.
"She never cared about becoming well-known like him," Ava says. "In fact, she would stress about how if the business became busier, it would be hard to keep up with demands."
Terry Flanell wasn't one for reality TV, the sisters recall. But again, she went along with her husband's wishes.
"It's no secret Mel likes attention," says his brother, Michael, who was in the cast for the show.
He was on set the day of Flanell's death, a day that he remembers like a nightmare. The nightmare continued as, in the dropped lawsuit, the production company directed blame at him for handling the pyrotechnics.
None of it would've happened, Michael knows, if it weren't for his brother's lust for the cameras. But he does not feel the bitterness his nieces feel.
"His daughters are young. They might be able to understand their father one day," he says. "It took me a big part of my life to understand Mel, because he's so different from anyone else. I couldn't understand why he did the things he did, why he wanted the things he wanted, why he reacted to things like he did.
"But you know what? He's been right about everything. I mean, look at what he's made!"
Dragon Land is a place of pain for his youngest daughter. But soon after the tragedy, Melissa came home to serve as business manager. "I felt like I owed it to my mom," she says.
And she believes her father to be good. For all his toughness, she knows he has a soft side that her mother found all those years ago.
"Every day I think about her," Bernstein says of Terry. But he doesn't linger with the thought. He shifts to the TV show that was lost. "I think about how there would've been tourists lined up outside like American Pickers, buying T-shirts all day and coming to meet me and doing autographs.
"You know the star I would've been? I would've been a star!"
"The power, looking cool"
There's a room at the museum that has a special place in Bernstein's heart. He leads the way to it, stopping at the memorials he made for his parents. Kermit and Edith Bernstein died the year after his wife, the same year that he also lost a son to cancer, a son he bonded with over motorcycles. After that, he would be found crying, alone.
"It was real bad, real bad," Bernstein says, again not allowing himself to linger. "Hey, look at this," he says, showing a framed picture next to the container of his mother's ashes. He is in her arms, a big-eyed baby.
"Isn't that somethin'?" he says.
He'd grow up to ride his bicycle to Coney Island for the Friday night hot rod shows. He'd see the guys on their Harleys and they showed him what to be.
"The power," he recalls of their appeal. "Looking cool. Everyone looking at you."
His once-upon-a-time reverie comes to life at Dragon Land. Through a museum door, he flips a switch, and a room out of the 1960s reveals itself. Neon lights swirl, painting him and the whole place, the old Coca Cola signs, the vintage gas pumps, the model cars, the Elvis pictures. Motown blasts - it's the Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"
Here, lost in the music and the lights, Bernstein is back in a time before everything else.
He shouts over the tune: "Isn't it somethin'?"
Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332