He looks tough, but past the hard exterior, Staff Sgt. Wayne Garcia has a soft heart for collectible candy dispensers.

He looks tough, but past the hard exterior, Staff Sgt. Wayne Garcia has a soft heart for collectible candy dispensers. (Terry Boyd / S&S)

Years after the fact, sitting at Firebase Asadabad, Middle of Freakin’ Nowhere Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Wayne Garcia slaps down a can of Copenhagen smokeless tobacco.

“THIS is how I got into it.”

A few years ago, Garcia, with the 82nd Airborne Division’s Company D, 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was trying to find something to replace his smokeless-tobacco habit when he happened on a PEZ candy dispenser. He bought it, thinking the candy would be a good substitute for gum-rotting dip. Later, a noncommissioned officer named Lancaster saw it, “and he said, ‘Are you going to keep that PEZ?’ I said, ‘Not really. I just wanted the candy.’ And he says, ‘Well, I collect them.’ ”

Those four fateful words revealed to Garcia a whole new world of Web sites, books, museums and catalogs dedicated to PEZ collectors. Most people know PEZ as little dispensers with Popeye or Mickey Mouse heads that open, revealing a tiny, tart oblong- shaped candy lozenge.

Ah, but there is so much more, Garcia says.

PEZ are so colorful, so fun, so cheap, so irresistible, he says: “I got hooked … addicted.”

Now, among Company D soldiers, Garcia is known as “the PEZ Man.”

“He will flat wear you out with PEZ trivia,” one of Garcia’s soldiers says.

Since that first PEZ, Garcia’s gotten so involved that he talked his son, Tyler, now 8 years old, into buying them for him “so I wouldn’t look so silly,” Garcia says. “It became ‘our hobby.’ ”

Wayne Garcia had become, in the jargon of the culture, “a PEZhead.”

“Before I knew it, I was going online and buying 10 or 15 items,” he said.

There was that time he went on eBay and bid on 20 PEZ dispensers, not thinking he would get them all. When he came home a few days later, his wife Jennifer was standing with a stack of boxes that had just come in the mail.

“I looked at them and I knew right away what it was,” he said. “Boxes of PEZ. She was not smiling.

“My bad.”

Right now, Garcia has about 565 PEZ, not counting accessories. Oh yes, there are accessories, from watches and piggy banks to mouse pads and lip balm. And while 565 PEZ is a nice collection, many people have a lot more.

The man who wrote the book on PEZ, Kansas City, Mo.-based author Shawn Peterson, says he has no idea exactly how many PEZ he has: “I can say, ‘Thousands and thousands.’ ”

PEZ collecting is so big that Peterson has sold about 20,000 copies worldwide of his most recent book, “The Collector’s Guide to PEZ.” Collecting PEZ “is literally a worldwide thing,” he said.

The new Easton Museum of PEZ Dispensers in Easton, Pa. — one of at least two PEZ museums in the United States — has drawn thousands of visitors in its first year, said Jeannie Roth, the museum’s volunteer manager.

Two brothers — Tim and Kevin Coyle — inherited their nine siblings’ PEZ collections and opened the museum, Roth said. Their collection draws people from across the United States “and we had a family from Vancouver, British Columbia … people who made the museum their primary vacation destination,” she said. “It boggles my mind. There’s a whole underground world of PEZ.”

Once immersed, Garcia went to his grandmother Anita Garcia’s house in Salem, Ore.

“She collects everything,” Wayne Garcia says. “Not for money. She’s just odd like that. She saves the wrappings off the Christmas presents.”

So he asked her if his dad ever had PEZ.

“She comes down with 10 no-foot PEZ. Jackpot!”

If you, like Garcia, are a connoisseur of PEZ, you know that there are footed PEZ, which are modern, and no-foot PEZ, the original design without the flare on the bottom.

Grandma’s cache averaged about $250 per item in value, with the least valuable worth about $50, Garcia said.

At current prices, the $1,000 he’s invested is worth between $6,000 and $8,000, and he’ll cash them in only to pay for his son’s college.

“I’ve never sold,” Garcia said. “I’ve been buying.”

Since 1998, the peak of PEZ mania, PEZ collecting has moderated, due in part to eBay, the Internet auction site, according to author Peterson.

“The conventions were out of control, over the top,” the author says. Conversely, there are probably more people collecting PEZ than ever, Peterson says. But prices have stabilized because eBay has connected collectors worldwide, giving them a more accurate gauge of what is truly rare, and what is hype, he adds.

At this point, about eight years into his PEZ obsession, he and his wife have reached an accord, Garcia said.

“Now my wife says, ‘OK, Wayne, you haven’t bought a PEZ in a long time. You can buy either one expensive one, or a bunch of cheap ones. Your decision.’ ”

But, sitting in Afghanistan, Garcia begins to talk about the display cases he’ll have when the family upgrades to a three-bedroom house in Fayetteville, N.C., where Jennifer teaches honors English at a local high school.

“Yeah, when I get my library,” replies Jennifer Garcia in a satellite phone interview. She likes books and clothes, but has a “tolerance level” for PEZ, she says, confessing that she just bought her husband three new Halloween PEZ as a surprise for when he returns home from his deployment. But, she adds, she finds the whole PEZ phenomenon “kind of scary.”

So, years later, the Garcia family happily raids discount stores and flea markets, always on the prowl for “the Mickey Mantle rookie card of PEZ,” in Wayne Garcia’s words.

The kicker is, he still hasn’t kicked that chew.

More about PEZ ...

¶ PEZ International AG, based in Traun, Austria, began in 1927 with a simple idea — a breath mint and a smoking alternative. The name comes from Pfefferminz, the German word for peppermint. The first dispensers, called Golden Glow, were meant to look like cigarette lighters. In 1973, the company built an American plant in Orange, Conn.

¶ The Guinness world record price paid for a PEZ is $6,000 for a rubber-headed Mickey Mouse, a prototype that never went into production, according to Shawn Peterson, author of three books for PEZ collectors. There are believed to be six or eight more “floating around out there,” Peterson said.

¶ Potentially, the most valuable PEZ may be part of a gift set given to President Kennedy, Peterson said. It’s documented that during a presidential visit to Austria, PEZ officials gave Kennedy a gift package the size of a cigar box. In that box is believed to be a number of incredibly collectible pieces including a dispenser with a donkey — symbol of the Democratic Party — and a Bozo die-cut model for Caroline Kennedy, he said. “No one has seen this intact with the presentation box,” according to Peterson. The PEZ most likely are forgotten in an archive somewhere, he said. If they were found and auctioned, “it wouldn’t surprise me if they brought five figures.”

¶ PEZ does not make dispensers in the likenesses of living people for the same reason the U.S. Postal Service issues stamps honoring only those who have passed on, said Staff Sgt. Wayne Garcia, a PEZ collector. Living people could do something to embarrass the company, Garcia said. That said, he added, a company — apparently one with very good copyright lawyers — makes PEZ knockoffs featuring the 1970s metal band KISS.

¶ PEZ sells only certain dispenser designs in the United States, and certain designs in Europe, Garcia said. On his assignment with the Sinai peacekeeping mission, he was able to buy a dinosaur in Tel Aviv with Hebrew script.

¶ There are not one, but two, PEZ museums in the United States — the Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia in Orange, Conn., and the Eaton Museum of PEZ Dispensers in Easton, Pa.

¶ The best PEZ story is that Pierre Omidyar founded eBay so his girlfriend could buy and sell PEZ. It turns out the story was created by an eBay publicist who was having trouble getting reporters to write about the start-up, Shawn Peterson said: “It’s kind of a warm fuzzy, created and marketed by eBay. It made a nice story … but it’s more hype than truth.”

— Terry Boyd

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now