A Boy and His Toys

Surrounded by machine guns, grenades and troop carriers, Earl Tucker makes his peace with the world.

Toward the end of the day, when the Cy-Fair streets had cleared somewhat, Earl Tucker climbed behind the wheel.

"Stand back," said Buzz.
"Watch out," said Earl.
It came alive with a roar and rolled growling out of the garage -- 18 feet and 13,800 pounds. The V-100 Commando could travel only 62 miles an hour, but it was the ultimate muscle car -- capable of climbing two-foot walls, fording rivers of any depth, withstanding .50-caliber bullets, grenades and anti-personnel mines. Earl noticed a fine layer of dust on his Commando. He stopped to hose it down.

When he took the driver's seat again, his head, in an olive-green helmet, protruded from the Commando. He looked like a superhero who occasionally straps on metal shoulders and bulging metal muscles. It was time to move out. "Yahoo, yahoo," said Earl, trying to sound bored.

We were only going for a cruise around the neighborhood, but he wore on his face a look of determination, as though he had driven a long way and had a long way to go. When civilians in their little civilian cars caught up and passed Earl on Brittmoore Road, they craned their heads to get a look at him, but Earl neither smiled nor waved, until at the intersection with Tanner, he passed three girls in a pickup bouncing up and down, squealing silently behind the glass. Earl couldn't help himself then. He grinned like a soldier coming home, a liberating force in an already liberated land. "Yahoo, yahoo," he said flatly again, but it was clear Earl Tucker loved his V-100 Commando and loved his country, too.

"Oh yeah, greatest country on earth," he said, smiling again. "Where else can you own a tank?"

Earl Tucker's military-industrial complex is a small warehouse workshop in a row of warehouse shops, separated from another row by a long parking lot. Out front, a small battalion of Army trucks rusts in the sun.

"I thought we had some wild man next door," said Joe Gambino of Elegant Doorways of Houston. Then Earl gave him a tour, and Gambino thought, what a nice guy. That's the most obvious side of Earl -- how nice he is and how gentle, even if he does stand in his yard on New Year's Eve, machine-gunning blanks to the sky.

There are many people in this country who make their livings selling military surplus, but Earl is one of the few who does so by restoring military vehicles. Stenciled in Army letters on Earl's office door are the words "Repo Depo," which he said is what soldiers call the Army repair shop. Inside, the place is decorated with inert bullets and shells of all sizes; a plugged-up AR15 rifle; a plugged-up .45-caliber pistol; two empty smoke grenades; one empty World War II pineapple grenade; a trip flare; a claymore land mine; an empty quarter-pound box of TNT ("For Front Line Use Only"); a poster of Earl's pale head fixed upon the bronzed, muscular body of a machine-gunner ("Go ahead -- make my day"); and the 1995 Women and Weaponry Collectors Edition Calendar, the page forever turned to Miss April holding a large gun between her legs.

Earl's wife, Jo Lane, was typing at the computer. In a bored way, she looked up and said she had given Earl the most recent Hooters calendar. But he wouldn't tack it to the wall.

"Naked girl holding a chicken wing," said Earl with a leer, "no comparison to a girl with an MP5."

He said he's 39, "going on 11." He's a solid-looking citizen who wears brown Desert Storm T-shirts and a telephone in a holster. His teeth are slightly bucked, and sometimes Earl scrapes them across the filling of Oreo cookies. His helper, "Buzz" Warren, likes to boast that we live in "the most dangerous (to other countries) country on Earth," but he was a nice guy, too, and when he said the word "vehicle," it rhymed with "pickle."

"People think there's something wrong with you if you drive a military vehicle," said Earl. He and Jo Lane were always getting funny looks as they drove their Jeep around town, the dummy machine gun mounted in back. This troubled Earl. Certainly, he drove a military vehicle to be different -- "Everyone wants to be a rebel," he said -- but he didn't want people to fear him. It was one of the reasons he and a few others were founding a military museum.

The museum consists now of several Jeeps and World War II trucks in a warehouse across the parking lot, but Earl expects that within five years, it will rival the Smithsonian. He said he doesn't believe there's any glory in war, but there is glory in serving your country. He envisions the museum as a place for kids to learn the price that was paid for liberty. They will do this by riding around in military vehicles, handling bazookas and playing soldier in simulated bunkers. In other words, they will learn in the same way that Earl had.

"Oh yeah, everyone loves this stuff," he said. "This will be a kid-orientated facility."

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