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Earl's mother stopped by the shop one day on her way from volunteering at her church.
"We gave him a G.I. Joe when he was about four," Joy Kreiger explained, "and ever since then, he's had G.I. Joe on the brain."
She stood with a purse on her arm, a blissful woman who enjoys driving circles around the 610 Loop because it lends her a sense of control. Standing beside her, Earl seemed uneasy.
Oh, said Joy, he and his brother, Chris, were something else with that G.I. Joe. They dressed and undressed him, kept him looking neat, and she even washed and ironed his clothes. Oh, that G.I. Joe, he was part of the family.
"There's another story he doesn't like me to tell," she happily confided. "He went into the Army and didn't like it, and ever since then, it's been military, military, military."
Earl's mouth was still smiling, but his eyes were not. He said it wasn't true and we wouldn't go into it, but we did and it was. Earl has been playing soldier all his life. He tried the real thing once but decided it was more fun to play.
His father, grandfather and uncles were all soldiers in one war or another, and in their home in northwest Houston, the family would gather to play Risk, the board game of military strategy. They watched war movies, too -- Earl loved John Wayne. Once, Earl went out and tried football, but then he quit before the season was done and came home to play war with his friends.
Leonard Tucker, his father, was usually self-employed in one way or another. He patented a process for bonding kites to kite sticks, and he spent much of his life trying to invent a machine to detect gold. Earl tinkered right along with him. He took apart most of the doorknobs in the house, said his mother, and stripped a large patch of shingles off the roof. When his father painted the top of the camper and propped it up with a stick, Earl kicked the stick, just to see what would happen. The top shattered.
"He wasn't a mean kid," said Joy. "He was always just very curious."
When Earl was 11, he made from scratch a scale model of an Army Jeep. The next year, his parents underwent an "extremely messy" divorce, and Joy took Earl and his brother to El Paso, where she met a man with six children, married and moved in with him. They were never the Brady Bunch, said Earl. He didn't like those six children, but the real problem was the man, a former Army medic who directed the family like a troop. Earl wasn't used to strangers ordering him around, and he went home to his father.
By then, school had become boring, and Earl left it after the ninth grade. In the game of Risk, Alaska is the most coveted territory, and inspired by this game, Earl, his father and uncle conceived of going to Alaska and becoming rich. They left in the dead of winter. When they reached the state, they drove for 30 days at five miles an hour. Earl and his father wound up doing janitorial work in Anchorage. When Earl got tired of it, his father signed the papers, and at the age of 17, Earl went off to become a soldier.
He had always looked forward to this, and continues to look back on it. What happened was "an unfortunate chain of events," he confessed, "because it was my lifelong dream to be in the service."
Earl insisted on joining the infantry, just like G.I. Joe, but it wasn't long before he discovered that Joe had lived a lie these many years. The foot soldier is not the force unto himself that G.I. Joe appeared, but exists instead at the bottom of the military pecking order. Before he can even enter that pecking order, he must endure the ritual of abuse that is boot camp.
"Unless you were there, you can't understand," said Earl, like a veteran.
At Fort Knox, Kentucky, he was given a uniform and a haircut and made to look like other men. He was made to walk in step with them and to eat and to drill and to live with them. He was told when to sleep and when to rise. When he missed a speck of dirt on his shoe, he was told to get up at 4 a.m. and go crawling in the mud.
To fight for the freedom of his country, Earl learned he would have to sacrifice his own. Boot camp became a terrible, terrible ordeal. Earl had never planned to hate the Army, but it was as it was, and he confronted the fact in a letter to his mother. Nothing was unusual about his crying-to-mama letter, said Earl, except the mama to whom it was sent. Joy tracked down her son and summoned him to the phone. Earl learned that if there was one thing you do not want in the U.S. Army, it was a call from mama.