A Boy and His Toys

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

"So you want to go home and pick flowers with your mother?" the drill sergeant shouted. Standing at attention, Earl remembers that he began to tremble. He also remembers that he answered, "Yes sir!"

The sergeant threatened to kill Earl Tucker with a shovel, but it was peacetime and not that important. With 27 others, Earl was sent home. His Army service had lasted a month.

"I really didn't want out," he said, "but before I knew it I was out."

Joy's other son outgrew G.I. Joe. He pursued a life of art until he died four years ago of AIDS. As for Earl, his persistent love for the military is something Joy cannot explain.

"I've always told him his whole attitude would change if he saw someone blown apart," she said, "if he had to go to war and see people fight and die. But he says, 'No, no, not me.' "

"If I was called on," says Earl to this day, "I think I could serve my country well. You can't compare what I'd be now to what I was at 17.''

He searched as a civilian for a place to fit in. He became a delivery man for a construction company, an electrician's apprentice, and finally, an elevator repairman with his own company, LIFT Technologies. Like John Wayne in the other movies, Earl was wearing cowboy hats and boots when Jo Lane met him.

"You've gone from kicker to general in 20 years," she says to him. And he says to her, "I'll general you."

The transformation, or reversion, of Earl began in the early 1980s with an ad for something called the 36th Division Association. This was a group of World War II re-enactors, which, for a while anyway, turned out to be the army of Earl's dreams. He got to wear real uniforms, shoot guns without hurting people and ride in exotic machines. It was all choreographed, he said, "and everyone knew what to do and when to fall down, just like a movie."

Earl fought the Germans on Saturdays, and on Sundays, he fought with them. Switching sides didn't bother him because the German army had the superior machines. "Mechanically intellectual," as he described himself, Earl said he learned the history of the war only in terms of what the machines did. War was a clash of marvelous machinery to him; the philosophies that moved the machines, and the casualties caused by them, were incidental.

He rose quickly through the ranks nonetheless (understanding being no more necessary to a play soldier than to a real one). Earl assumed control of the Airborne Command. Soon, he became recruiting officer for the entire division. He enjoyed the status for a time, until he discovered that privilege had its obligations. In a volunteer group, a promotion just means doing everyone else's work. In the real military, "they shoot you if you don't work," he said, but Earl hadn't liked that about the military, and anyway, all the guns at his disposal shot only blanks. In the end, he quit the re-enactors for about the same reason he left the Army: "Too much bullshit and not enough fun."

This became a trend in Earl's life. He would join groups that had been formed to honor the cohesive fighting forces of the military; they would fall apart, and he would leave. From the 36th Division Association, Earl joined the Texas Military Vehicle Collectors, and from there, he went to the Bluebonnet Military Motor Pool. After the Motor Pool, Earl began trying to form the museum.

Always, he would leave the people but never the machinery. Playing soldier with grownups, Earl had come to respect the machine gun as the ultimate firearm. To own a variety of them, he became a gun dealer, and to shoot them, he founded in the mid-1980s the M60 Club. According to the brochure, the club was "a secluded range facility with the automatic weapons owner in mind." You could run with your machine gun over "a 15 acre course filled with obstacles, moats, and pop-up targets." Or you could "shoot the car."

"This is the time to take all your frustrations out on the old auto," said the brochure.

An afternoon of happy machine-gunning might cost thousands of dollars just for the ammo, and when the oil bust hit, Earl's clientele reduced their luxuries. The M60 Club died quietly, but it had been a pleasant time in Earl's life. In his office, the pictures still hang of his two young daughters armed and waiting for whatever might befall them.

"Yes," said Earl, "all my children can shoot machine guns."
He loves his guns and keeps an arsenal in a safe, but it was the exposure to military vehicles that changed Earl's life. He had never known much about cars until, for his weekend wars, he spent four years restoring a 1944 Dodge 3/4-ton weapons carrier. Every piece had a simple and sturdy purpose, he observed. Earl admired the engineering and fell in love.

His truck became such a beautiful relic that Earl's fellow play-soldiers asked him to restore their vehicles. This was such satisfying work that Earl rented a shop away from home, and in December 1995, turned his back on his elevator company to restore military vehicles full-time.

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