A Boy and His Toys

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

Word of Earl Tucker's weapons carrier somehow reached an ex-senator of Guam, who paid a king's ransom for it and is said to be cruising Guam in it to this day. Earl went on to other loves. He has worked on more than 50 different military vehicles and has fully built eight. The military has tried to discourage patriots like Earl, but this has been hard to do.

At the surplus auctions, it used to be easy to get a Jeep, said Earl. Then in the 1980s, civilians began flipping them over and suing the Army, and the Army began cutting the Jeeps in half and selling them as scrap. Civilians like Earl welded the cars back together again. The Army tried cutting along the length of the vehicles, and even dividing the Jeeps into quarters. Every time, civilians like Earl reassembled the cars. Nothing worked until the cars were crushed.

Earl in his play army came to consider armored vehicles, like machine guns, "the biggest, baddest things around." Maybe because he is right, the military has not sold armored vehicles since the 1950s -- at least not intact. They are taken apart into thousands and thousands of pieces, and the bodies are sold as scrap.

But a few years ago, Earl was delighted to discover the sale of two uncrushedV-100 Commando bodies from the 1960s. He tracked down every one of their parts. He searched and placed ads in the 5,000-circulation Military Vehicles Magazine and in the parts journal of the Military Vehicle Preservation Association, Supply Lines. At Fort Polk and Fort Hood, Earl scoured the surplus auctions each month. He paid $5 for a brand-new taillight whose Army price tag said $120. The bulletproof V-100 tires cost the Army $1,400 each, but Earl paid $275 apiece from a dealer who had bought them for less. He bartered five-ton truck parts for axle shafts, wheel bearings and brake cylinders. He even managed to find the manual. After that, assembling a V-100 Commando was no more difficult than putting together a giant model.

The government spent $275,000 per Commando in 1969; Earl built two last year for about $120,000. His very own Commando was paid for when he sold the second to a collector in Sugar Land.

Earl's customers show up with mechanical problems, and as he works, they talk. Charles Weigel, a professor at South Texas College of Law, had a World War II-era Jeep whose battery wouldn't hold a charge. Weigel said you can divide military historians into three groups: those who study tactics; those who collect artifacts; and those who collect artifacts to play with them.

Weigel puts himself in the second group, and most military-vehicle owners into the last. Some re-enactors may have been veterans, he said, "but I just have never met any."

And then Joe Kuti came by. He was a buyer for a big construction company who was a little overweight and a little worried about how he would get into the truck that Earl was restoring.

He had bought his GMC M135 from a construction company in Porter that had bought it from the City of Pasadena, which had bought it years and years ago from the Army. The truck had sat in a field for many seasons, and Earl was going to sandblast and paint it and make it run again.

"For 1951, it's got a lot of neat stuff on it," said Kuti, pointing out the six-wheel drive, the pressurized seals and tall exhaust pipe that would allow it to pass through deep water. He lives in The Woodlands, which several years ago was flooded. With an M135, Kuti said, his family would never be stranded again.

"Survivability is what everybody thinks about now," he said. "You have to plan to be able to see tomorrow."

His civilian car is a Ford Crown Victoria because "the more metal between you and the next guy, the better." Kuti took a handgun course not long ago, but gave up handguns when he learned how many decisions he would have to reach before shooting someone legally.

If people felt safe, he said, they wouldn't have passed that law allowing handguns. There are so many people out there acting without control, making so many others unhappy. It all seemed to follow Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of safety and security, said Kuti. Do you remember that from school? At the top of the hierarchy was "self-actualization," and at the bottom was safety. Without safety, he said, "you'll never get the euphoric feeling of self-actualization."

It was the reason cavemen were cavemen for so long, and the reason Kuti had bought himself a big old truck.

Safety isn't really possible anymore, at least not behind armor. Earl spoke with more wonder than horror of a "depleted uranium round," so heavy and fast that it creates a vacuum as it zips through a tank, sucking everything out through a small hole. Then there's the "shape charge," which simply splats against the tank and fragments the metal inside.

The Army spends more than $5 million on an M1 Abrams tank, said Earl, and any foot soldier could destroy it. Maybe the wise economic decision would be to return to bows and arrows, but then Earl would be out of business, and wouldn't you know it, said Earl, the other guys would show up in tanks, and we'd be there naked, shouting, "Hey! I thought we had an agreement!"

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