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."

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.

"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.

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!"

Mid-afternoon in the midweek, Earl and Buzz and Jo Lane were preparing for another olive-green painting. The FV 701 Ferret was a small, British-made armored car used mostly in African countries for crowd control. ("Vote my way or else," Earl explained.) But this one belonged to the businessman in Sugar Land who owned the V-100. He had about a dozen such vehicles. He kept them in a garage, said Earl, and never drove them.

"How do you see out of this thing?" Jo Lane shouted, as she taped up the inside.

"Hell, baby, you don't have to," said Earl. "It's an armored car. You can go through things!"

His V-100 Commando was parked nearby, much bigger and stronger and very clean, which meant ready. Earl said he derived no comfort from knowing it would be there in case a foreign army attacked. More likely, said Earl, he would have to use it against his own government, which meant against the soldiers it had come from, the soldiers he had always wanted to join. This was far-fetched, he admitted. The worst his country has ever done was at Waco and Ruby Ridge, said Earl, and for him to load up and ride out with the militia, the government's crime would have to be something ten times worse. Like if the FBI and the ATF had 2,000 people holed up, he said, and were killing them one by one, even women and children.

"But I personally feel some of those guys have a warped idea of what's going on," Earl said of the militia movement, and he didn't want to be connected with them, and dreaded the connection so much that he was laboring to build the Military Museum of Texas. With a museum, Earl could receive whole, disabled tanks from the Army for only the cost of transport. But even more important, Earl would have an answer when he pulled up to the gas pump in an armored car and people asked why anyone would drive such a thing. He would say, "It's going to a museum." People would accept that, and Earl, for all his rebel talk, wanted to be accepted.

He wanted to be safe. He wanted to be happy. Military vehicles were fun, he said, and if you got down to it, that's what this was all about: Earl Tucker was self-actualizing. "What the hell's that?" he wanted to know. But he had work to do and no time for a long answer.

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