- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Osama bin Laden was caught, you know. There’s just one problem: This Osama, flanked by two bodyguards surrendering to a U.S. Special Forces soldier in the basement of a home in the Chevy Chase section of the District, is no bigger than a lollipop. Surrounded by white-horsed British Indian cavalry and Coldstream Guards in black bearskin hats, tiny Osama submits to inspection while in the palm of a hand. Toy soldiers, and this Osama is one of them, have a tenacious hold on some Washingtonians — and Mike Naylor, 58, is one of them. Surveying the scene in his well-lit basement, where his Coldstream Guards with chipped lead noses hold their rifles at the ready and his Osama sports a green, gingham-like patch on the back of his tunic, Mr. Naylor says a box of toy soldiers “whets my appetite for childhood.” As a child, he recalls, he would press his nose to the glass at Gimbel’s, the old Philadelphia department store, looking at deluxe boxed sets of toy soldier regiments, their symmetry appealing but their cost out of reach. Today Mr. Naylor, head of government relations for a national nonprofit organization, owns almost 3,000 54-millimeter men outfitted in their best enamel paints for battle or pageantry. He puts a particular focus on World War II, the war his father fought in as a naval aviator and, he says, “the last time both American power and American morality coincided so closely.” His miniature scenes show everything from the glamour and coziness of a wartime British pub to an officers’ Christmas party complete with a punch bowl. He is not alone in his passion. Hundreds of Washington-area men — and a few women — gather in groups at conventions and shows, at meetings, in each other’s homes, and at the several retail stores in the area devoted to selling tiny tin, lead or metal soldiers. Old Toy Soldier magazine has about 150 subscribers in the metropolitan area, according to publisher Ray Haradin. Bill Harlowe, a dealer and collector from Dumfries, Va., maintains a mailing list of 5,000, with about 500 collectors in the area. Dealers say that collectors are chiefly middle-aged and male, and include many professions — doctors, lawyers, orchestra members, investment bankers. Whether lifelong pacifists or Pentagon personnel, many collectors trace their hobby to a childhood when hand-painted lead soldiers held the land, before mass-produced plastics stormed the market in the 1960s. Yet today this enthusiasm needs grown-up money. The average collection costs between $8,000 and $12,000, Mr. Haradin says. An old Coldstream Guard that would have put a $1.50 crater in a 1950s allowance can now sell for $700, if joined by 23 of its regiment in the original box. Does anyone know why grown-ups invest such time and treasure in pint-size figures? University of Utah business professor Russell Belk, author of “Collecting in a Consumer Society,” speculates in an e-mail interview that it’s the pull of childhood fascination. “For toy collectors there is sometimes a desire to return to a state of childhood or to replicate pleasures nostalgically recalled as either having been experienced or foregone in childhood,” Mr. Belk writes. “Because toys are often miniatures, they are more controllable than life-size objects and are often more ‘cute’ as well (in a manner somewhat like pets, especially puppies and kittens with neonatal features).” Collectors are not necessarily military men — though you’ll find a lot of history buffs in this crowd who will tell you which Hussars regiment Winston Churchill once belonged to, and what was at stake during the Crimean War besides material for Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” A few collectors, like toy-soldier dealer Neil Rhodes, had fathers or grandfathers who fought famous battles while their sons got the toy versions. “My dad never talked about the war. We had to wheedle it out of him,” says Mr. Rhodes of the man who was an ace Spitfire pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Mr. Rhodes owns the year-old Toy Soldier Shop on Capitol Hill, one of two or three local toy-soldier dealers. Like Counterpane Gallery in Falls Church, another retailer where collectors gather to talk toy-soldier turkey, the shop offers visitors the feel of stepping into some man’s study and viewing his war memento collection. “We needed a shop like this in the area for a long time,” says retired Brig. Gen. Raymond Bell Jr., 68, of the Army Reserves, a long-time collector, during a visit to the Toy Soldier shop, where Mr. Rhodes sits at a wooden desk and attaches tiny arms grasping lances and muskets to little lead torsos. Mr. Rhodes’ specialty is conversions — refashioning old toy troops with bayonets instead of spears, or converting British soldiers to Japanese infantry with paint and antique lead soldier parts. “There are a lot of serious collectors in the area,” Mr. Bell says. This shop is a “place to meet, talk, and trade ideas.” Indeed, a new addition is Air Force Lt. Col. Neil Smith, who transferred to the Pentagon from Delaware a few months back. “You have to find a home that you can fit your toy soldiers into,” Lt. Col. Smith says, and he’s serious. True. Sandy Clark, wife of Peter Clark, 63, a Justice Department fraud prosecutor, says that back when they were courting, Mr. Clark slipped in the fact he was interested in toy soldiers. She thought, “uh-oh.” But toy soldiers didn’t become a conversation topic until after the wedding in 1972. First, red boxes began arriving steadily, and then the handmade cabinets to house them. Now, masses of marching British redcoats, orders of First Dragoons and barefoot dervishes with white gowns splotched with primary colors seem to course through the Clarks’ stately home on Capitol Hill. Or consider Ted Sahlin, a defense contractor and retired Army colonel. Mr. Sahlin, 53, keeps 20,000 to 30,000 troops — augmented by his wife Daphne’s burgeoning collection — ensconced in wood cabinetry in his Annandale home. Mr. Sahlin, a veteran of the Persian Gulf war whose father “participated in every major amphibious landing during World War II,” also modifies toy soldiers in his basement. He has all manner of British toy soldiers in scarlet, carmine and madder red marching in “the romance of the Victorian and Edwardian Age.” One little fellow sports a blue splotch on his smart red jacket, a medal Mr. Sahlin painted on for bravery during a boyhood battle. They’re “charming, the quintessential Hans Christian Andersen. They are so alike, but they are not,” says Mr. Sahlin, pointing out how the eyes are all a bit differently placed, some askew, askance or at rakish angles. The Sahlin home is “a 10-room house — full of toy soldiers — that happens to have a bed in it,” he jokes. “I try to go for three boxes of each, to give a more dramatic, forceful look.” Forceful, yes, but get closer and his toy soldiers have childlike faces with kewpie doll pouts. That is typical: Faces were smooth, notes one collector, because the real soldiers were boys who hadn’t started shaving. Even outfitted with weapons, some toy soldiers look related more to the “Nutcracker” than to the troops returning home from Iraq. And why not? Bill Hocker, an old-style toy soldier maker out of Berkeley, Calif., stresses that the spirit of most of these toys is of a different time. “Nineteenth century wars are more often a subject of toy soldiers, perhaps because the uniforms are more colorful and because cast metal toy soldiers are basically a 19th century invention,” Mr. Hocker says. Women workers used to assemble the old lead toy soldiers, and girls’ dexterous hands painted them, dotting on their gingerbread-man eyes and giving Royal Fusiliers their red wagon, the Indian cavalry their white horses and Napoleon his pretty bouquet of regiments. Uniforms are colored in bright enamels and are topped with oversized helmets to add stature, in a 19th-century attempt at “shock and awe.” That held until rifle scopes that could sight a scarlet jacket or a red cap with pompoms forced a change in World War I uniforms. But the toys get to keep their old war paint. Mr. Rhodes of the Toy Soldier Shop seems especially attuned to the craft involved. “This is folk art to me,” he says. “There’s a charm to the toy.” Indeed, it is a bloodless hobby. “These figures,” Mr. Rhodes says, “are an escape from a world gone crazy. … Bands were very popular … they were part of the pageantry. … It was war in a time of innocence with beautiful uniforms, not khaki people with khaki helmets … blowing people up.” Nevertheless, modern war intrudes. In Mr. Rhodes’ shop, a half-dozen World War II toy soldiers are staged for a more modern attack in puffy biological hazard suits and bloated skull-yellow gas masks. “People believed the Germans would drop poison gas” during World War II, Mr. Rhodes says of the air raid decontamination team with their gas detector rods. Some collectors who create their soldiers from molds or models, or sometimes even cast their own figures, gather once a month in Annandale at meetings of the National Capital Model Soldier Society, a group of about 80 led by a “commanding officer.” Soldiers are favored for their level of detail and their authenticity. Jennifer Young, 54, of Marshall, Va., an NCMSS member and one of the few women involved in the hobby, starts with model military figures she will then paint as Civil War soldiers. “I enjoy doing these model figures and compare it to people who do model airplanes, but it is more interesting because instead of a thing, especially a modern thing, they represent living people, and it’s about creating your own little world,” says Miss Young, who works in a saddlery. “It is a little like playing God.” Like most collectors, Miss Young is content to take her figures out of the china cabinet to look at them, or arrange them in little vignettes. Others, such as Mr. Sahlin or Eric Erickson of Rockville, 67, a recently retired information technology specialist, create dioramas, or painted backgrounds — palm trees, a desert, snow-covered mountain passes — or furnish a vignette with model train set scenery. Mr. Erickson, the “paymaster” of the NCMSS, takes his hobby a step further by actually casting lead from old plumbing supplies in rubber molds. He has cast and painted his very own spear-carrying Zulu army, outfitted in bright mustard against the British reds, for the 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War. He says he got tired of painting Civil War blues and grays, and Rorke’s Drift “was an important historical battle.” “The first reaction … is, ‘What’s an old man like you doing messing around with these figures?”’ Mr. Erickson says. “Once I walk them through the hobby, they become very interested [and] appreciate the detail, patience and variety.” Mr. Rhodes says no adult he knows plays war games with toy soldiers. That’s not to say that collectors don’t delight in making their toys move. Mr. Rhodes himself cheerfully demonstrates a little lead cannon that shoots rubber pellets across the room. Mr. Clark demonstrates a toy mounted gun team hitched together by wires that moves on little metal wheels while pulling a cannon. He has, too, a horse and rider that simulate the Charge of the Light Brigade by virtue of a thin wire arched above a little wheel. “Toy soldier collectors should not be confused with war gamers, who live for that one moment when they can finally make history on their game board,” says Bill Graver, owner of Counterpane Gallery in Falls Church, where collectors can check out a World War I French machine gun team smaller than crocuses and splendidly attired in “horizon” blue, the camouflage of the sky. “Rather, toy soldier collectors live for those many moments that they can create at their will — by displaying more, or less — figures from different historical periods.” Mr. Belk and dealer Hocker say some collectors go through young adulthood focused on other matters before a childhood-related trigger refocuses their passion. On Mr. Erickson’s mantel at home in Rockville, for example, is a coronation carriage pulled by eight gray horses for which he paid $7.99 as a boy. After a 20-year hiatus from the hobby, Mr. Erickson discovered the carriage was worth almost $1,400. He spent the next 15 years developing a complete British coronation scene on a long mantel, complete with Scots Greys in kilts, Grenadier Guards, Life Guards and broad-chested Beefeaters. One unusual feature of Mr. Erickson’s collection is the female soldiers. They are not many, but they are there thanks to remarks by Mr. Erickson’s wife, Lila, that her sex was not “adequately represented.” They march toward the glass pane of Mr. Erickson’s cabinet, severe in green uniforms, black pumps and rifles high over their left shoulders. Pointing to the female soldiers’ lack of the vivid color and plumage apparent in their male lead counterparts, Mrs. Erickson remarks: “Just like birds.”

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