Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Assembling the fort

In 2010, I made my first trip to the OTSN - by all accounts, the alpha dog of the North American toy soldier show pack. Turned loose without supervision in a hundred-plus Schaumburg, Ill., hotel rooms stuffed with toy soldiers, accessories and even entire playsets old and new, I quickly figured out that my self-perception as a toy soldier specialist was laughably hollow. Embarrassingly hollow. How narrow had been my exposure to worldly things as a boy in Clinton, Illinois in the '70s! In particular, I was mesmerized by Marx's tin litho western storefronts. I'd never seen one, either as a kid or a grown-up. They were beautiful! Real works of art. But it was the familiar that first and most powerfully attracted me, as I glimmed a relic of my lost youth stashed in a violently creased "Fort Apache" box: the dark brown blockhouse from my very last playset - the final recruit before puberty wisked me away to hell. I had bought it for ten bucks at a Woolsworth's-type store in Rice Lake, WI - near where my family vacationed every summer.

In my childhood bedroom in central Illinois, I still had the box in which the fort came, as well as the stockade walls themselves, and the figures. (The 'cavalry" were the dark blue frontiersmen that had come with Marx's "Alamo" playset earlier in the decade - the bare-headed, saber-swinging bugler, hatchet-swinging guy in coonskin cap, standing and kneeling riflemen in broad-rimmed hats, coonskin capped guy running with musket but without an ounce of dignity, etc.)

But the blockhouse itself had mysteriously vanished sometime between '78 and now. I've often wondered how a blockhouse can simply evaporate, particularly considering my obsession, even as a kid, with taking care of my 'stuff," whether comic books, beer cans, MAD magazines, baseball cards or my toy army. There was NO way I had thrown it out. It didn't matter any more. I bought the replacement and a dozen or so wall sections for twenty bucks, took them back to Bachelor Island in St. Louis, and reclaimed some innocence.

Ebay yielded, in time, two more - one of them a practically mint condition structure, complete with flag pole, flag and all the crucial "connecting" rafter ends on the middle floor (which are inserted into holes in the three walls).

From there, I became more or less obsessed with constructing the most immense Fort Apache possible. I'm not sure what exactly spurred this. Maybe, it was just a need to dial back the life clock to better times. I became dangerously familiar with Ebay. Stockade walls were shipped in in their dozens, as were six of the excellent 'early' pallisade 'fighting cabins' that Marx produced for its '50s forts. Bigger and with roofs that simply lifted off to allow for the easy placement of fighting men, these were superior in every way to Marx's later, and much smaller, structures that never seemed to sit properly on the walls. (The smaller cabins came in two pieces, which, after being connected, forced you to awkwardly position your soldiers through the too-small windows.) Below: a comparison of the two, with the older cabin on the left. The second photo shows the older version, de-roofed: plenty of room for fighters.

Supersize Fort Apache: An Introduction

I've been a toy soldier nut since I was barely bigger than a nut. Christmas and my birthday meant one thing: a new playset. It's all I lived for, all I dreamed, schemed and thought about. Nothing else mattered, beginning at kindergarten, when my maternal grandparents gave me the tin litho suitcase Fort Apache for Christmas.

After cracking open the tin litho fort, the addiction was instantaneous and permanent. A plastic avalanche of 54mm fixes followed through the years - Knights and Vikings, Guns of Navarone, Marx's Civil War, Marx's Battleground, The Alamo, Timpo's WWII playset (with the weird tanks and Bren gun carrier), Marx's Blockhouse Fort Apache, Fort Cheyenne, Marx's "Pacific" playset, and so on. Today, I'm closer to 50 than I am to 40, and indulge myself with the shamelessness that can only come after you've been through a very rough spot and come out of it more or less sane - and understand that life is short. And that if you want to play with toy soldiers, go for it.

Supersize Fort Apache is the centerpiece to my hobby. It consumes most of a dining room table that I set up in my spare bedroom for that purpose. I build on it as one adds to a baseball card, coin or stamp collection. In addition to a cavalry, infantry and artillery garrison, the fort houses civilian sutlers, a handful of washerwomen, a garden, a Playmobil pond and hogs, chickens, ducks, geese and sheep. President Lincoln visits regularly.

Structural upgrades are as enjoyable as "piece" acquisitions. Above, it's clear that the timber supports of the fighting cabin behind the American flag are unsafe.

So I replaced them with Roy Toys - square, flat and immune to tipping and earthquakes. (Supersize Fort Apache is located on the New Madrid Fault.)

Close-up of a firing cabin's upgraded, hand-hewn log foundation. Not only is it tremblor-resistant, the structure - with its thick, Red oak walls - is impervious to cannonballs, as well.