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Kirby Neumann- Rea: In Mac neighborhood, toy trucks a roadside attraction

I thought of this G.K. Chesterton quote at the sight of a front yard near West Second Street and Elmwood Drive: “Happy is the man who still loves something of the nursery; he has not been broken in two by time.”

Tonka trucks, mostly yellow and rusted, lined the front curb and driveway. The trucks were stationary, yet appeared, in a way, to be rolling out.

I was just driving slowly through the neighborhood, paying my first visit to this section of town. I came to a sudden stop when I saw the Tonkas — 50 of them, primarily dump trucks, with a few front-end loaders and fire trucks.

A red fire truck was the favorite annual Christmas present from my parents. So I backed up to get a closer look at the toy array.

A small dog barked and I looked up to see Gene coming out of the house.

After I said, “Hello! Do you mind talking to me about the trucks?” Gene told me something surprising. “They were my mom’s,” he said.

Gene said the house was built by his grandparents. He was born “out back in Dad’s house,” but has lived in the main house 45 years now.

His mom retired in the 1980s and set about collecting Tonkas for the next 10 years. It’s not the kind of collecting you expect from a retired lady, he conceded.

“They started going to places and a lot of them just caught her eye and she started collecting them,” he said. “Just a hobby, something to do. She used to line them up to decorate the driveway, then put them away in the winter.”

After she died, he found them piled in a shed under a tarp and decided to place them on permanent display. She collected close to 90, and he’s got 30 still in the shed.

People hear about the trucks and drive by, some with kids, some not.

“Someone tells someone, and if they’ve got kids, the kids love to look at them, and while they got the real good ones pretty well picked out, there are some that aren’t too bad.

“Every kid gets one if they want one, but the parents have to pick it out, because some are a little rusty and they could get cut,” Gene said. “If they pick one out, they can have one.

“I’d rather think of kids playing with Tonka toys than having them playing a game with glorified gun violence, and I’m a pro-gun person myself.

“I had a few Tonkas as a kid, but mostly I was a BB gun kid,” he said, laughing. He’s semi-retired, attributing the “semi” to “a part-time job I wander around to now and then.”

Gene’s dad had a love of metal things, and they can be seen among the trucks — hand-made birds and other animals with shovel heads for bodies, along with pruning shears, rebar and other metal parts for beaks, feathers and feet.

“He’d put together all kinds of old garden implements, and cut ‘em up and put ‘em together and make something out of it,” Gene said.

But the trucks are the main attraction, and Gene has an appreciation for them.

Asked about an unusual one with long black handles, he said, “Yeah, you can play with this one. It’s got levers.” As he goes on to demonstrate, you can almost see a 5-year-old excavating in the sandpile.

While the dump trucks may all look alike, that’s not exactly the case.

“A lot of these are Tonkas, but a lot of people don’t realize the subtle differences — the stacks, fenders, tires; you see differences, little subtleties,” Gene said. “These came early ‘60s to ‘80s.

“The trucks are each a little different because they don’t need to change the whole truck every year. A slight and subtle change.”

He’s fine with the occasional attention his unusual yard ornaments receive.

“A lot of people come out and take pictures,” Gene said. “I say, ‘Go ahead, just don’t take me in it.’”

He asked to keep his name and picture out of the story.

“Gene it is,” I promised. And he said, “Yeah, that’s close enough.”

Contact Kirby Neumann-Rea at kirby@newsregister.com or 503-687-1291.

 

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