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These toy soldiers came ready to fight — but time is running out on their value

Customers browse the collectibles at the Florida Toy Soldier Show at the Scottish Rites Masonic Hall in Lake Worth on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018.
Customers browse the collectibles at the Florida Toy Soldier Show at the Scottish Rites Masonic Hall in Lake Worth on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. For the Miami Herald

Through endless hails of bullets and slashing sword attacks, through the crushing jaws of Tyrannosauruses Rex and the murderous barrages of howitzers, the soldiers marched on here Sunday — to be sold at high prices to men smart enough to conceal from their wives that they just spent $250 on a box of old plastic cowboys and Indians that were probably salvaged from a flea market for a nickel apiece.

“It’s a good turnout,” exclaimed a delighted Mike Skurda as more than 300 collectors swarmed through the opening hour of the 24th annual Florida Toy Soldier Show in Lake Worth. “This may be an old person’s hobby, but we can still bring ‘em out.”

Put together each year by the South Florida Toy Soldier Club, the show has technically been expanded to include action figures, collectible toys and, apparently, mad scientists. (More on that in a minute.)

But its heart is still the little two-inch tall plastic guys — be they molded from plastic or tin — who captured the homicidal hearts of Baby Boom boys five or six decades back.

There were thousands of them on display Sunday, shooting and stabbing one another with unseemly glee and sometimes in startling detail.

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A Marine battles a Japanese soldier. SUE MULLIN For the Miami Herald

For just $50, you could have a miniature U.S. Marine locking his arm around the neck of a Japanese soldier while stabbing him in the heart, from a set of figures from the World War II battle of Iwo Jima, made by a British company called King and Country.

“Or, if you prefer, I’ve got one with the Marine bashing the Japanese guy’s head in with a shovel,” volunteered the helpful vendor. “Same price.”

No discriminatory intent should be inferred here; all over the place, in dioramas set up by dealers to pitch their sanguinary wares, soldiers of every nationality and ethnicity were massacring soldiers of every other nationality and ethnicity. British grenadiers were riddled with arrows from Zulu warriors, Confederates got blasted to pieces by Yankees, and it wasn’t looking good for a group of American GIs huddled around a crashed helicopter and surrounded by Viet Cong.

And let’s not even get started on the predictable outcome of combat between cavemen and dinosaurs, who as any 1960s kid knew, were deadly enemies, no matter what the propagandists at “The Flintstones” tried to tell you.

All of this mayhem was conducted to a bizarre soundtrack of sociopathic product pitches by toy dealers. “Hey, that’s a Marine sniper,” called out one, brandishing a gimlet-eyed plastic figure peering through a rifle scope. “Everybody oughta have one of these.”

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Jim Spina was selling a mint-in-box Gilbert Atomic Energy Laboratory set from the early 1950s. SUE MULLIN For the Miami Herald

Anybody interested in larger-scaled obliteration of the human race could visit the table of retired University of Maryland business school professor Jim Spina, who was selling a mint-in-box Gilbert Atomic Energy Laboratory set from the early 1950s.

The lab, made by a company that specialized in sciency playthings like chemistry sets, was created at the behest of the U.S. government’s Atomic Energy Commission, which “wanted to prove nuclear energy was so safe you could play with it at home,” said Spina, chuckling mordantly.

The lab — complete with four radioactive ores! — sold for $50 when it was new, not exactly a budget toy. (Gasoline was 14 cents a gallon, to give you a sense of scale.) But Spina was asking $7,500 for his, and seemed pretty confident he’d get it. “I’ve had a lot of interest,” he said. “But you’ve got to find the right guy.” And how to tell the right guy? “The one with $7,500 to spend,” Spina explained with the canny instincts of a business-school professor.

To be fair, he was throwing in a couple of bonuses with the lab, including the instructional booklet for a now sadly discontinued Boy Scout merit badge in atomic energy. (First requirement: Use a home-made Geiger counter to locate a radioactive element hidden in your house by your merit badge instructor. Second requirement: Don’t tell mom.) Another premium: a comic book entitled “Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom,” which ends with Blondie exclaiming, “My goodness, aren’t atoms wonderful” as her husband goofily but lovably starts a nuclear chain reaction.

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Louise Gaul selling Barbies at the show. SUE MULLIN For the Miami Herald

Not everybody was as optimistic about sales prospects as was Spina. Louise Gaul, who drove down to the show from her home in Mariana, in the Panhandle, gazed a little forlornly at her distinctly un-bustling table full of Barbies and other collectible dolls.

“I’m not selling much, and it doesn’t look good,” she confided. That didn’t seem surprising at an event where about 90 percent of the clientele had gray beards, but Gaul said most of her customers are male.

“I don’t know if they’re buying for their wives, or granddaughters, she said. “I guess I really don’t know if they might even be buying for themselves. But not so much today.” Nobody had even looked at Gaul’s big-ticket item, a porcelain Dorothy doll from the “The Wizard of Oz.” (And Toto, too!)

There was also a faint but detectable scent of melancholy among some of the toy-soldier dealers, not so much about sales (which were booming) but the future. They’re all aware, as Skurda put it, that this is an old man’s hobby, practiced by Baby Boomers who are marching into the mists of time.

“Probably half this stuff you see in front of me is from my personal collection,” said Alex Maciulewicz, 67, a retired contractor whose dealer table was piled high with plastic-soldier playsets, running from Robin Hood’s castle to the Civil War.

“It started in my childhood. Back then we had shows like [the World War II drama] “Combat!” and all those cowboy-and-Indian Westerns, and every single boy I knew played with these things,” he said. “We all had them.”

When Maciulewicz returned home decades later, he discovered his parents had stacked his toy soldiers neatly in the attic, and he began collecting them with the same zeal that he brought to fighting wars with them as a child, going to garage sales and flea markets in search of undiscovered gems.

But recently he stopped buying and began selling. “I want to pass these on to somebody who would enjoy them, rather than leave them to my kids and finding them out in the garbage can,” Maciulewicz said. “Kids today, they don’t want to pick up something to play with. It’s all on the computer.”

During his decades as a collector, Maciulewicz searched relentlessly for the playset of his dreams, a plastic coliseum and chariot racetrack from the movie “Ben-Hur,” complete with Roman soldiers.

“That was an expensive one and a rare one,” he said. “And when I found it, I was thrilled. That was my holy grail. And today I’ve got it right here under my table. And if you’ve got $450, I’ll sell it to you this very minute.”

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