Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Handcrafted wooden toys part of soldiers' diplomacy arsenal

LANCE BENZEL Updated: March 13, 2010 at 12:00 am

Simple wooden toys might seem like odd things for soldiers to carry with them as they head to war, but 82-year-old Harv Schaefer sees them as a pretty darn good diplomacy tool.

“I figure they can make friends with ‘em,” he said.

Schaefer, of Security, and fellow seniors in the Springs Scrollers woodworking club have crafted several hundred small, wooden cars and animals for Fort Carson soldiers bound for Iraq and Afghanistan.

The idea is for soldiers to load up their pockets and pass them out to children they meet while on patrol.

Pocketsize and old-fashioned, the toys don’t light up or make amusing noises. They’re not painted or lacquered. But their smooth textures and quirky shapes have made them a sensation among children in hospitals in Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Canon City, where the group started passing them out years ago.

And if Ken Henault’s assumption is correct, Iraqi and Afghan kids will take to them just as eagerly as American kids.

“What kid doesn’t enjoy a toy?” said Henault, 74, of Security.

The Springs Scrollers got most of the materials from friends in the Pikes Peak Whittlers, which supplied 12,000 wooden wheels and hundreds of quarter-inch dowels that allow the wheels to spin.

It takes just a few strokes to carve out the toy shapes — electric scroll saws allow the woodworkers to cut intricate curves quickly and efficiently — and a minute or so to sand them down. Henault, a 20-year Air Force veteran who teaches woodworking at the Fountain Valley Senior Center, spends about five or six hours a week in his backyard workshop, enough time since January to produce 1,018 toys that sit in a box in his garage, waiting to be shipped.

“And I still have all my fingers,” he said with a laugh.

Besides race cars, pickups and tractors, the group turns out horses, camels, cats and a host of other familiar shapes. If there weren’t giraffes and gingerbread figures in Afghanistan before, there will be now.

Master Sgt. Andrew Clark, who coordinates donations at Fort Carson, said the post sent its first shipment of toys with the 43rd Sustainment Brigade, which deployed this month to Afghanistan, and will send others with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team to Iraq.

Reaching out to children is a rewarding job for any soldier, not to mention an effective means of spreading good will, he said. Soldiers routinely hand out candy and other goodies; the SpringsScrollers’ toys will bring a unique, personal touch to their diplomatic arsenal.

“The kids will tell folks that we’re good guys and so forth,” said Bob Frey, 86, of Colorado Springs, a World War II veteran who anticipates that soldiers will welcome a break, however brief, from war’s darker corners..

The group is encouraging a national scroll saw club to help introduce similar initiatives in other military towns. In the meantime, it’s collecting scrap lumber to make sure the Fort Carson project is a success.

Those interested in contributing materials may call Schaefer, the club treasurer, at 719-392-3740.

“We’re having more fun making them than the kids do playing with them,” Henault said.

Call the writer at 636-0366

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