His Toy Can Lick Your Toy

Times Staff Writer

OK, students. Today's quiz in Human Motivation 101 is Dick Alegre, an apparently rational man of 57 who just bought a 70,000-pound Sherman tank and parked it in his driveway.

First, see Dick. See Dick joyously squeeze out of his tank's tiny, rusted driver's hatch. See Dick wearing his new cap that says "Tank Commander" and his new T-shirt that says "Impervious to All but a Direct Hit." See Dick taking a call on his cordless telephone, answering, "Patton here."

Now, is Alegre:

(A) A crazed survivalist.

(B) A military memorabilia buff.

(C) A lover of whimsy.

Those who answered "C" win an imaginary trip to the little Ventura County agricultural town of Saticoy, where they can picture themselves strolling up Alegre's long, gate-guarded driveway for a look at the hulking, combat-green monster whose sheer weight leaves tire tracks in the hard cement.

Once there, they will learn that Alegre spent tens of thousands of dollars on America's most famous tank not as part of a secret plan to invade neighboring Ventura or Santa Paula but simply because his 6-year-old son, Ritchie, happens to be a tank nut.

They will learn that even Ritchie's passion might not have pushed Dad over the edge if it hadn't been for a couple of well-timed remarks uttered by a couple of other smart-mouthed kids.

A brief prelude.

Alegre, who was raised in a Northern California farm town and has resided in Ventura County since the 1950s, lives comfortably with his wife and two children. He farms a couple dozen acres of avocados and makes money from apartments he owns in Ventura. He's an ex-tractor salesman who laughs easily and is an inveterate tinkerer.

"Oh, I love machinery!" he says, his eyes dancing. "Anything I can get my hands on, I'll fix it. Then I lose interest, sell it and start over."

Now flash back several years to a time when Alegre started nailing together a bunch of 2-by-4s on his expansive ranch to make a climbing structure for his daughter, Deborah.

"One day I overheard a smart-aleck chum tell her, 'Your dad will never finish that, Debbie.' Later she came to me in tears and I promised I'd finish. But I never did."

A couple years passed and son Ritchie somehow developed a fascination with tanks, particularly ones from World War II. No one is quite sure why. After all, Dad is a pilot, and subscribes to a used-airplane magazine, but when Ritchie browsed the magazine he didn't go for planes. Instead he kept pointing out a little ad for a tank that was up for sale somewhere in Georgia.

"For two years," Alegre said, "it was, 'We're gonna get one, Dad, huh? Huh?' And then one day one of his little friends said to me: 'Mr. Alegre, why do you keep telling Ritchie you're going to buy him a tank if you're not going to?' "

There are only so many challenges a man can take when it comes to keeping his word to his kids, and so when that same magazine published an ad for a Sherman tank for sale in Fullerton, Alegre had to at least go take a look.

Flew Family Down

He flew his family down to meet the owner, Frank Haigler, a World War II Marine commander who has devoted himself to collecting military vehicles.

There was the tank, one of 48,064 Shermans that went into production beginning in 1941 and, by the end of the war, had become the most widely used tank in the American and British armies. It exuded mass and power--the 75-millimeter gun, the eight-cylinder, 450-horsepower engine, the huge tire tracks, 158 shoes on each, and the sparse, cramped interior, where the commander, loader, gunner and two drivers did their work.

Alegre was hooked.

"I got so excited," he said.

He was looking at a relatively rare artifact. Because many of the tanks were given to American allies after the war and because the government did not keep detailed records on their whereabouts, no one is certain how many are left. Bill Barker, a member of the Military Vehicle Collectors Club, a worldwide organization, estimates that only about 20 American civilians own Shermans, and said the tanks sell for anywhere from $20,000 to $70,000.

Tank Trucked Home

Alegre, who said he promised Haigler he wouldn't disclose the purchase price, had the tank trucked to his home. Then he surprised his flying buddies at Camarillo Airport. They'd been telling him he ought to buy a World War II-era plane--something "heavy," like a bomber.

"When I saw 'em," Alegre said, laughing, "I said, 'Hey, guys, I bought something from World War II that's heavy.' "

Local newspapers reported the purchase and Alegre began receiving visitors ("friends I hadn't seen in years") and calls from former tank company members who regaled him with stories about life inside.

"One of these guys told me about a hatch in the floor of the tank behind the co-driver's seat that they used to rescue guys who were hurt," Alegre said. "They'd drive the tank over the guy and pull him through. But this guy said it was always hard to convince a wounded guy to put his arms and legs together so the tank tracks wouldn't run over him."

Can't Wait to Restore Tank

In the four weeks he's owned the tank, Alegre has driven it a few hundred feet on his property. He can't wait to restore it and drive it in parades. He's also been advised that he can make $1,000 a day renting it to film companies.

"I can't tell you what a ball we've had with it," he said as he nestled into the driver's seat while Deborah, 10, and Ritchie played in the rear with the controls that adjust the big gun.

"We pretend we're driving through buildings," Deborah said. "I'm the gunman. Ritchie drives it."

Pretend-driving is easier than real driving, Alegre has found. Inside the tank, he must squint through a periscope that offers a narrow field of vision. If he cranes his head outside the hatch, he finds it hard to dangle his legs far enough to reach the gas pedal.

But there's something else Alegre bought from Haigler's military stock that's easier to drive and, the truth is, he's as nuts about this toy as he is the tank.

It's a 30-foot-long amphibious vehicle called a Dukw (a wartime acronym) that Alegre saw in Haigler's yard and fell in love with.

His wife, Kitty, envisions the couple taking it to the Oxnard or Ventura marinas and landing at a ritzy oceanfront restaurant.

Alegre has his own special fantasy.

"I can't wait to drive the Dukw up to a drive-through window of a McDonald's," he said.

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