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In retirees’ Man Cave, a return to the hobbies of youth

The ladies are everywhere at the Atria Woodbridge senior living community in Irvine: It is the ladies who fill the dining hall, the ladies who while away the afternoon chatting and doing crossword puzzles in the sitting room, and the ladies whose photos are on display next to the needlepoint and paintings in the resident art gallery.

Such is life in a place where women outnumber men at least three to one.

But in a room on the second floor — where model airplanes dangle from the ceiling, work tables line the walls and a sign reading “Boys Will Be Boys” hangs outside the door — Al Ladine has created one spot where the guys run the show. Welcome to the Man Cave.

“There are too many people sitting around and doing nothing,” Ladine said. “We’re trying to get them a little more active, give them a little bit to look forward to each day.”

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The 83-year-old engineering physicist, who once designed missile defense systems, fills his days with something much simpler, but just as fulfilling. With the help of the community’s staff, he has built a laboratory for senior citizens to put their minds and hands to work.

It’s a crew that has its fair share of limitations: Some are hard of hearing, or lack the dexterity for precision work. Ladine, who has macular degeneration, is among those whose eyesight has faded.

But in the Man Cave, there are no deadlines and every project is a team effort.

“When they’re working and busy, they forget about their problems, and I think that’s healthy,” Ladine said. “We take one step forward and three steps back, but we still keep moving forward.”

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The ladies are welcomed into the Man Cave, of course, but it is much more a gathering place for the men. Jessica Houck, an activities director at Atria, said that because the men are so greatly outnumbered, they have a harder time making friends and keeping up a social life,

The facility has 124 residents, who range in age from 64 to 105, though the average age is about 83. Most are widowed.

“It’s hard to meet the ladies,” said 92-year-old Robert Boddy, a cave regular who retired from owning a wholesale nursery four months ago. “They have a world of their own.”

One project the Man Cave regulars have undertaken is an intricate model railroad based on 1870s Virginia City, an idea Boddy got from “Roughing It” by Mark Twain. Bernard Kaplowitz, a retired dentist, is making a model dental office for the town. Ruth Suttner, one of the ladies who help the men paint their projects, just finished the detail work on a bridge.

“Ruth is the No. 1 artist assigned on the project,” Boddy said.

Suttner, 92, laughed coyly. “Well, I enjoy doing it,” she said.

Some days, she’s the only women among a half-dozen men.

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“The women feel, I think, that this is the Man Cave, so there’s no place for them,” she said. “We do have skills we can bring to this, and Al’s smart enough to realize this.” (Indeed, Ladine said there are a few more jobs coming up that could use a lady’s touch.)

Yet Suttner realizes the cave means much more to the men. “It fills a need, it really does,” she said. “It’s stimulating. For some, it satisfies a need to still be useful.”

Marty Fier started volunteering in the cave after his mother became an Atria resident. When she moved elsewhere, he kept coming. “Men, just like women, they need a social place, a place to go have fun” said Fier, 61, who has become Ladine’s right-hand man. “This is a place you will not find anyplace else.”

Kaplowitz, 85, kept to himself when he first arrived a year ago, reading in his room and watching television. But Houck got him to sit with Ladine’s group at lunch one day.

That led him to the cave, where he embarked on his first project, a model airplane. It was frustrating work, as his hands are nowhere as nimble as they were in his days as a periodontist. One slip caused him to crush the fuselage of the plane, ruining weeks of work.

“Either I go out the window or the plane goes,” he remembered saying.

Ladine stepped in and helped him fix it. “Anything you can build,” he told him, “you can repair.”

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Atria Woodbridge, built 12 years ago, sits at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. The two-story structure looks like an overgrown suburban home — the lawn is dotted with trees, the flower beds are manicured and there are tables and umbrellas in a tidy outdoor patio. Inside, it’s full of plush chairs and earth tones and, now, plenty of creations from the Man Cave.

They have mounted clocks they built in the main entrance and in the dining hall (they went through something of a clock phase), and a horse-racing game devised by Ladine is in the sitting room. (“The ladies bet a quarter, and the winner comes away with a dollar,” he said. “They like that.”)

The crew in the cave returned to hobbies they haven’t indulged in since childhood: besides the model airplanes, boats and trains are among the favorites. The men are also handy at fixing glasses and electric wheelchairs.

Among their recent projects is a walking, talking robot named Morty. “He’ll be serving cocktails to the ladies before too long,” Ladine said.

The robot with Coke bottle glasses hanging off his satellite dish ears was fashioned largely from hobby shop materials — wood, silver paint and a solar panel attached to his back. He has functioning claw hands, blinking red lights for eyes and little hockey stick legs that move, looking like a reverse moonwalk as his wheels roll.

Morty is just waiting for clothes. Joanne Pease, an 85-year-old volunteer from Laguna Niguel, is making the robot a cowboy outfit (she’s finished the chaps and got him a hat already) and Ladine’s grandson is putting together an English butler’s uniform.

The robot speaks in a voice that sounds curiously similar to Pease’s 90-year-old husband, Norman, another volunteer who admits that he comes to play as much as help. Ladine said he’s also found a Scotsman who lives at Atria who he’s hoping will loan his voice for Morty’s English alter ego.

“Rumor has it, they are creating a companion for me,” Morty — still naked for now — says.

It’s true: A female robot, tentatively named Myrtle, is on the drawing board. According to the plans, she will be easier to build but much more intelligent than her male counterpart. (Ladine said the ladies love it when he tells them that.)

The first iteration of the Man Cave was a darker, more cramped space than the current one. Driven by a need to tinker, Ladine turned his closet into a miniature workshop, a conversion that was discovered when he asked if there were any extra cupboards to store his belongings.

Staffers found him a smaller room, but the quarters turned out to be too tight due to the fumes from so much glue. (“All the smells, the ladies didn’t care for,” Ladine said.)

Finally, they pulled the pool table and leather sofas from a rarely used billiard room with good lighting and plenty of space. Now, even this latest Man Cave — the size of a den in a big house — is cramped.

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Ladine, a widower, came to Atria with no plans of sticking around.

“I told my daughter, ‘I’m only staying one month,’ ” Ladine said. “I didn’t like it. I’m not all that social. That was 41/2 years ago.”

His friends in the cave say he has become the most popular man in the community, and Norman Pease said he has more influence than anyone, except for maybe the executive director.

The cave regulars tend to look up to Ladine with a sense of awe.

“You know darn well he can’t see any better than you can,” said Rodney Hoff, 89, who is legally blind and was grumbling because he lost a part for his ornithopter, a device that looks something like a mechanical butterfly. “He’s an inspiration to all of us fellas.”

Ladine brushes it aside.

“Many people don’t know me from Adam,” he said. “They come to see the robot.”

Quite frankly, he doesn’t care for attention. He’s simply content to have a place to work away on all that a modest stipend from Atria — plus lots of donations and a little out of their own pockets — can buy.

He comes in most mornings after taking B.J., his Shih Tzu, for a walk. There are the times he leaves early for lunch with family or a birthday party for one of the ladies. Most days, though, he continues tinkering in the cave long into the afternoon, until, like clockwork, B.J. nudges him, letting him know it’s time for dinner.

rick.rojas@latimes.com


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