Every time Jason Caskey sits in his man cave, he’s surrounded by characters from his youth.
A couple of the G.I. Joes he played with sit on top of a filing cabinet, along with his old Evel Knievel lunchbox. Next to it is a spinning comic book rack filled with various issues that include Scorpion, Tiger-Man, Human Fly and Shade, The Changing Man.
“I’ve just had them ever since I was young,” Caskey says of the G.I. Joes and the lunchbox. “Most of my old toys are still at my parents. I got a wild hair a couple of years ago and found them and thought they would be fun to have on a shelf.”
The G.I. Joes are the larger ones, 12 inches, and Caskey was about 5 years old when he received one. The other belonged to his uncle and was from the 1960s but was given to him as a child.
“I remember playing with them and scenarios I did with my friends and how cool I thought they were,” he recalls.
One of his favorite items is the comic book spinner rack. It came from his local Pamida store in Indianola.
“It was the same rack I bought my first comics off of back in the ’70s, so there are a lot of memories there,” Caskey says.
He started reading comics when he was a child and remembers how his mom would buy him and his sister a three-pack of comic books for $1 from Pamida. When the store was going out of business, he went in on a whim and asked if he could buy the spinner rack. The manager sold it to him for $10.
Caskey admits he hasn’t outgrown comics.
“It’s kind of cool for a comic book nerd like me to have a spinner rack,” he says. “Those really aren’t around anymore, but the fact that it was the one that I bought my comics on as a kid makes it kind of special.”
His interests haven’t changed through the years — he tends to be drawn to many of the same characters and storylines — but he’s also drawn to follow specific creators.
“I find myself gravitating more and more to things from the ’70s and ’80s when I grew up,” Caskey says. “It might be stuff I didn’t read as a kid, but it’s things done in that style.”
Most of Caskey’s toys remain at his childhood home, where his parents still live. The toys were boxed up in a closet for years, which he thinks is probably why they didn’t suffer the fate of some of his other friends’ toys — sold at garage sales or forced upon adult children to find some place to keep.
“I’ve considered going through them, but I just never have,” he says.
About a year ago, Caskey’s 10-year-old nephew, Ethan, found the “Star Wars” figures and 3 ¾-inch G.I. Joes and wanted to play with them. Caskey’s father called him up to make sure that was OK.
“I’m like ‘Heck yes, he can play with them,’ ” Caskey says, adding he wasn’t worried about them getting damaged; he was just glad to see his nephew play with them.
“I’ve been down there since then, and we’ve played with them,” he adds. “He thinks it’s cool that I remember who the characters are.”
Love for tractor collecting continues into adulthood
Tim Calkins grew up raising horses and liked big trucks and loud things. That’s probably why he loved tractors and semitrailers as a boy.
“I’ve been playing with them since I can’t even remember, but I made a conscious decision to start collecting when I was 11,” he says.
His first acquisition was a John Deere 8300 tractor, which Calkins still has today. That tractor, which he paid for with money earned from the lawns he mowed, sparked his interested in collecting and displaying the toys rather than playing with them.
“I thought I was really busting my butt for these toys, and I should try to keep them nicer,” Calkins says.
His tractors are displayed on shelves in his basement man cave along with company semitrailers, which he also collects.
“I wanted to be a truck driver since I was really little,” says Calkins, who drives a Kenworth for a trucking company. “I always had a fascination with what they could make the machinery do, and I appreciate the time and effort it takes these companies to make these.”
He has 1,000 pieces of farm equipment and tractors and another 200 or more company semitrailers. Last year, he built a 48-square-foot diorama to display at the Iowa Diecast Toy Show.
“I had more fun last year building that diorama for that show than I could ever remember playing in the dirt with them as a kid,” Calkins says.
Calkins also has the Ertl Deluxe Farm Set his parents bought him when he was 4 or 5 years old. His father built a special table on which Calkins could play with the farm set and its equipment.
“I still have most of the pieces,” he says. “They’ve weathered the years fairly OK.”
“Star Wars,” G.I. Joe influenced Des Moines man’s career, adulthood
Brian Sauer spent the majority of his childhood playing with “Star Wars” and G.I. Joe characters and reading comic books.
“I say it kind of as a job, but in all reality, it is what shapes my career and my adulthood,” he says.
Sauer saw “Star Wars: A New Hope” in the theater in 1977, and was in love with it. He received “Star Wars” figurines for Christmas. This all led him to G.I. Joe, which then led him to comic books.
As an elementary-age child, he wanted to grow up to draw comic books. By the time he reached high school, his reading of comic books and the artwork on G.I. Joe packaging had influenced his artwork.
Sauer knew he was serious about comic book drawing when he went to college and skipped classes to draw comic books and pulled all-nighters to create material for a portfolio. He quickly realized he was going to college for the wrong reason: He had majored in business. He dropped out, enrolled in an art school and later came to Des Moines to Des Moines Area Community College for its graphic design program.
In the end, Sauer says his comic book drawing skills weren’t at the level to make it a career.
“I didn’t have the patience to try and draw 22 pages perfectly every month,” he says.
But the focus gave him a place to apply all of the fantasy and his way of thinking —how to capture someone’s imagination and tell a story — which he turned into an advertising career.
Sauer still has his entire G.I. Joe collection from his childhood, but most of the “Star Wars” items are long gone at garage sales as his interest turned more toward the military figures. Once he was done with G.I. Joe — he took a 10-15 year absence from collecting — the figurines were stored unlike the “Star Wars” items.
Once “Star Wars” became popular again in the late 1990s, Sauer resumed his interest in it and began collecting various items again. His interest in G.I. Joe also resumed when the company returned to producing the smaller figurines with the classic story lines for its 25th anniversary of the “Real American Hero.”
Sauer estimates he has more than 1,000 of the 3 ¾-inch figurines that date from 1982 to 1994. About one-third of those are from his youth. Since he began collecting again as an adult, he has gone back and collected more of his favorite characters, buying them in mint condition with the original packaging.
He says one of the things he loved about G.I. Joe as a kid was the artwork on the packaging, which he says he appreciates more now as an adult.
“That’s what I’m still fascinated with today,” he says.
Sauer keeps hundreds of the figures in his home office, along with a tank and Cobra Night Raven he had as a child.
The toys represent specific birthdays and Christmases for which he received them. He remembers playing with his dad, and his dad explaining the real aspects of G.I. Joes, post-Vietnam and what the toys he was playing with meant. Sauer played G.I. Joes with children from school and throughout his Davenport neighborhood.
“I remember even tearing up my mom’s flower garden and making these little bases and trenches and setting it up,” he recalls. “She comes home from work — and the baby sitter had no idea — and she goes out there and finds someone buried in there.”
About five or six years ago, Sauer says he found one of his old “Star Wars” figurines buried in his parents’ yard from his decades-ago playtime.
Men create G.I. Joe convention to share love for toys
Sauer and Steve Kelting of Johnston started Code Name: IOWA, a G.I. Joe convention called Assembly Required in 2011. The mission of the group “is to cultivate an appreciation for G.I. Joe not only in Iowa but also beyond, for the purpose of building community, preserving the brand and investing in the next generation of fans.”
The idea started in a coffee shop. The two couldn’t find anything similar within a day’s drive of Des Moines, so decided to create their own convention.
A few local collectors attended the first year, but it has grown to an event that draws people from as far as New Jersey, Arkansas and Texas. About 160 people attended last year’s convention in November.
“We like the camaraderie and the art and what goes into the making of the toys,” Sauer says. “We wanted it to encompass all of this, so it wasn’t just about little plastic Army men.”