Culture Schlock — By Darren Garnick
“Kentucky toy surgeon rescues GI Joes on their deathbeds”
The Telegraph — February 15, 2002
LOUISVILLE — It may sound a little bizarre at first, but it makes perfect sense why Joe “The Medic” DeGrella wants all his G.I. Joes to be naked.
“The clothing and accessories are actually worth more than the figures themselves,” the 43-year-old toy surgeon says. “I don’t want the boxes. I don’t want the clothing. I just don’t want to be responsible.”
DeGrella runs a triage unit for military action figures in the basement of his suburban home just outside Louisville, Kentucky. The patients, who arrive by mail, are predominantly GI Joes from the 1960s and early 1970s – although the occasional Barbie or Chatty Cathy has never been refused treatment. Typical hospital bills range from $20 to $100, and customers who spend more than $30 receive a complimentary mini Purple Heart.
Action figure surgery may be bloodless, but the operating room is hardly pretty. To tighten loose vintage figures, DeGrella needs to crack open the torso and completely gut out the rubber intestines. The quality of elastics – as anyone who used to bundle baseball cards knows – was horrendous years ago, but new technology ensures that this procedure will likely only happen once.
DeGrella’s cellar has emerged into one of the nation’s leading centers for GI Joe health care. It was here where researchers (well, OK, it’s a one-man faculty) developed a new nylon joint that revolutionized shoulder replacements for future generations.
DeGrella, a former building contractor who turned full-time toy medic in the early 1990s, claims he can fix just about any ailment. Only twice in his career have figures arrived DOA — the worst casualty was a GI Joe with a burned head and torso along with missing limbs. In the cosmetic arena, the medic also retouches hair and beards with magnetized fibers.
The biggest health hazards to GI Joes are “children and dogs,” in that order, DeGrella says. Another huge problem is osteoporosis, which means “stress cracks” in the limbs and torso. In the dermatology department, vintage black GI Joes have experienced major longevity issues. The chemical used to color the figures’ skin inadvertently caused them to crumble with age.
Fortunately, there is no need to get Jesse Jackson involved — modern African-American Joes no longer use the same kind of plastic
DeGrella began his self-taught medical career at age 9, when he recovered a GI Joe that he lost in a creek. The missing soldier was found pinned under a rock and the prognosis wasn’t optimistic: “He had been underwater for three months. The elastic had just rotted away, so when I picked him up, he basically fell apart in my hand,” the medic recalls. “The body was faded. The hair was washed off.”
The boy improvised his first restrung torso and used model paint to restore various features. Throwing the doll away would’ve been heresy. “It was like finding a long lost friend. I probably had seven or eight GI Joes, but this one remained my favorite,” says DeGrella.
He later gave up collecting as a teenager, cashing in his entire collection for a paltry $20. Enjoying a much higher budget years later, DeGrella relaunched his interest as an adult. Oddly enough, though, his skill at fixing GI Joes led to his collection’s second demise.
Prospective clients “would ask me if I was a collector and I’d say yes. They’d say, ‘Well, how do I know you’re not going to keep my GI Joe parts and send me back some junk?’” remembers DeGrella. “In order to gain the trust of my customers, I needed to give up collecting. So I sold my GI Joes just to give others peace of mind.”
But the choice between collector and healer was not a difficult one. Reliving his childhood every day, DeGrella insists that he doesn’t miss his acquisition years: “I get to play with GI Joes every day. I basically see every piece of GI Joe that was ever made by Hasbro… “It’s almost like therapy to me.”
Darren Garnick’s “Culture Schlock” column appears in The Telegraph’s Encore magazine every Friday. His Six Million Dollar Man doll remains missing in action. Feedback and suggestions are welcomed via e-mail at cultureschlock (at) gmail.com.