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Tinplate Times Profile: Al Cox

TINPLATE TIMES: Al, please tell us about yourself and your background.

AL COX: I was born June 7, 1920 in Seattle, Washington. I was born at home, not in the hospital. The doctor came to the house. Mom said house calls were $2.50 and $20 for a delivery. Our home was about one mile from the Hiram Chittenden Government locks - Puget Sound to Lake Union - and across the locks was a Bascule Bridge like a Lionel 313 that led into the Seattle terminals.

I had plenty of schooling including elementary school and four years of high school. When I was in eighth grade I began a correspondence course to prepare to be a CPA. I was 14 years old when I received my first diploma and that same year I won first place in an arithmetic contest in the Snohomish County, Washington school district.

During my high school years I also took correspondence courses in accounting. In 1937 I was one of twenty winners of a Seattle Post Intelligencer newspaper history contest. The winners got to travel to Washington, DC to see Franklin Roosevelt inaugurated and visit to the U.S. Mint where ten $100,000 bills (a million dollars) were on view. We also got to meet J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI building. Hoover personally took our fingerprints and showed us how quickly they came out. We were warned to be good since we were in the FBI files at age seventeen! I was selected as valedictorian with top grades in my graduating class, but I was afraid of public speaking. Those who know me will laugh at that since later I was auctioneer of the TCA Pacific Northwest Division for fifteen years.

Next came the University of Washington years, interrupted by WWII. I received a deferment supposedly for the duration of the war because I was working as payroll clerk for the US Engineering Department at Yakutat, Alaska, where they were building an airport. However, the deferment lasted only six months and then I received my draft notice. I had no way to get out of Alaska, but I had made the acquaintance of an Alaskan Indian chief since natives were required to pay income tax for the first time in 1942. I prepared tax forms for the whole village at $5.00 a return. The chief took me to an oil tanker in the harbor where I talked my way into being a stowaway since he could not hire me. I hid in the engine room and was told to wipe off the dirty propeller shaft. The engine room crew swiped some food and water and brought to it to my hiding place in the hull.

I finally reached Seattle and married Irene on August 12, 1942. I joined the Army on August 14, 1942. I enlisted in the reserve corps QMC hoping to get "90 day wonder" officer's bars. I passed with my IQ as measured then I and another student made top grade in class. WW II took both of the accounting professors out of circulation, so one of my army buddies and I were talked into teaching accounting. The teaching job did not pay, but we earned the required credits to graduate while we were waiting for our duty at OCS in 1945. This was quite a change from just seven years earlier when I was afraid to speak before people! In the quartermaster OCS I thought I would learn how to count rations and not bombs. I was shipped overseas from Seattle, my home town, on a Liberty Ship that shook so much that it was named "John Wobbly Weeks." The destination was Honolulu so I wondered if it was wartime or a vacation I could not have afforded. My housing at first was at Fort Armstrong channel where the ships entered Pearl Harbor, then I lived at at Fort Du Russy, which was right next door to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel which had been taken over for submarine crews R & R.

My first overseas job was as officer in charge of the Allamanu Crater scrap metal storage dump, which I felt was the most interesting job in the army. The dump was the repository for metal shipped back from the front lines as ballast on returning cargo ships. Naturally, as a 2nd Lieutenant I did no physical labor. My workers were Italian POWs captured in North Africa, who were sent to Honolulu for the duration of the war rather than to a prisoner of war camp at Guantanamo Bay. They were fortunate unlike my Japanese high school friends interned in Idaho even though they were native born U.S. citizens!

My next assignment was at Canton Island in the South Pacific, 200 miles North of New Zealand, where I was QMC officer who counted rations. The part of that job I liked best was tasting ice cream every day to insure its purity! While I was there the captain of a converted President Liner troop ship hit the coral reef so far inland that the ship never moved again. Of course, as QMC officer I "liberated" the ship's food, washing machines, freezers, stoves, laundry, etc. After that my enlisted men had it good with many home town pleasures! When the war was over, I received an early return due to having a wife and kids, and with 15 months overseas I outranked many of those who saw action.

In 1949 I got my CPA license. In 1951 I began in the toy train business. Fifty-five years later I'm still in the same job! My wife Irene died in 1996 after fifty-four years of marriage. I've stayed put over the years and haven't had a real vacation since 1948. I have traveled thousands of miles chasing toy trains, not women!

TINPLATE TIMES: Tell us about your toy train affiliations.

AL COX: I belong to the TCA, TTOS, LCCA and the LRRC.

TINPLATE TIMES: Have you co-authored or acted as a consultant on any toy train books?

AL COX: I've had photos in the Vagell books, TTOS bulletins, and stories in the TTOS publication, and the Australian Hornsby magazine had a two page article. I also had a spread of photos in the October, 1991 issue of Classic Toy Trains. I've done a few items for the IVES society. And of course there's "Al Cox's Toy Train Wishbook" (1991).

TINPLATE TIMES: What was your first toy train set?

AL COX: A 1932 Winner Lines 1010 passenger set which was a Christmas gift from my mom in 1932.

TINPLATE TIMES: Do you have a layout now? What gauge interests you the most?

AL COX: My son John has had a layout since 1951. We have gauge 00, 027, 0,1,2, and 4.

TINPLATE TIMES: What tinplate do you enjoy collecting the most?

AL COX: All of it! and even some plastic.

TINPLATE TIMES: As the owner of the famous Lionel electric locomotive known as "The Brute," as well as the Lionel 213 lift bridge prototype, please tell us about your plans to sell these one-of-a-kind toy train treasures.

AL COX: Yes, these two rarest Lionel items are now for sale as I have a large monthly expense for 24 hour-a-day caregivers. They are the only two such items in the world. They are not production items like the brown state set that just sold at auction for $253,000. My price for both the loco and the lift bridge is one million dollars with no listing fees, no final value fee, no buyer's premium, etc. I only require that the sale be insured and shipped.

TINPLATE TIMES: If you could keep only one toy train from your collection what would it be?

AL COX: I've been told by many that I can't take my collection with me, but I have selected my worst melted plastic Lionel scout engine boiler which is so warped that no one but me would keep such a treasure. It will go down with me with my hands crossed on my chest holding it with a smile on my face and a sign saying: "See, you guys were all wrong!"

TINPLATE TIMES: What tinplate train or set you don't already own would you like to have the most?

AL COX: I guess I have or had all I ever wanted but I would like to get a Bassett-Lowke Blue Duchess of Montrose and a couple of ACE Trains locos that I missed buying when they were issued so that I could own the complete line.

TINPLATE TIMES: Are you still adding to your collection?

AL COX: Yes, and I'm keeping at least one of each maker's trains, eighty-six manufacturers, one for each year of my age, but I'm having to sell off trains gradually in order to pay for twenty-four hour care-givers.

TINPLATE TIMES: Where do you find interesting new trains?

AL COX: From magazine ads I run, train club listings, and by trading, which is the most fun.

TINPLATE TIMES: Do you attend toy train shows? Which shows do you enjoy the most?

AL COX: I used to attend any shows where I could get trains and visit with other collectors, for example the TCA, TTOS, and LCCA events.

TINPLATE TIMES: Do you buy and sell on EBAY? How do you feel about online trading?

AL COX: I use EBAY especially now that I can no longer attend meets. I think that EBAY is gradually diminishing train shows since you can buy and sell from home without travel expenses, meet fees, gasoline costs, hotel room charges, and eating sometimes lousy food.

TINPLATE TIMES: What is it about tinplate toy trains that appeals to you the most?

AL COX: As a CPA I may have had many people I considered friends but often they were too busy to socialize. Train people are for the most part the best people I have ever met for their honesty, education, etc. But now my tears are on every issue of the TCA publications and TTOS ads that note the deaths of the many who made toy train history.

TINPLATE TIMES: What do you think will be the future of tinplate collecting and operating?

AL COX: Some families will carry on the tradition while others will cash in and blow it.

TINPLATE TIMES: Do you think tinplate collecting and operating will still be around fifty or one hundred years from now?

AL COX: I guarantee that it will be here, and if I'm still around I'll rewrite this story! People have been collecting books since the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they are coming to Seattle this year. We have the museum of flight with the Concorde; we have the museum of science and industry; we have the University of Washington ranked near the top as a medical research hospital...why not toy trains?

TINPLATE TIMES: Do you have any final comments?

AL COX: Telephone me and visit and reminisce about our friendship, and compare tall stories of our great friends in obscure places. There are many questions that remain: will MTH be the final winner? Will trains currently manufactured in China remain collectible? What will toys be like when China's standard of living is like ours and when the oil used to make them runs out? How many of us collectors can match Frank Hornby; Joshua Cowen; A.C. Gilbert; or Mike Wolf? All of them could write a book entitled "The Man Who Made A Million Dollars With A Toy." But money is not the most important thing. Many current collectors have reached that benchmark. Did you hear about a plate block of four 24 cent stamps upside down Jenny airplane USA Air Mail stamps that went for $3M at auction? The buyer turned around and traded it for a single stamp he needed to complete one each of an era he specialized in!

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