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Soldier On 

"We are too intelligent to pass our time like cats before the fire; and we lack those powers which enable a few rare spirits to live as self-sufficient philosophers or comtemplatives. We need something to do ". -- Aldous Huxley, "The Man Without A Job"

Your eye hardly knows where to go next. To the New York Zouaves quick-stepping toward Jackson's Virginians in North African finery -- or the Byzantine warriors around the Madonna-and-child banner awaiting the Turkish onslaught? Over there, the proudly mounted British Household Cavalry, the Egyptian Mamelukes, the German Landsknect.

Each tiny warrior from another time, another place, waving hats, horns, swords, intricately glistening with the color of battle. But something is missing. ...

Maybe it's best seen in the sad and solemn leaden-eyed looks which never leave their faces, no matter which way they are faced. The looks say the lookers long for the free blandishments of a boy's hand, the slide and settle of battle which always climaxes hand-to-hand with noises coming from a boy's mouth. ...

"My best customers," says Dave Dugas, "are the guys who probably didn't have enough toy solders when they were kids. They come in and say 'I had one like that. Or more often, 'The guy around the corner had one like that. I couldn't afford it.' I don't have to sell these guys. They reminisce themselves into a sale."

Welcome to the selective world of Dave Dugas, formally known as Le Petit Soldier Shop on Royal Street. It is a world both small and shrinking. ...

Not that Dave's complaining. He hasn't done much crabbing about his job in 40 years, not since he walked away from a career as a pharmacist on Elysian Fields ("Ten yeas and four armed robberies") ago and into one as French Quarter shopkeeper/raconteur/Peter Pan.

The story is one that will ring true if you grew up in New Orleans, and may not ring at all if you didn't. He played with toy soldiers when he was a kid growing up around St. Anthony's. He worked at a drugstore on Banks and North Hennessey while attending Holy Cross, and his boss, a man named McDuff, paid his tuition to Loyola.

And then he was at a small shop on Royal Street, the lease cemented by a handshake that has endured to this day. It's the way Dave Dugas likes to do business. He shuns credit cards, and if that's all you've got and he likes your looks, he'll tell you to take the stuff you want and mail him a check when you get home. ...

Not that he's not Quarter-smart. "When I first got here, this shop-owner named Juanita Elfert took me under her wing and taught me all the tricks. Years later I told her thanks for all that early advice and she said, 'I waited all my life to find someone to pass it all on to.'"

There were, too, the Quarter characters, those Dave calls the "day people." People like the guy who hung out in the last pew at the Cathedral and was called Ibble Bibble, because that's what he sounded like when he talked.

Sailing week after week on such wacky waters calls for a good wifey anchor, and that's where Janis Dugas comes in. She's the wisecracking yin to Dave's soft-spoken yang, and she never met a laugh she didn't love. She not only provided Dave with oars, but her retired dad worked in the shop for 15 years.

"Her story is that I come to work and hold court," jokes Dave.

That and travel to shows and flea markets and annually even to Europe in search of 54-millimetered samurai or Napoleonic Old Guardsmen. He keeps his store's wish list updated by talking to shoppers.

"We get to remembering the toy soldiers we played with when we were kids. Next thing you know, they've reminisced themselves into a sale."

But even unfinished battled, those frozen in storefront windows, can come to an end. Dave's business is way off since the storm, and a couple of guys who used to paint up models have relocated. He's thinking hard about chucking it all.

"This storm made me an old man," the 73-year-old Dugas says. He shakes his head slowly, like the thought never crossed his mind before.

A guy comes in and tries on a Marine Corps drill instructor's cap. It doesn't fit perfectly, but he and Dave talk military caps long enough for a sale. Dave grins. "Don Quixote is my favorite soldier. The Impossible Dream. Very few people get to play all their lives. I did."

The guy who's just bought the drill instructor's cap stops on the sidewalk and looks again in the window of Le Petit Soldier Shop. Maybe it's the Philippine Constabulary or the Siberian Rifles in their Russian-infantry uniforms.

All the kids stop and look.

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