Boys and Their Toys

Gio Toninelo is living the dream -- and his wife doesn't mind.

The day begins with Corporal John Harris leading Pond Patrol Third Force Recon Team amongst the blood-red cliffs and knife-shaped outcroppings of Mulberry Ridge. Suddenly, Private Carlos Rodriguez spots Dr. Jefferson Johnson down by the ravine side.

"What's he doing out here?" Harris thinks. "Wasn't he supposed to be at base camp?"

But before they could investigate, a figure emerges on the hill above them. It is Ben Kaplan! The Private First Class has been missing ever since the radioactive bite from the giant turtle caused him to lose his mind! Strangely, his face is bandaged. Could it be that he...has become a mutant himself?!

Crouching low in the brush, Gio Toninelo is carefully zooming his camera in for a close-up shot of Harris when an elderly woman hiking up the trail stops at the scene. "Oh," she beams with delight at Toninelo's collection of carefully posed G.I. Joe action figures. "I do the same thing with my bears!"

"No, no, no," replies the 34-year-old, laughing awkwardly. "That's not what I'm doing." He doesn't want her to think he's some weirdo who takes photos of his toys against the scenic backdrop of the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. He is the creator of Pond Patrol, a serialized Internet drama that publishes every Thursday with the weekly adventures of Corporal Harris as he uncovers the secrets of Mulberry Ridge Pond. Now at the end of its first year and its 51st installment, www.pondpatrol.com earned more than 62,000 hits in August. Maybe it's the Pond Patrol theme song, which Toninelo crafted as an "homage" to Belle and Sebastian's "Legal Man" (pa-paa-pond-patrol-ol, pond-pa-trol), or the thousands of hipster elite listed as friends on the fictional Marine's MySpace profile.

Still, the woman's comment about her teddy bears is unnerving to Toninelo.

Yes, he creates visuals for the ongoing narrative by shooting carefully arranged close-up photos of the figurines in handmade sets or against on-location backgrounds at the Platte River, the San Luis Valley and even the Colorado State Capitol Building, but really, what's the difference between him and loony granny playing with Bearie and Beanie in her bedroom?

He jumps in his vehicle and speeds off, unaware that he's abandoned one of his top soldiers in the burnt-red dirt. Two weeks later, Toninelo is still pondering that day, kicking himself with shame and regret. The cardinal rule of Pond Patrol: Never leave a man behind, even if that man is an action figure. Sure, Toninelo has more than 200 dolls lining the shelves of the studio in his house, but you still never abandon your men. And besides, these aren't the five-inch plastic G.I. Joes popular in the 1980s, but the original foot-tall dolls that Hasbro produced following the Second World War.

It was this style of toy soldier that Toninelo played with as a boy in Brazil during the 1970s. His father was a veteran of the Brazilian military and held on to an interest in military history and paraphernalia. But like most children, the young Toninelo was intent on imagining his own elaborate soldier stories, often sneaking away with his older brother's G.I. Joe so he would have a team. Since funds were scarce around their house, Christmas presents for many years consisted of the boys' dolls getting sent to a shop for refurbishment.

When Toninelo grew up, he went to architecture school in Brazil, then moved to New York in his early twenties to study graphic design. He'd set his G.I. Joe years behind him -- until he spotted a doll in a shop. He bought it to keep on his shelf and didn't think about it much again. In 2000, he moved to Colorado (he followed a girl), and his interest got overshadowed by other hobbies he cultivated in Denver, like playing bass with local singer Josh Novak and directing the short film In the Land of the Blind the One-eyed Man Is King in 2004, which featured a marionette puppet exploring the foreign landscape of Toninelo's apartment.

"He's the type of person who's really unhappy in life unless he has a good project," says Toninelo's wife, Jena, who characterizes her significant other as "obsessive, but in a good way." She works with him at St. Mark's Coffeehouse, where photos from Pond Patrol are on display. At a quick glance, the images seem like they could be stills captured in Iraq or Afghanistan with all the minutiae of wartime guts and glory: rifles, fatigues, smoke, dust and hot metal. The incongruous moment comes when the viewer realizes that the hyper-realistic setting doesn't match up with the synthetic essence of the subjects. It seems to reduce all the heroic images of soldiers and warfare to a kind of glorified recess. Or, perhaps, it raises playtime to something more grand and serious.

Either way, Toninelo takes his toys very seriously. And like any good adventure tale, Pond Patrol itself has an origin story. It was last year, not long after Toninelo and his wife moved into their home in the lower Highland neighborhood. They had converted their front yard into a garden with a pond where he could keep the turtles he raises as a hobby. (Toninelo is also the founder of the Shell's Angels Colorado Turtle Club, which regularly gathers about thirty members to talk about turtle upkeep and conservation.) After two of his turtles went missing, he suspected neighborhood children and placed two of his G.I. Joe dolls around the pond to guard against any more nighttime intruders. He was so amused by the situation that he started a weekly web log featuring photos of the miniature soldiers fishing or camping.

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