Just off the Southern State Parkway in West Hempstead, the Civil War rages on.
A house on Partridge Avenue has been overrun by armies in blue and gray -- all at the hand of homeowner Dennis Larkin, a 79-year-old Navy veteran.
For the past four decades, Larkin has been making 1/32 scale dioramas of the War Between the States and filling them with miniature soldiers crafted from lead slugs that he melts and transforms into intricately detailed infantrymen and cannons.
Dedication to his hobby has meant a commitment of both time and space. Both his garage and basement have been converted to workstations, and his former master bedroom has become an exhibition room for his handiwork.
"I like history," Larkin said. "I picked the Civil War because it was brother against brother. I have three other brothers. So why did they [Union and Confederate soldiers] fight against each other? They fought their fathers, their families -- why? It's fascinating."
Nine months for a soldier
It can take up to nine months to complete a soldier, and Larkin's devotion to his hobby has produced scores of battle-ready figures. Larkin's wife, Elaine, 76, noted, "I always say we have enough soldiers . . . for the Civil War to be fought again."
Referring to her husband's stock of figures in the basement, she said, "It's gotten a little out of hand, I think." Turning to her husband, she asked, "Why don't you just collect bottle tops like a normal person?" And they both laughed.
Larkin, who grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, traces his roots to Ireland and has no familial ties to the Civil War, which claimed the lives of about 620,000 troops between 1861 and 1865.
It was while working behind the counter at a neighborhood drugstore during the late 1940s that Larkin discovered his love for military miniatures. The store featured a display case filled with tin soldiers, Britains hollow-cast figures.
To the 13-year-old Larkin, these warriors, priced at $3 or more, were pure gold, but he never bought one. "I couldn't afford it," he explained. "I was making 50 cents an hour. It would take me two months just to afford one piece."
The miniatures were all but forgotten, Larkin said, but sometime after his daughter graduated high school, Larkin revisited his infatuation with mini military figures. Over the next few years, when he was in his 40s, the mechanical engineer by trade experimented with making his own soldiers, eventually perfecting the process.
Molding hot lead
He begins with a handmade mold he designed and pours in hot lead melted from weights to create a cast figure. Then, with very small drills, files, cutters and Super Glue, Larkin's armies take shape. "It took me a couple of years to learn these things," he said of his technique.
Larkin has drawers brimming with military men, each standing about 21/8 inches tall and imbued with their own history. He pulls a colorful bayonet-wielding figure from one bin; a First Fire Zouave of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The soldier sports red pantaloons, white leggings and a blue fez.
"He's an Irishman," Larkin said. "Each group -- the tassel and bonnets were different colors: red, white, green, gold. They were very colorful." That attention to detail is what takes the Civil War buff so long to re-create history. What evolves are platoons of soldiers that depict specific battles during the war.
"He didn't make it just to look pretty," said granddaughter Kathleen Joyce, 25, a graduate journalism student at Hofstra University, who has documented the toy army. "He made it to be precise. If you look at every detail, he showed me how a [soldier's] drum was an exact replica of a picture. He did his research."
To recapture America's bloodiest era, Larkin first had to study it, accumulating Civil War books and many photographs that helped him see and understand the most minute details of the war. "He's always had an interest in the Civil War," said daughter Patricia Joyce, 54, who lives nearby. "It's developed from there. A lot of care goes into it."
The praise his work receives is mostly from loved ones. Few outside the family have seen Larkin's sizable collection. That's understandable, according to John Jefferies, president of the 50-member Long Island Historical Miniature Collectors Society (longislandmodelsoldiers.com). "This is a solitary kind of hobby," Jefferies said. "It's for their own enjoyment. One of the problems we have as a group is it's hard to get guys to connect socially."
That's not a problem for Larkin, who said he enjoys chatting with other Civil War buffs when he's on vacation. He and his wife have had their share of cruises, he said, but to feed his passion for knowledge about the war, Larkin does research on road trips to Civil War battlegrounds: Chancellorsville, Andersonville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga.
At home, he shows a binder filled with photos from his travels. "Here's a re-enactor shooting his weapon," Larkin said, describing one picture. "This is where I get my ideas from."
Sharing his artistic skills
Larkin was chief of the Lakeview Fire Department from 1972 to 1974 and was honored at a dinner in June for 50 years of service. A skilled woodworker, he made the department logo signs for the firehouse on Woodfield Road, and he has donated an installation commemorating 9/11 rescue workers to the Nassau County Firefighters Museum.
After retiring from his engineering job in the mid-1990s, Larkin and his wife considered moving to Florida, but they decided they didn't want to miss seeing their three grandchildren grow up. So they built an extension on the house to make more room for his hobby.
Now he works full time in code enforcement for the Village of Rockville Centre police, writing parking tickets. But there's always time for his soldiers.
When Larkin returns home from work at 4 p.m., he grabs a snack and tends to his hobby until dinner time. "This is where I spend hours and days and months," Larkin said from behind the mounted magnifying glass where he does detail work.
He explained how he reverse-engineered the pontoon bridges on a diorama, citing Archimedes' principle involving fluid displacement, and marvels at how swiftly Union engineers constructed the floating bridges while under constant enemy fire. He is clearly in his element.
"My mother always told him to use his artistic talent," his daughter Patricia said. "Use it, sell it, show other people. But he doesn't do it for other people. He does it for himself. He gets joy by just making it."
The Long Island Historical Miniature Collectors Society (longislandmodelsoldiers.com) is hosting the 2014 Long Island Miniature Show, scheduled Nov. 14-15 at the Freeport Recreation Center, 130 E. Merrick Rd. Hours, 6-9:30 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday. Admission, $10; free for children 12 and younger.
The miniature society meets at the Freeport center on the third Tuesday of each month at 7:30 p.m. "We do a lot of seminars on how to paint figures, how to assemble figures, how to paint and display dioramas," club president John Jefferies said.
The club is one of about 12 organizations nationally devoted to miniatures and model builders, according to Jefferies. The Long Island group has expanded from military figures to include fantasy and horror genres in recent years.