James Inglese began playing with Legos at the age of 74. He bought a set for his grandson and got carried away with it himself.
Now, two years later, Lego constructions occupy much of his Van Nuys home. There is a pirate ship and a pirate island on top of the piano. A medieval castle rises over the dining room, and a complicated railway system has rendered the dining table useless for anything else.
"This here is an earthmover," he said, leading a tour through the family room. "This here is an Irish castle, and this here is an oil rig."
"He makes them all," said Clara, his wife.
It took the retired man hundreds of hours to create all this and cost him about $4,500 for the thousands of plastic building blocks required. Inglese has asked for more Legos for Christmas.
"You know about the cycle of life," the 76-year-old man said. "When you're born, you're just a little boy playing and as you progress in life you go to work and do your job and raise a family. As you become older, you go back into the little boy's mind.
"I feel quite interested in acting like a little boy again."
Inglese grew up in Upstate New York and moved to Southern California with Clara, 38 years ago to operate a wholesale drapery business. The couple has three daughters, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Their home, in a neighborhood off Sherman Way, is cluttered with photographs.
No one in the family admits to being surprised over the patriarch's sudden and intense interest in a child's toy. Thanksgiving dinner had to be moved to one of their daughter's homes because Inglese wouldn't move his train tracks. But Clara doesn't mind.
"It gives him something to do," she said. "He stays up until 3 or 4 in the morning doing this, but he's home all the time. I don't have to worry about him."
By way of explanation, Inglese offers several theories. His family was poor, he said, so he never had toys as a child. In retirement, he has plenty of time on his hands. He tried golf and that didn't work out.
"I couldn't hit the ball," he said. "I couldn't get off the first tee."
There may be an aspect of overcompensation involved.
"He feels he's all thumbs, so he's amazed he can put these little toys together," Clara said. "He's proud of himself."
So, the stout man with thick fingers and thick eyeglasses spends hours laboring over tiny plastic pieces, and he conjures future projects, future castles to erect.
"Now my grandson comes over and starts fiddling with my castle and a part will come off," he said. "I say, 'Hey, stay away from that.' I bought a different set for him to play with."