COLUMBIA — Fire trucks, monster school buses, police cars, hydrogen cars — seemingly every type of large vehicle lined a Cosmopolitan Park parking lot Wednesday afternoon for the annual Tons of Trucks event.
Smiles were abundant and horns blared at a near constant pace as preschool-aged kids climbed into trucks they had previously only glimpsed on the road.
Columbia’s Parks and Recreation Department staged the event, which occurs the first Wednesday in April each year at the park’s Rainbow Softball Center. Attendance varies with the weather, ranging from last year’s 6,000 visitors to a low of around 2,000, Erin Carrillo, coordinator and city recreation specialist, said.
“This is my favorite event I do all year,” Carrillo said. “I love working with children, and this event just lights up their faces. And it’s just a really neat opportunity for them to look at vehicles that they normally wouldn’t. You would not think a garbage truck would be so cool, but you actually look at it, and it is.”
The Parks and Recreation Department prepared for a week before the event, cleaning its fleet of vehicles and getting them ready to show to kids, mechanic Vince Calvin said.
Still, after all the preparation, he learns something new about his vehicles.
“These lights come on and then you have to figure out how to turn them all off,” Calvin said. “It’s fun watching (children) go nuts over the equipment.”
At Tons of Trucks, children also learn how the vehicles operate when they climb into the driver’s seat.
“It’s something we can talk about afterwards,” said Mandie Summers, who returned to the event for the third time with her children. “What the trucks do and why they’re helpful in our city.”
Of the 51 vehicles on display Wednesday, a Columbia Fire Department truck was one of the most popular. Children lined up around the front of the vehicle staring towards the clouds in awe at the ladder extending from the truck.
“It’s really high,” Avery Haner, 3, said, and added that the fire truck was her favorite.
That’s no surprise to Columbia fire Capt. Billy Hurt, who said the ladder always makes the truck a destination spot for visitors. When children see the truck up close and sit inside, he said, it eases their fears both of the truck and the firefighters.
“It gets them familiar with us so they’re not afraid of us,” Hurt said. “A lot of times, kids are really intimidated. And we don’t want them to be afraid of us at all. We get to interact with them, and that way, they get to see what we do.”
Officer Stephanie Drouin of the Columbia Police Department said children might not always see police when something good is happening.
“At least from our standpoint, we get to have a positive contact with the kids and the community, where they’re seeing us do something other than enforcement action," Drouin said. "It’s definitely a good, positive event for us to attend.”
While some drivers were attending their first Tons of Trucks event, others, such as Steve Brunstrom, have been coming since the event started more than a decade ago. Brunstrom, a refuse collector with the Columbia Public Works Department, volunteers to attend.
“I make sure I get to come out here,” he said. “This is what I like to do every year. This is my thing."
Another popular vehicle was Monty Perrigo’s “Brrt-Buss” monster school bus, which is used for carnival rides. Perrigo owns Monty and Sons Welding, though he said his sons have since left the company.
Perrigo brought two buses — the “Brrt-Buss” and the "The American Monster” — to his first Tons of Trucks appearance. He built them both. Although he was struggling to enforce his one-honk-per-child rule, he plans on returning in the future.
“Everybody likes it; that’s what it’s all about,” Perrigo said. “It’s for the kids. That’s what I build them for.”