Last fall, I had the strange urge to see if I could buy a tank. I knew that owning a tank in America was politically incorrect, not to mention a possible issue with the folks at Homeland Security. But I put those concerns aside for a while, because I was in the Czech Republic. First, I wanted to see if I could buy a tank. Then I'd worry about getting it home.
I went to my girlfriend's father for help. He's an aircraft engineer with a fondness for abandoned military airports, where Czechs like to sit around roasting pigs, drinking beer, flying old planes, and driving dated tanks and troop carriers inherited from the Soviets. To my question about a tank, not missing a beat, he said, "I will call Mr. Jary."
Soon afterward, I met Vladislav Jary in a restaurant, but his tank-dealing days were behind him. Jary filled me in on the halcyon days, the early 1990s, when so many Soviet tanks littered the Czech countryside that you could pick one up for a small bribe. He'd collected a few tanks, he said, and then hired two military mechanics to keep them running. Chuckling, he said, "Sometimes they stole parts from their previous employer, the Czech army." Jary had an auto bazaar in Prague, where he lined up his tanks, their cannons aimed at Prague Castle. The brazen, symbolic act, which probably would have pleased Kafka, drew customers, journalists, and TV crews to the bazaar. "One day," Jary said, smiling nostalgically, "a big black man in a leather coat crawled up on my tanks. His coat shifted, and I spotted a gun. Later, on TV, I saw him with Bill Clinton. Your president, he was here playing saxophone with our president Havel." Apparently, the Secret Service agent was making sure that the tanks were disarmed. "You can never be too sure," said Jary. And then he sent me to a former competitor he called "Mr. Dirty," having forgotten his real name. "He may still have some tanks."
At his bazaar in the countryside, Mr. Dirty had a weathered MiG-15 fighter jet parked on the roof of a truck, old troop haulers, and lots of long-haul rigs. But no tanks. He didn't care to have his picture taken, thank you very much, and his eyes darted around like I was a foreign spy come to pry secrets out of him. Still, I liked the guy. Mr. Dirty was straight from central casting, with his unkempt appearance, a Bluetooth headset jutting out of matted hair, a pile of keys on an otherwise empty desk, and a dirty Humvee parked out front with Bazar Roudnice identification stenciled on it. When I asked if he could drive a tank, he delivered a surprisingly poetic response. Nodding yes, restraining a grin, he said, "It is quite strong. It is beautiful, all those tons."
Elsewhere, when I finally stood on the turret of a T-72 - the Russian-built tank that is sort of the gazelle of modern combat tanks - beautiful was not the word that sprang to mind. Dangerous was more like it. But then, danger has its own undeniable beauty.
I was at Excalibur Army, a twenty-first-century arms dealer located an hour east of Prague. After Mr. Jary and Mr. Dirty, I hadn't expected to find much here, but I was wrong. There were machine shops, a paint shop, storage sheds, the aura of industrial enterprise. Rows of rusty and battered war machines on flat tires stood here; shiny, rebuilt ones that looked ready to roll were parked over there. Lubo Doshkov, a friendly young Bulgarian who speaks five languages, showed me enough military equipment to launch a war in a third-world country; introduced me to half an acre of T-34s, the legendary Russian tank that hammered Hitler's Panzer divisions in World War II; and asked me a question that gave me a little thrill, even if it concerned an item not on my shopping list: "Are you interested in a MiG-21?"
No. By then, I was interested only in what we stood on, or balanced on - Doshkov was on the long barrel, arms crossed. That is, a T-72.
In case you don't know your tanks, the T-72 was the Cold War tank of the Russians. It's lean and fast; one was reportedly clocked at 68 mph alongside a German autobahn. The main gun is a 125-mm cannon about fifteen feet long that can be fired on the move, accuracy guaranteed by a laser range finder. There's an infrared spotlight, an NBC package (that's your comprehensive nuclear, biological, and chemical protection), and a boron-lined turret to block nuclear radiation. The engine in late-model T-72s is a multifuel V-12, supercharged and water-cooled, rated at 840 hp. Cruising speed is 25 mph, depending on the terrain, and range is 300 miles, although auxiliary fuel tanks push that past 500. There is also an amphibious package that includes a peri-scope and a snorkel; it gives you the option of submarining in sixteen feet of water, although the turret might leak.
The T-72 I stood on was freshly painted, fully armed, and combat ready. "It is going to America," Doshkov said with a sly smile. "It is bought by the U.S. Army."
That's when the sense of absurdity began to kick in. Completely rebuilt, with smoke-grenade launchers, an antiaircraft-gun mount, and rubber skirts over the treads to keep down mud spatter, this Russian tank - or a few micron-sized slivers of it, anyway - had been bought with my tax dollars. And yes, the amiable salesman told me, I could own one just like it.
A bit incredulous, I said, "Can a guy like me get a tank like this into the United States?"Doshkov wasn't sure. "Just yesterday," he said, "I sold an older Russian tank, a T-55, to a collector in New Zealand. Nothing needed to be done to it." The cannon didn't need to be spiked or cement poured into the engine compartment or ugly little windows cut out of the turret, defacing the tank, to satisfy some nation's security rules.