A grizzled, bright-eyed mechanic named Bytel pulled himself up the sloping front of the tank, carrying a long, steel key that looked vaguely ecclesiastical. With the odd-looking key, he unscrewed the latches for the three-man crew: gunner and commander in the revolving turret, driver in the tank's body. With Doshkov translating, Bytel told me that in the communist era, he'd been responsible for forty tanks in an armored division of 300. "I used to enjoy driving them," he said. "Now, I'm getting old."
I knew the feeling. Awkwardly, I slid down into the gunner's slot, 160 pounds of protoplasm into 49 tons of steel. My immediate impression was that ergonomics are not a strong point of a T-72, but claustrophobia is. There was a gun sight before my eyes, a cannon breech by my elbow, an aura of lethal power all around. "It must be noted that a human being in close proximity to the breech block of a 2A46 cannon when it is fired will find the event difficult to ignore or forget." That came from a Wikipedia contributor. Staring at the breech block, which was the size of a small safe, and imagining the recoil, I believed the author.
Next, Doshkov had me slide into the commander's seat in order, as he put it, "to savor the full tank experience." Speaking to the top of my head, he said it was too bad I'd missed this year's "Tank Power Days" at Excalibur Army, when a variety of tanks were on display and rides were available. "You will come back in the spring and take a drive," he said encouragingly.
I was busy looking through the commander's prismatic periscope. I couldn't see a thing. Fiddling with the communications gear and some switches, I got grease on my hands. I wiped them on my pants and found Doshkov blocking my way out, the sheltering blue sky framing his head. He brushed the foamy interior of the turret and said, "Anti-nuclear material. Nobody knows exactly what it is." Actually, they do know, I thought, having done some homework. It was boron and a mix of metals, lead, plastic, and glass to block radiation from blasting your mitochondria. "Nice feature," I said, touching the stuff.
A second salesman, a character named Spitka, joined us on the crowded turret. Spitka, who wore full camo and combat boots, had flown MiGs in Afghan-istan in the '80s. He smiled a lot and had a quirky, perverse sense of humor. Spitka asked me why Americans are so fat, why we have slow speed limits, what it is about the babes on Baywatch. I replied, "Too much junk food, safety, and I don't know." Later, Spitka asked me if I was really with the CIA and showed me a trunk full of decommissioned machine guns wrapped in red plastic and suggested that they would make nice Christmas gifts for only $250 each.
Spitka, Bytel, and Doshkov liked to talk tanks while standing on one in the warm sun. I began wondering what they thought of me. Was I for real, maybe a scout for a film producer (they mentioned Tobruk, a feature being shot in Libya, its war gear rented here), or was I just acting, like a guy with shallow pockets at a Ferrari dealer, hoping for a ride? I was saved by the train, so to speak, as I had to catch mine back to Prague. Doshkov walked me to the gate, past some small Serbian tanks called BVPs, rocket-firing trucks, OP-90 amphibious vehicles. Only half-jokingly, he said, "We have more military equipment here than the Czech army." Then, before I hurried off, he gave me the details for a sale:
-Excalibur Army sends me a price for a tank;
-I return an order, noting what I want rebuilt;
-EA goes to work on the tank;
-EA prepares an export license;
-I secure an import license;
-EA arranges shipping, after all licenses are in and papers signed.
"It will take three to four months after signing the contract. Shipping is the only problem. Forget Germany. Germans only cause problems. Go through Poland. It is easier." He smiled, waved. "In a couple months, you can have a tank in your courtyard."
What an absurd world we inhabit, I thought while on the train. This morning, I doubted I'd ever find a real tank for sale, and now all I need is an import license and the money. In our market-driven world, you can buy anything for a price, plus shipping. A tank is no exception. But an import license? If I lived in Kyrgyzstan or the Congo, even New Zealand or Germany, such a license might be easy to acquire. But not in America. Homeland Security would laugh at me, or interrogate me, or both. In Vermont, where I live, owning a tank would be beyond politically incorrect. If I parked a T-72 by the brook behind my house, aimed the cannon toward Quebec, and muttered something about protecting my village from an invasion, the police would show up and probably haul me away, even if the cannon was spiked.
Still, I asked, posing the same question to myself that I'd asked when I set off on this admittedly wacky quest, why couldn't a good guy own a tank? A Czech dad drove his kids to school not long ago in his tank, causing a ruckus, but he wasn't even arrested. A tank is a symbolic rig for now, for militant and security-fixated times. Forget your Hummers and your Smarts: Hummers are so over, and Smarts are just too cute. I'd finally located a tank for sale, but the real challenge was how to get it home.