I made a few calls. Usually cooperative people at the U.S. Embassy in Slovakia and behind the editorial desks at English-speaking newspapers didn't have answers or didn't want to touch this. Only Excalibur Army did. It had not only the tanks but also the expertise to handle all aspects of a deal. Not that there weren't other less reputable operators around. Case in point: in 2006, when I'd been living in Slovakia, there was a tank fiasco. Sixteen T-72s were found in a potato warehouse, all ready to be shipped to Kyrgyzstan. A company had a contract with the Slovak Ministry of Defense to take the tanks apart, melt them down, whatever. But guess what? A police investigator on the scene said, "These tanks were . . . in perfect working order. All you had to do was turn the key." When I called Ivo Samson, a research fellow for the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, he told me, "You cannot find out details. If you have all the licenses, you can broker the transaction. It is a long, never-ending story in Slovakia."
At any rate, despite making little progress on an import license, I was soon back on a turret with Lubo Doshkov. It was a nasty, rainy day. Strings of water fell off a roof that protected a dozen T-72s, the cast-offs of various wars, failed regimes, forgotten battles. These were what a buyer had to choose from. "You say, 'I like this one,' " Doshkov said, glancing at one of the beaters. "We write down the number. Then for you it is rebuilt."
As promised, he'd e-mailed me the prices: $60,000 "as is" for a fixer-upper; $105,000 for a complete rebuild. The prices startled me. You'd pay close to $90,000 for a big, new German supersedan such as a BMW M5 or a Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG. Or, for that matter, for a fancy RV. Not that the creature comforts in the sedans, the road palace, and a combat-ready T-72 - which is low-tech and easy to repair but short on cabin amenities - are comparable. But a tank is mythic, both in design and power. With an impenetrable hide, a fire-breathing snout, a swiveling head, clacking legs, eyes you can't see, and a few brains in there somewhere, a tank pushes a lot of primal buttons. It's hard to imagine that anything else you might buy for the prices Doshkov quoted would have quite the same impact.
I took another close look at the T-72s huddled together out of the rain. Their numerical designations, faded paint jobs, and tilting fuel drums all seemed to tell stories. Out in the wet, I spotted a broken T-72 just in from Iraq. Treadless, on its road wheels, creamy white and mocha brown, the desert sand eater awaited a sympathetic buyer, one with a courtyard or a war. All he needed was an import license. To the east, cannon barrels crisscrossed. Beyond them flashed the wet, shiny tail of a MiG-21, rebuilt and ready to fly. Jutting above all the cannons and the turrets, it looked like the fin of a big fish escaping green predators.
Finally, Doshkov got a call. Either the team at Excalibur Army was bored or they had decided that I was a big shot. A T-72 awaited me. And the rain had let up. Doshkov, in an expansive mood, told me as we walked in its direction that he had been in the Bulgarian army but was too big for a tank. "I was infantry soldier," he said with a laugh. "I was the guy running after the tanks."
We rounded a corner, and there sat the demo T-72, warming up. It emitted a solid roar, like a blast furnace. Operating fluids were getting hot. Spitka and a driver were going in and out of the hatches. "This is a T-72MK, a commander's model, going to the American Air Force," Doshkov said in my ear.
The driver soon slipped into the body, his head small and conspicuous. Inside the tight quarters were levers, the kind used in a bulldozer, for pivoting on the treads, an eight-speed transmission, and conventional foot pedals - a clutch, a brake, and an accelerator. And no, I was told, you won't be driving. It's too dangerous in such a tight space.
I didn't object. I jumped off the tank, now idling like a revved-up stock car. The driver soon lurched the tank forward, then back. He looked bored, probably wondering what in the hell we were doing this for. Climbing onboard, Spitka slid into the commander's cockpit with his cockeyed smile and brought the cannon alive. It rose and fell; the turret moved left and right. The cannon finally stopped. It was eerie, having it aimed at me from a couple feet away, threatening to put a hole through me as big as the moon. Uneasy, I sidled away, behind the fender of a big truck. Spitka, the joker, swiveled the cannon horizontally until it was aimed at the photographer, a Czech. Unamused, she held her ground. The scene felt tense for a mo-ment, frightening and vaguely familiar; it could have been Budapest in '56, Prague in '68, Tiananmen Square in '89, Iraq in 2007. But then Spitka appeared, smiling. It was just an Excalibur Army salesman having fun. Now, did the American want to buy a tank?
I didn't have an answer. A few months later, I still don't. But when I walk out through the deep snow in my backyard, I can easily imagine a tank there, painted pink, draped in white, the cannon long and symbolic and disarmed. It would be a remarkable sight.
Where should I go to drive a tank?
Excalibur Army's main depot is in Přelouč, an hour east of Prague by train. EA (www.excaliburarmy.cz) is the world's largest private dealer of military gear, from tanks to military kitchens. Entertainment events include "Tank Power Days," which usually run from April through September. If you want to drive a tank, this is the place to go. In the United States, two tank-driving outfits - one in Texas, the other in Minnesota - have recently gone cannons up.
Tanks for the Memories
By Don Sherman
With two Shermans on the masthead of Automobile Magazine, we couldn't resist this tribute to America's armored WWII hero, the Sherman tank.
Army and Marine designation: M4 medium tank
Named after: Civil War General William T. Sherman
Built by: Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, and others
Number manufactured: Approximately 50,000
Used by: All Allies in the European and Pacific theaters; later, various foreign armies
Service span: El Alamein (1942) through Arab-Israeli War (1973)
Armament: 75- or 76-mm gun or 105-mm howitzer
Weight: 33 tons
Power: Various gasolineand diesel engines by Caterpillar, Chrysler, Continental, Ford, and GM
Consumption: Approximately 1.5 gallons of fuel per mile
Top speed: Approximately 25 mph
Crew: Commander, driver, co-driver, gunner, loader
Tommycooker (by the Germans)
Ronson (by the British)
Burning Grave (by the Polish)
Death Trap (by Belton Cooper, 3rd Armored Division historian)
Superior Tool of War (by General George S. Patton)