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.
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.
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 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)