More than a year ago, I had read of a place called Drive A Tank.
At this “tank camp” in Kasota, Minn., (its motto: “History. Power. Tanks.”) you can channel your inner Patton, Rommel, or more likely in my case, Dukakis.
Powerful rumbling machines that can obliterate whatever’s in their path? A chance to do something completely different? And a memorable way to celebrate my 50th birthday with my childhood chums?
Thus a scheme was born.
For well over a year, I saved and plotted, luring my friends into this indulgence. John and Pedro were daft enough to agree to my Walter Mitty adventure.
To get in the proper tank-driving mood, we visited the mammoth Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., to catch the World War II tank drama “Fury” starring Brad Pitt.
The movie was gritty, violent and realistic, and watching it gave me renewed appreciation for our men and women of the military, and especially those who are so-called “tankers.”
The next morning, we drove an hour south, the flat farmlands of Minnesota punctuated occasionally by a roadside stand or a nature preserve.
Inspired by the movie the night before, we spent part of the trip brainstorming nicknames for ourselves: I was “Bushmeat,” (don’t ask); Pedro was “Gas Can” (really don’t ask) and John was the ever-fear-inspiring “Butter Sauce” because, John, like butter sauce, is addictive and bad for your health!
We got to DAT, which is headquartered at a former quarry, and, unexpectedly, is separated only by railroad tracks from a residential neighborhood.
In keeping with the spirit of the trip, John bought each of us camo shirts. Silly? Yes. Dorky? Yes. In keeping with our fashion sensibilities? 100 percent.
Upon seeing a photo of the three of us in these shirts, Pedro dubbed us the “Menudo of Macho”!
We had an hour-long history and safety orientation that was both alarming — we were told these were not Disney World rides, that these were killing machines and we would die indescribably horrible deaths if we did not follow instructions — and illuminating about the history of tanks.
After the safety session we were divided into two groups: Those who would drive a tank first and those who would fire machine guns first.
As part of my booking of the “4-Star General Package,” I got to fire a Sten machine gun (that was cool); a 1919 belt-fed machine gun (which was crazy) but the mother of them all was the M4, which had such recoil that it damn near put me on my butt!
Then we piled into an enclosed 5-ton Army transport truck, which drove us to a concrete barrier-enclosed pen that served as the starting place for the tank driving.
We waited as other drivers and their passengers went first. Seeing “my ride” — an FV433 Abbot SPG — was bit of a holy Moses moment.
With its squeaky, rattling treads and stout turret, the Abbot was more compact than I imagined but no less fearsome.
I watched as other drivers climbed a ladder to reach the top of the tank, which drove off in a plume of dust. Then a DAT staffer with a clipboard called out my name. My moment of glory! To drive a tank!
I lowered myself into a narrow hatch into the controls of the Abbot (top speed of 29 mph).
Pedro and John were passengers in the rear. Like gophers, our heads stuck out from just the tops of the hatches.
For the record, the artillery function on the tanks was disabled so there was no chance of blowing things up. Just the same, I was warned not to press any buttons on the control panels.
A tank “commander” (a staffer of DAT) rode atop the tank offering me instructions. Essentially, the controls consisted of a gas pedal and two sticks that you used to steer and to brake.
Want to steer left? Pull the left stick toward you. It effectively caused that side’s tread to brake so the tank would pull in the direction you wanted to go.
And off we went for about 12 minutes on an unpaved path, through a small water obstacle and back to our starting point. It was exhilarating to hear this machine snort and chug under my control!
Next was an FV432 APC (armored personnel carrier) with a top speed of 32 mph. I drove this one in “combat mode,” which meant I lowered myself into a narrow portal, with the hatch closed and my view was through a periscope!
It was hot, noisy and claustrophobic in there.
Pedro and John again were passengers, but they were enclosed in what amounted to a darkened vault in the rear of the vehicle. The guys said I drove this one much more smoothly than the first.
I have to say it was challenging to drive one of these vehicles in peacetime under optimal conditions. I cannot even imagine what it is like operating these machines in chaotic combat situations.
So I learned how to drive a tank. But the more enduring lesson I learned was about the importance of having best friends willing (and crazy enough) to help you fulfill your dreams!