Tanks for the Memories

Reconnoitering the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation and its 205 military vehicles. In Portola Valley.

"It's really exciting to see what we might uncover," says Narian with a twinkle in his eye. "Every tank is different, super-complex, super-interesting. If they could speak, what tales they'd tell."

Littlefield invites me to crawl under a freshly painted turret suspended by a crane. I admire the tank's blinding cleanliness and precision, its compact quarters, the specific compartments for flashlights, food rations, blankets, goggles, ammo, and weapons -- all the amenities of home.

"British tanks provide for tea service," chuckles Littlefield.

I climb on top of the Panther as the turret is removed for the first time and imagine that the air swirling through the cavity is heavy with memory, blood-hued, just like the metal under my feet.

Littlefield leads me through a door into a cavernous, rust-scented room where a dozen dilapidated tanks loom like a legion of murderous mammoths frozen in steel. They are awesome -- there is no other word for it -- and their sheer bulk cannot fully account for the depth of emotion they invoke. I face one, trying to imagine a standoff, and fail. My heart is pounding.

And this isn't even the beginning.

Littlefield shuffles me into a van and drives down the hill through the rain, pointing out a propeller recovered from the Lusitania, the British ocean liner sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland in 1915. He pulls up to the exhibition hangars; here are armored vehicles from nearly 20 countries, spanning 70 years of military might. For example: a 1941 Churchill Crocodile equipped with a flamethrower; a Cold War classic known as the Russian T55; a 12-ton half-track (as seen in The Dirty Dozen); a 1961 French Eland; a 1966 M551 Sheridan; a U.S.-Israeli M1 Super Sherman; the only restored and semi-operational SdKfz 222 German reconnaissance vehicle in the world; a 1938 BMW R75 motorcycle complete with machine-gun mount and swastika-emblazoned sidecar; a Russian 2S7 Pion, the largest armored combat vehicle ever made; the most complete British Conqueror Mk 1 in existence, which represents the largest tank ever built; a 1945 Howitzer Motor Carriage; a wooden-wheeled artillery launcher Model 92 from Japan; an RPG tank destroyer (as seen in Bosnia); a 58-foot-long, 70,000-pound tank transporter known as a Dragon Wagon; the exact T54 Lori Petty straddled in Tank Girl; and two Scud missiles.

"Saddam Hussein has 12, and I have two," says Littlefield with a funny little nod.

Enticed by the idea of in-tank tea service, I climb onto a British tank and drop down inside, squeezing into the gunner's position.

"Grab the joystick at your right," directs Littlefield, "and look through the sight. Your ammo man is to your left. You're taking orders from a man behind you. It's a little cozy."

I squint through my scope. Snug inside this thick metal husk, with a 105mm gun between me and the world, I feel exactly the opposite of the way I did at the shop, standing in front of the guns: I feel big and fierce and excited.

"So how many more tanks do you plan to get?" I ask by phone later.

"Well, it's kind of like art collecting," says Littlefield. "There's probably 50 I want, but 15 that I can actually get."

And what, then, is the Mona Lisa of tanks?

"The German Tiger," says Littlefield without hesitation, "but I think I'll be able to get one of those one day. There are always tank parts popping up for sale."

I finger a photograph of me crouched on top of a Sherman tank, grinning like a wild woman, and a magazine article, accompanied by a photograph of a Russian T62 with the words "For Sale. Never Been Fired." painted on the side. I wonder if they should be added to my photograph box.

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