'All right -- a brother in mud!" shouted an elated and muck-covered Todd Holmes as Mike Thatcher emerged from an army tank, his face freckled with dirt.
Thatcher, of West Bend, Iowa, appeared to be in a daze, his once-pristine Angry Birds T-shirt now a muddy mess. He looked around, smiled and pronounced the experience of blowing through the mudhole "really cool."
The two men weren't in Afghanistan, or Iraq, and they weren't soldiers. They were civilians living out a G.I. Joe fantasy in Kasota, Minn., home of Drive a Tank.
If you have 500 bucks and a strong urge to drive one of the most indestructible vehicles ever made, this outfit has just the pastime for you.
Located on 20 acres on the edge of a small town near St. Peter, Drive a Tank claims to be the only company in the country that offers the chance to drive a real military tank, crush a car with one, and then shoot real historic machine guns, all at the same site.
Thatcher's wife, Diane, had bought the experience as a present because "he's always really wanted to drive a tank," she said.
Holmes compared it to "driving a JetSki, the way you pull back on the rake, but my motorcycle goes a lot faster." His wife, Lori Ann, had bought it as a birthday surprise.
"When he was in the military, he served on a nuclear submarine, but he never got to do this," she said.
On a recent Saturday, 13 drivers, some with friends or family members in tow, sat in the instruction room, eager to get the safety tips over with and jump into the tanks.
Tony Borglum, who runs the family-owned business, adopts the air of commander: "We will escort you off the property if you don't follow the rules," he said. "But we won't call you maggot, so maybe we are more polite than the Army."
It's clear that Borglum, 26, has practiced his mock drill-sergeant shtick, but he still drives home the message that they don't take safety issues lightly.
Always approach tanks from the side, he says. Don't hang out behind the vehicle arguing about who gets to drive next, don't get cocky on the ladder. Oh, and one more thing: "Fight the raccoon within," he admonished, meaning, "when you see something shiny inside the tank, resist the urge to fiddle with it."
That's because navigating a 14-wheel, 40-ton armored behemoth designed to crush anything in its path can be daunting. Even if it has been de-fanged of its shooting capability. Even if there's a trusty guide shouting instructions and reassurance into your left ear.
As you bump along the rough, twisty trail cut in the woods, you have to pull hard on the levers in front of you to turn left or right. Your heart just might leap to your throat as you hurtle down a hill, straight through a giant mudhole that splashes sky-high. Well, maybe you're not really hurtling. But it sure feels like it.
Top speed of one of the tanks is 30 miles per hour, but the staff typically keeps customers going between 5 and 9 mph.
"Believe me, 15 miles an hour in one of these things feels more like 50 when you're behind the wheel," Borglum said. Regardless, each driver is accompanied by a staffer who can put on the brakes or kill the engine if they see fit.
Since Drive a Tank opened last summer, the only casualties have been a few bruised trees. LeSueur County Sheriff Tom Doherty reports no problems: "They're really nice people, doing well for themselves, who seem to be doing things in a safe manner," he said.
Drive a Tank offers two packages, priced at $399 and $549. It costs an extra $549 for the ultimate in aggression relief -- crushing a car. So who shells out the amount of green necessary to make this scene?
Birthday parties, anniversary surprises and corporate team-building exercises have brought groups to Drive a Tank, Borglum said: "Even bachelor parties don't tend to get too wild, because the guys who choose to do this are doing it instead of drinking."
Pro athletes and other wealthy types from all over the country fly in for private days on occasion, but the experience also attracts regular Joes and Janes. Borglum said he's had a driver as young as 11 at the controls (with an accompanying parent's permission).
"The kids tend to do OK -- they listen better than the adults because they're not so confident they'll know how to do it," he said.
British, not American
Not all the vehicles are technically tanks, as some U.S. military veterans have noted on the company's website. At least one is an armored personnel carrier. And none of them is American. Borglum, who got the idea for Drive a Tank when he visited a similar operation in England, bought most of the tanks in Great Britain and had them shipped here.
Turns out it's not so easy to buy a working tank in the United States. And it's quite likely to be illegal.
"In the case of combat vehicles the U.S. Army no longer needs or uses, the Department of Defense's demilitarization policy requires them to be destroyed," said Ken MacNevin, spokesman for the Defense Logistics Agency's Disposition Services, which oversees excess military property. "You might see a tank outside a VFW or in a park, but it isn't a working one, and the government considers it to be a long-term loan. No one else really owns it."
Back in the field, the mud-spattered platoon of civilians gathered around a battered red Toyota. Mike Thatcher was the only customer that day who'd bought the car-crushing package, so he was going to have the most fun. But just watching could be almost as enjoyable.
Thatcher rolled a battle tank out of a giant garage. Looking like a defenseless lamb resigned to its fate in the wolf's jaws, the little junker didn't stand a chance as Thatcher piled on top, flattening it.
The final part of the Drive a Tank package involves shooting historic firearms at the facility's small indoor range, but that seems like the cherry on top of what the customers really came for.
"The question isn't who wants to drive a tank," Borglum said. "The question is, who wouldn't want to?"
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046