As a broadly curious dilettante, I know just enough about a lot of things to create an impression among the uninitiated that I might even know what I’m talking about. Last week during a tour of the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Museum and Restoration Facilities in Aberdeen, Maryland, the shallowness of my knowledge became all too evident.
A friend had invited me to the tour, and since I can glibly ID on sight, things like an M-4 Sherman, or a British Centurion, a Panzer Mk IV, or a Soviet T-34, I accepted the invite. And by the way, a 155-mm rifled gun was the primary armament on the Cold War version of the Centurion.
The Aberdeen tour was arranged for a convention in nearby Havre de Grace of an organization of affable eccentrics called AMPS, “The Armor Modeling and Preservation Society.” These are the highly skilled and even more highly knowledgeable hobbyists who build detailed scale-models of armored fighting vehicles, i.e. tanks. They periodically gather to bond and to pass judgments on each other’s works. Mostly middle-aged to older males, they tilt heavily toward the “gearhead,” engineer, “gosh gee-whiz” personae.
During the orientation preceding the tour, I began to get intimations of what I had fallen into. Surrounding me, were jackets and hats featuring embroidered tanks and the patches of the various regional chapters of AMPS. The fleece jacket on the camera-laden man to my left announced his membership in “AMPS, Ottawa.” The back of the T-shirt on one of the guys in front of me sported a silk-screened image of a Wermacht-era King Tiger and large Gothic letters proclaiming “Panzerfest 2007.” There I was, embedded among the true and obsessed literati of the machines of war.
There were almost one hundred or so AMPS attendees, just about all male. The few women present seemed to have the same attentiveness to the subject matter as the men. One guy, far too young to have served in WW II, wore a vintage khaki shirt with T-5 stripes and the shoulder patch of an armored division that had been deactivated in 1945. I felt I was staring out onto that slippery slope that separates a somewhat rational interest in the minutiae of history from the totality of reenacting.
Following our orientation, we were divided into groups, and in what turned into a complete muddle, dispatched to the restoration shops. With different disassociated crowds of lost armor tourists, we wandered the post’s workshops and warehouses in search of the restoration facilities. Being among the lucky, we found a workshop where a French, Renault FT-17 tank, used by the AEF in France in 1918, was being restored for display. That the AEF was equipped with Renault tanks was a reflection of the war ending before American factories could provide a suddenly gigantic U.S. Army with tanks, aircraft or artillery pieces.
The first thing that struck me about the shell of the Renault was its size, not much bigger than a VW Beetle. The thickness of the steel that made up the shell was as remarkable to me as the complexity of the over ninety-year old wheel assemblies that carried the vehicle’s tracks. Everything had been stripped-down and water-blasted to bare metal, a process that also removed any residual muck of a long-ago Western Front.
While I ruminated on this little wonder of a fossil in the evolution of armored warfare, an AMPS member next to me was busy shooting photos of a pile of stacked up tracks when one of his fellows walked up and began pointing at the tracks and excitedly going on. “See! See! I told you that the numbers on the underside of the tracks were on the inside as well as the outside.” I sensed it was time to move away.
Falling in with another group, we were passing a line of derelict and rusting vintage tanks that a Proving Grounds staffer told us were awaiting restoration for museums around the world. One enthusiast near us began shouting and pointing at a particular tank. “Look at that M-4. It’s an ‘Iwo’ tank.” Like a school of fish, we turned as one toward this “Iwo” thing. What had captured the attention of the group were the flotation rings on the hull which according to our excited expert had been fitted to a number of M-4 Shermans for the amphibious landing on Iwo Jima in 1945. In an aside to add credence to his declaration, he noted that he’d been on Iwo thirteen times, but being about forty-years too young for the battle, he announced that he’d been there as a “battlefield” tour guide. If that wasn’t enough, a guy standing near me noted that another M-4 actually had an A-3 turret. As all heads turned toward this new discovery, a murmered “Very rare, very rare” filled the morning air.
I discreetly suggested to my buddy, that perhaps it was time for us to get the hell out of there. What if this whole business was contagious?