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|24 DEC 2005 at 12:00am|
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Posted In: Articles : Editorial
Going for a Spin in the Family Car
When Bill Gasser and his wife Karen venture out for a pleasant weekend drive they do it in head-turning style. Not for them a gas-guzzling SUV; neither would they be interested in cultivating the suburban chic afforded by a safe-but-boxy Volvo. They already know they?re as safe from the actions of other drivers as any motorists could expect to be. Moreover, they?re also reasonably safe from blocks of falling cement, run-away mopeds, frozen snowballs hurled by malevolent urchins; collisions with any pedestrians smaller than King Kong; and the odd burst of random small arms fire.
That?s because the Gasser family car is a fully restored M3A1 armored reconnaissance vehicle, manufactured by the White Motor Company circa 1943, complete with a working .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the turret-ring. Not that Bill and Karen drive around with a full ammo box attached to their pet Browning, but theoretically they could if they wanted to; Gasser has all the necessary Federal clearance and licenses to own, and shoot, virtually any weapon in his collection, although the Feds would probably draw the line if he tried to go plinking with one of his two 8-inch howitzers (damn, those rounds are expensive!); moving them around is also a problem, since each gun weighs approximately eight tons.
Occasionally, when the scout car?s ?in the shop?, Gasser cranks up a Sherman or a half-track and takes it out for a spin on the rolling wooded terrain behind his house ? he?s got room to roam, for his property encompasses several square miles of prime Virginia countryside, from Highway 29 down to the banks of the peaceful meandering Dan River.
When Gasser speaks about taking tanks out for a spin, he does so in a manner almost defiantly casual ? he located these vehicles, he raised the money to acquire them and to move them to his museum, where he and his small staff of craftsmen rehabilitated, repaired, and in some cases virtually reconstructed them. And if they are drivable and he happens to feel like cranking them up, he?s bloody well going to do it. His expression and body language seem to be saying Do not challenge me in this matter.
I wouldn?t dream of it. Bill Gasser customarily greets museum guests in a colorful outfit that?s part uniform, part costume, and all macho: camo pants and blouse, adorned with the odd bit of esoteric tanker insignia, combat boots, a floppy fatigue hat, and a loaded automatic pistol riding high on his right hip. It isn?t necessary to ask him if he?s prepared to use the weapon, should any terrorist try to hot-wire one of his Shermans or some enterprising thief try to abscond with one of his extremely valuable gold-embossed 16th-Century breastplates. He?s got a penetrating gun-slinger?s gaze and a tight, sardonic smile framed by a rough rust-red beard. He?s one of those lanky, naturally speedy guys who seem to have inherited the metabolism of a humming bird; he doesn?t ?walk? ? he lopes, with a bounding, springy step. As he leads you from one fascinating exhibit to the next, his tour-guide spiel drifts back over his shoulders in clipped staccato bursts: a torrent of facts, figures, and historical anecdotes, interspersed with the occasional snappy one-liner. He?s probably repeated most of this patter ten thousand times, but that?s by choice ? he never sounds bored or mechanical in his delivery. He could afford to hire professional guides, but whenever his work-load permits, he?d rather greet and escort visitors himself.
And he prefers to do so in a colorful manner. His chosen style makes him look liked a cross between a Balkan partisan and an out-of-work mercenary hunting for his next contract. He speaks with unmistakable passion ? the man simply loves his tanks and he wants you to love them, too.
?But the ?House Rules? section of the front-desk brochure is dead serious,? he told us as we gave the Gift Shop a quick once-over. ?You?re welcome to take pictures of the vehicles and the artillery, but not of the uniforms, art-work, posters or banners. Nineteenth-Century fabrics don?t react well to being hit by thousands of camera flashes ? they can have a deleterious effect on the dyes and fibers. If you?re in doubt as to whether or not you can shoot a picture of something, ask me first.? He paused and gave both me and my cameraman a rather piercing glance. ?I?ll probably say ?no?, but you can ask. I sometimes have people in here who think I?m joking about that. If they knew how much I have to pay in insurance each year for all these things, they?d realize I?m quite serious. If they don?t see me hanging around, some of them can?t resist sneaking pictures, just because I asked them not to. If I catch them doing it ? and I usually do ? I give them one warning. If I catch them doing it again, out they go.? He gestures to the walkie-talkie on his belt. ?I enjoy cordial relations with the Danville police department and if I push one of these buttons, there?ll be a squad car here in minutes. And no matter how loud they holler, they don?t get their money back from the admission booth.?
We promised to behave ourselves and did. But such is the prestige of The Wargamer that Gasser relented a few times and allowed us to take some photos of exhibits that were verboten to tourist cameras; by the end of the day, he even agreed that it might make a droll shot for this article if I posed with the nattily attired SS officers ostensibly grouped around a conference table. The authentic uniforms those dummies are wearing are probably worth more than ten thousand dollars on the collectables market, so this was no minor indulgence he was granting us. The resulting shot, I thought, was well worth the trouble it took to set up, but my wife, among others who?ve seen the ?group picture?, thought it displayed questionable taste on my part. Maybe so, but could you resist?
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