- UN correspondent backs diplomacy with military force
- New Yorker without a driver's license learns to drive a tank
Uvalde, Texas (CNN)Tired of a beach vacation? Bored of yet another museum tour?
May I suggest driving and blasting a World War II-era Sherman tank?
I did just that and more, and it turned out to be an interesting break from the global tensions I cover as CNN's senior United Nations correspondent.
My CNN colleagues and I traveled to the town of Uvalde, nearly two hours out of San Antonio in southwest Texas. The story was their idea, and they were coming to shoot the video. But I also needed them to drive me there because I don't drive. (I live in New York City. Who needs it?)
I will confess that I was quite concerned I would not come back with my body intact. Why? I shot a gun in China once in 1989, and I almost fell backward holding it.
My Sherman tank with a mounted 76mm gun was waiting for me at DriveTanks.com, located on the sprawling 18,000-acre Ox hunting ranch.
Offering wannabe commanders a fleet of tanks from all over the world to operate, Drive Tanks claims to be the only place in the world where visitors can drive real tanks and shoot real tank rounds.
It's a fantastic experience even for experienced global thrill seekers, says co-founder Todd DeGidio.
"People say, after tank driving and shooting, (that) it's 'the best thing I've ever done in my life,'" DeGidio told me.
I didn't tell him this might be worst thing I'd attempted to do, already having mulled over instructions about how to get into the tank -- never mind learning how to drive or shoot. It looks so easy in World War II movies.
Feeling out of shape, I was concerned I would slip off the tank in my business suit and formal shoe wear. Why did my team suggest this outfit? I told them they would not be named in my will.
"We haven't lost one yet!" DeGidio told me after I asked him if I would survive the ride.
I guess it helped that there wouldn't be another tank shooting at me as I roared through the course. (Guests looking for a World War II faceoff in the Battle of the Bulge can purchase an encounter with a German Leopard tank when they visit.)
The Sherman is the park's most popular tank, with everyone from Russian and Indian visitors to soccer moms booking them for birthday surprises.
I was no Patton
I felt like it took four people to load me into the driver opening. My tank didn't see World War II combat but may have been headed to Japan when hostilities ended.
As DeGidio gave me my last-minute instructions, I still worried -- as I had for weeks -- that I didn't have a driver's license. I had only driven a car a few times in 1978.
DeGidio said I was good to go. (Only later did he concede he was worried before we set out. Of course he was!)
I sat in a raised seat, with my head poking out from the tank, with Todd talking to me via headset while he sat in another seat.
During the war, I can guarantee you a tank driver did not have CNN producer Julian Cummings hanging onto the front of the tank in a harness videotaping its occupants.
The distraction of Julian was the reason I missed an early key turn right out of the tank hanger. I was struck by how hard I had to turn the wheel to get the tank to handle curves. And I had to put a lot of pressure on the gas pedal to get it moving. The clutch? Where's the clutch? Give me a break.
This was no miniature golf course. My eyeballs almost fell out when I saw a huge cliff like drop ahead of us. I was sure the tank would roll over, and this is not how I wanted to go.
DeGidio assured me over the headsets that the tank could handle it.
We're under attack
We were under attack! (Sort of.) A high explosive charge went off as we plunged into a small creek, followed by another blast. Soon, I heard machine gun fire from pillbox on a hill, all part of the simulated battlefield experience.
Feeling the heat, the aching legs and a bit of fear, guests may get a minimal understanding of what servicemen went through sitting in tanks under real fire out in the open, facing more powerful Panzer unit tanks in World War II.
They could be sitting ducks, outgunned and encircled in some of the big tank encounters.
It was peacetime on the Ox Ranch, where guests pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars for machine gun shooting to over $8,000 for the whole works -- tank driving, shooting and let's add the flamethrower.
I did three tours of the course, gaining confidence as I practiced the route. Too bad I can't drive it through Times Square.
Sliding down a hill
I did have one bad moment.
As DeGidio screamed for me to floor it, I came up short going up a hill. It was a scary moment as we slid backwards, and I didn't breathe properly until we came to a stop. The tank may have been short of gasoline or I had probably failed to anticipate the incline.
After driving a tank for the first time in my life, my CNN team forced me to be the triggerman on the big gun on the tank, blasting a 15-pound projectile at an old shot-up car.
In combat, the cannon on top can penetrate armor of enemy tanks, although the World War II-era German tanks were sturdier and could out blast the US Sherman tanks from a distance.
DeGidio had promised a concussive experience, and he delivered. (I wore earplugs). He made me yell "Fire in the hole!" At first nothing happened and Todd then gave this rope a little tug and we heard a "BAM!" and saw flash of flame.
Then I blasted the tank's .50-caliber automatic machine gun, the bullets spitting out in rapid fire action. (I tried to aim away from my CNN colleagues. They all survived.)
The heat of the flamethrower made me feel I was on a grill.
"Of course, it's hot," DeGidio said. "It's a flamethrower."
The legs were wobbling as we left the ranch, the sun setting in West Texas. The first tank ride of my life was finally over.
If you want to follow in my tread marks, reservations are recommended. Would-be guests should not appear on the tank course unexpectedly.
DriveTanks,1946 Road 2485, Uvalde, Texas; +1 830 351 8265