- Associated Press - Monday, June 12, 2017

UVALDE, Texas (AP) - It’s hard to say which is the more unlikely sight at Ox Ranch, a giraffe munching on mesquite leaves or a West German army tank racing across a spring-fed creek.

The Houston Chronicle reports these 18,000 acres west of San Antonio are both a free-roaming range filled with exotic animals - some to hunt, the giraffes and others simply to admire - and home to DriveTanks.com, where tourists pay to transport themselves, “Fantasy Island” style, into another era and another life. With some of history’s fiercest military weapons suddenly at their disposal, they can strafe a sandy pasture with a belt-fed machine gun or shell the side of a mountain with a howitzer.

The most adventurous choose from among a half-dozen vintage tanks, steering one like the Cold War-era Leopard around a rugged course through the South Texas brush. Topping the menu is one of the M4 Shermans that helped the Allies win World War ??II. For $2,800, guests can drive the famed tank and then hurl a round from its massive turret at an abandoned car hundreds of yards down range.

It’s the world’s only live-firing Sherman gun in private hands the public can shoot, says Todd DeGidio, a retired Houston Police Department helicopter pilot who founded DriveTanks.com with his stepson. The attraction opened last summer.

The primary objective, DeGidio says, is for customers to “just have fun.” He stresses that almost as much as safety.

“Everybody who comes here has a smile on their face,” adds Glenn Fleming, an Air Force veteran and firearms expert tasked with preparing the guns and ordnance and dealing with the inevitable jams and breakdowns on equipment that is more than 70 years old.

Yet for some visitors, DriveTanks.com proves to be about much more than having a good time.

The billboards for shooting ranges and feral-hog hunts that line the highways between Houston and Uvalde, four hours to the west, suggest plenty of folks out here would love to empty the clip of a high-powered rifle in a few, adrenaline-soaked seconds. Count Ted Nugent, the controversial rocker, among the unabashed fans of DriveTanks.com and the hunting preserve on which it sits. He’s posted testimonials on the website and is a repeat visitor.

DeGidio knows how the business can look to much of the world.

“A lot of people see what we’re doing and they think, ‘Oh, they’re a bunch of gun nuts . a bunch of rednecks blowing up (stuff) in Texas.’?”

The story is not so black and white, and DeGidio maintains a sense of humor about the preconceptions. He reflects on them while relaxing on an overstuffed leather couch in the “Patton Lounge” above the tank barn, where the military hardware is stored and all manner of war memorabilia is on display. Overhead, WWII newsreels run in a continual loop on a big-screen television.

“I guess we do get labeled that,” he says with a smile. “We are in Texas, but we’re not rednecks.”

DeGidio, 51, is a man of robust build with an assertive salt-and-pepper beard. He’s also a by-the-book sort who taught himself how to run and maintain tanks largely by poring over the original manuals, dry and “definitely not something you want to sit in front of a fire and read.”

Before enrolling at the University of Houston in the late 1980s, DeGidio served as a Green Beret. He put in 21 years with HPD before launching his next project, developing a technology to help military and police agencies cope with active shooters, terror attacks and other challenging situations where accurate fire from helicopters, boats or other moving vehicles is required.

Stabilizing camera mounts are common on news helicopters, and DeGidio says he figured he could apply the technology to weapons, so marksmen could rely on more than straps and bungee cords to hold steady.

With an investment from his stepson Brent Oxley - “a business mogul-type guy” and the owner of Ox Ranch - DeGidio worked with engineers in California four or five years to develop a prototype of a portable “gyro-stabilized marksman platform” that can improve a weapon’s accuracy to within 6 inches at 300 yards.

The Talon, as it’s called, is now in production and being marketed strictly to police and military in a few countries. DeGidio heads the project, overseeing a small staff in Houston and the manufacturing work in California.

About five years ago, DeGidio went to his stepson with an opportunity to purchase a working Sherman tank from a collector. Again, the younger man saw business potential.

It turned out that Ox Ranch, which sells guided hunts for many of the 40-plus species of exotic animals Oxley has imported over the past five years, has several geographic advantages for tanking as sport. In addition to 28 square miles of space, there are earthen berms, ridge lines and hills tall enough to keep stray shells from skipping onto other properties.

They bought the Sherman and another tank, then some more, plus artillery pieces, rifles, machine guns, mortar launchers and even a flamethrower. Many of the weapons are from the WWII era.

As they built inventory, they also secured an array of licenses from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. One authorizes DeGidio to pack artillery powder into casings and affix armor-piercing projectiles that are shipped in from a manufacturer in Tennessee. It takes as little as half an hour to prepare a Sherman tank round.

DeGidio also put together a small team of people he could entrust with entertaining customers in a safe environment while also educating them on each weapon’s role in history.

“You can’t just get anyone off the street to come be in your cadre,” he says.

Construction on the DriveTanks.com facility at Ox Ranch began in early 2016, and the first tourists came through last July. Giraffes, camels and kangaroos, kept safely from harm in another part of the ranch, add to the mystique. A television producer is actively shopping a proposal for a reality TV series.

Paradigm SRP, corporate parent of both the Talon project and DriveTanks.com, doesn’t disclose financial details. But DeGidio says business at the tank attraction has been about double what was projected for the first year. Expansions are underway.

He, Fleming and the others have hosted bachelor parties and spring break outings, as well as fathers and sons, a single mom with her 15-year-old son and a former Russian military officer who defected to Chicago.

They dispense historical tidbits and encourage people not to worry about hitting a target on the range. Just let that machine gun rattle.

“We’re not killing things,” says DeGidio. “Just sand. Mostly sand.”

The Jones men arrive just before 9 a.m. on a recent Wednesday. It is their first “guys’ trip” together in three years, and they have purchased the $8,250 “Allies & Axis” package to celebrate Brett Jones’ birthday.

The group includes Brett and his brother Scott, longtime co-pastors of Humble-based Grace Church, and their sons, Casey and Spencer. Spencer, at 21 the youngest, is a senior at Houston Baptist University. He has brought a drone with an attached camera that he will deploy during downtime to check out the ranch from the air.

Their daylong outing will feature tank rides, time on the firing range with a variety of U.S.-, German- and Russian-made rifles and machine guns, and five big shots, including one from the howitzer and two from the Sherman. Lunch will be served at 1400 hours.

Starting off inside the tank barn, they listen with interest to guide Brandon Riley. They admire the weapons, occasionally picking one up and pretending to aim it. They talk about a scene from the movie “Saving Private Ryan” that one of the rifles has reminded them of. Spencer takes iPhone videos.

“That’s so cool,” he says of a British Scorpion tank that was used in the Falklands War.

Their time on the firing range heightens the excitement, as does a trip on the Leopard as it traverses the course and its steep dropoffs. Brett jokes afterward about how useful a tank would be on the Katy Freeway. “It gives a whole new meaning to merge,” he says.

But something else begins to happen, a subtle impact that might linger long after the Sherman is parked for the night.

It starts as the men take a German halftrack troop carrier out for a spin. Scott Jones can’t help but think that his son is the same age as the oldest soldiers crammed onto its uncomfortable benches seven decades ago. He imagines them bumping along trying to rest, maybe catch a little sleep leaning on their rifles, a thin sheet of metal protecting them from a harsh reality outside.

Most likely, he says, the soldiers just wanted to go home.

The glamorized Hollywood images fade away. Scott says he’s gained a new appreciation for the soldiers, as well as the tools of their trade. He feels it from the other Jones men, none of whom have been in the military.

“Our conversation keeps going past the machinery,” Scott says during a break. “Can you believe what they were doing? It gives you perspective.”

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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