Well I thought it was neat!


Dabbs made this little handcrafted wooden model tank as a gift for a friend,
and truly extraordinary man, who crewed these things during the war.


They’re pretty much all gone now. When I was a kid, the country was blanketed with a thin patina of World War II veterans. They sold cars, ran service stations and populated local government. Making sweeping generalizations, they were responsible, industrious and selfless. They had seen so much pain and suffering they just wanted to make the world a better place. We are all beneficiaries of that today.

I both loved and hated working at Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. The hours were long, and the patients were just crazy sick. However, I hit that sweet spot when the old WWII guys populated the place. That bit I absolutely loved. Every time I had a free minute, I just found a door ajar with the lights on, plopped myself down in a handy chair, and said, “Tell me a story.”

I have dozens, but this one guy became a proper friend. His name was Powell Mahaffey. He died at age 95 after a rich, long, productive life of blessing people. I don’t think he’d mind my using his real name.


War Stories


Mahaffey was a tanker. He landed shortly after D-Day and fought all the way until the end of the war in Europe. Along the way, he had five Shermans shot out from under him. He was the only member of his original crew to survive the war. I cannot imagine how that must have felt. If you have seen the movie “Fury,” it was probably something like that — only worse.

He didn’t talk much about the bad stuff. Like most of those awesome old guys, he’d just get a twinkle in his eyes and relate the mischievous or funny tales. That’s the way the human animal is wired. It helps us survive in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

To my recollection, Mahaffey didn’t drink. However, booze back in the war zone was the universal currency. It could be bartered for anything, and it would serve as a welcome diversion in a world gone insane. He said one day, he and his crew happened upon a warehouse full of cognac in some bombed-out little town in Belgium. Appreciating the unique opportunity, they pulled their M4 tank up outside the building and began stacking crates of liquor on the back engine deck. While they were feverishly working, a German kubelwagen with three Wehrmacht soldiers happened to cruise by. All involved grabbed their weapons in a frenzy. The German vehicle passed within feet of the American tank before disappearing around the corner, and nobody fired a shot. Gobsmacked by the sheer weirdness of that exchange, his crew beat feet, their tank now stacked high with pilfered spirits.

Later that day, Mahaffey’s tank was cruising along a forgotten Belgian road when, out of the clear blue sky, a single 60mm mortar round impacted on the back engine deck. For those unfamiliar, mortars are fairly imprecise indirect fire weapons. They are designed to be fired en masse against area targets to saturate a space with fire, not to strike moving targets with surgical precision. Though the explosion did not damage the tank, it utterly obliterated the stolen cognac. He told me he felt that was a sign from God that he shouldn’t drink alcohol or steal other people’s booze. In the grand scheme, he felt it was a cheap lesson.


Powell Mahaffey immediately recognized the case of
cognac stacked on the back engine deck.

A Mark of Friendship


Mahaffey and his delightful wife lived in the same little town as did we. Once we got him tuned up and discharged from the hospital, he sought me out and had my family over for dinner. We had a simply wonderful time. I made him a present in appreciation.

Back before I did so much writing, I lived in my workshop. I have a lot of nervous energy and have to be doing something productive all the time, or my brain will explode. Yeah, my wife is indeed an exceptionally longsuffering lass. One of my favorite pastimes was building wooden models.

I made tanks, ships, airplanes and helicopters. Plastic models are way more detailed, but mine were crafted by hand and customized to the situation and the recipient. When I made one for somebody, I typically made them in pairs and kept one for myself. That’s where my copy of Mahaffey’s Sherman came from.

The tank is cut from 2×4 white pine. I shaped the components on a sanding wheel improvised out of an old lawnmower chassis. The tracks are formed from strips of black sewing elastic. It is an M4A1 with the stubby 75mm gun patterned after the one Mahaffey described as his favorite of the five he crewed. On the back, I took a little block of wood and sunk half a dozen nails in two rows of three. When I gave him the tank, he recognized that immediately as a case of cognac.


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