EVARO HILL - "The Gunny" came to town Tuesday, and things went boom.
Cameras whirred in a gulch up Evaro Hill as lanky R. Lee Ermey, an ex-Marine sergeant and Golden Globe-nominated actor, folded himself into one of the few World War I tanks in the United States that still runs - and the only one that still shoots.
Below him in the driver's seat sat Hayes Otoupalik, the tank's owner and one of Montana's foremost military collectors.
They were filming part of an early episode in an upcoming series on the History Channel, "Locked and Loaded," to be hosted by the jovial Ermey, who's known to legions of military buffs and movie fans as The Gunny.
The hourlong show, set to debut in July, is an expanded and souped-up version of Ermey's popular "Mail Call," which was recently discontinued after eight seasons.
The conversation from inside the tank was riveting. Producer/director French Horwitz lined up the gun to fire at a wall of cinderblock constructed for the exercise. Meanwhile, Otoupalik gave The Gunny instructions on how to operate the gun and rotate the turret in the cranky tank.
"Boy, that takes two men and a horse, don't it?" Ermey said with a grunt.
"These old World War I tanks don't have a hand crank like they did later," Otoupalik pointed out.
Seconds later, the 65-year-old Ermey was ready.
"So now we just have to load and fire?" he said. "That's beautiful. Hayes, you missed your calling. You should have been a teacher. How long have you been doing this?"
Pretty much all his life, replied Otoupalik, who fulfilled a boyhood dream as a freshman in high school in 1965 when he bought a cannon that had been in use at Fort Missoula in 1883.
"I tell you, every day's been fun," he told Ermey, now from the driver's seat below. "I was able to take my childhood hobby and make my life's endeavor out of it."
The tank, a French-designed Renault FT-17, he picked up from an estate sale in Arizona in 1982. It was built in the United States in 1918 during the Great War, which was over before the machine could see overseas duty. Later it appeared in several movies, including a documentary Otoupalik shot himself in the early 1990s and sells on DVD.
The FT-17 has been called one of the most revolutionary and influential tank designs in history - light, easy to manufacture, maneuverable and the first with an armament in a fully rotating turret.
"This tank is like a Rembrandt," Otoupalik said. "It's the top of the meat chain."
It was also the oldest heavy artillery machine The Gunny ever sat in.
Except for a short trial run a couple of days earlier, the tank hadn't been out of storage for years, Otoupalik said. But it was ready to roll Tuesday, as were Horwitz and a small crew that included assistant producer Shannon Kemp, two cameramen, a sound mixer, a technical adviser and a handyman.
The California-based crew was in eastern Colorado 10 days ago, filming in a horizontal snowstorm, a scene that only served to deepen the crew's respect for Ermey.
"We were in minus-10 chill factor at Fort Morgan, and The Gunny says, 'Come on, let's do it. We're going to fire this pack howitzer,' " said Rob Scott, the sound man.
The crew accompanied The Gunny to Baghdad and Kuwait late last year.
"It was pretty awesome," Scott said. "He went over there and handed out 10,000 Christmas packages, and we documented the whole thing."
Scott is one of the biggest fans of Ermey, who played Gunnery Sgt. Hartmann in "Full Metal Jacket" and Mayor Tilman in "Mississippi Burning" and has had other roles in military, dramatic and - his favorite - comedy films.
"You know the cool thing about Gunny?" Scott said. "He spends 100 days a year on his own time going to visit the troops. He doesn't tell anybody, he just shows up and says, 'Hey, how you doing?'
"I've got to tell you, to watch the looks on those guys' faces, wherever he'd go to visit in the Middle East - that was a pretty awesome experience."
Tuesday was the warmest day of spring in Missoula, nothing like Colorado or even Missoula a week ago.
Otoupalik's tank was trailered across U.S. Highway 93 from his home, then up a nearby gulch with a carpet of buttercups and knapweed. With Otoupalik at the controls and the cameras rolling, it rolled into position in front of the wall of concrete blocks.
When all was ready, Horwitz instructed, "Load 'er up and fire away," then turning to a small knot of onlookers, "Everybody stand by."
"Let's go bunker bustin' ," Ermey called.
The first shot made a clean 3-inch hole through a block, then passed through the panel of two-by-fours set up a few feet back. More than 20 minutes later, after a series of readjustments and reshoots, Horwitz called, "All ready on the fire line."
"We are locked and loaded," Ermey said.
This shell demolished a block, but didn't make it to the wooden panel. Despite considerable searching, Ermey, Otoupalik and the crew could find no trace of it. For the camera, The Gunny speculated it was somewhere inside the cinderblock.
There was one more shot to fire. He and Otoupalik pulled melons, bananas and coconuts out of a wooden crate and placed them in front of the cement wall.
"This is why they call me The Gourmet Gunny," Ermey quipped. "We're gonna make fruit salad."
Otoupalik's pride and joy, the 91-year-old FT-17, did its job well.
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at email@example.com.