Wednesday, January 07, 2009
This morning I heard that Jacques Littlefield passed yesterday, January 7th, 2009, due to multiple cancers. Here are some of my thoughts as I remember this generous person, whose enthusiasm and dedication for preserving historic machines for posterity knew no bounds. If it constitutes a eulogy then so be it. I think that many of us in the club have their own stories about him -- and maybe some will come out with them -- but I imagine at least some of what I say here might be what a lot of us are thinking and feeling about now. It is my hope that this outpouring is somehow helpful and not too disorganized.
I don't know if I could possibly do an adequate job of eulogizing this fine man -- I'm not a professional writer -- all I can do is try to convey some of how his life affected me and our club and impacted our hobby to the extent I can know. His long history of charity work and how he was with his community and family, and the like, is not for me to describe. I think all the people that got to visit his property and actually met him, liked him for being such a regular guy even though he was a billionaire who had quite an extraordinary hobby. One which he was really quite willing to share with us in a very congenial way. Sometimes -- many times -- I would just stop in awe of what I -- a pathological nut about armor -- would see around me while up at the Ranch. It's like being a kid in a candy shop. After getting to know the BAT crew Jacques felt comfortable in handing me the keys to the museum whenever I had the need to show someone who couldn't make the tour, or if I need to measure a tank. I came to take this for granted, unfortunately, and never really finished photographing and measuring the handful of tanks I so much want to document. I fear this might be problematical now, but hope it will still be possible.
I think that as much as anyone I might have been a little bit in denial about his illness and thought that if anyone can beat the big C then one of the richest men in the world might have a good crack at it.
Often Jacques and what he did made it into the media, but it has only been in the last year that any sort of really good programs showed up with him. I am talking about the Tank Overhaul show on his beloved Panther. Eventually I would've expected more of such appearances of his collection and him and his crew in the future, and now it is a shame that this is not likely. Maybe Michael Green will get to do a proper book on Jacques and his fabulous collection while that is still possible.
BAT has lost a real friend, not just in that for years he opened his private museum and workshops to us, and provided a clubhouse and a dedicated area for our games, but because he truly enjoyed coming to see and talk to us at our monthly meetings whenever he was able to. And of course on the Big Battle Days weekends, too. In recent years he would bring his little boy Jaquitto to see the tanks running around. And often Sandy, his second wife. He hung out with us and shared his knowledge, stories, and opinions. "Wow!", is all I can say, and that is pretty much how virtually everyone reacted who had the opportunity to see what he's done with the place.
Anyone who has seen him around us with our models knows that he engaged us in discussion about what we had done such as weathering, or mechanical upgrades, etc. on our little tanks. It was one long continuum with him -- big tanks, small tanks -- it was still armor and he enjoyed it in all its aspects. His fascination and curiosity with the complexity of armor was obvious and he naturally appreciated that we with our small machines encountered many of the same problems that the big ones possessed. We have been very privileged in having had the chance to know Jacques all these years and I will cherish the memories as I am sure will all of you who did get to spend time at Pony Tracks. We especially liked how he would tell us what was coming next -- what vehicles he was looking to score. Sadly he became more circumspect about telling folks that info as time went on because it came to affect negotiations on occasion, especially as afvs became more and more desirable for collecting. I don't think that it was any of us that spilled the beans, as it were, but it did become a concern for him. One thing for sure, it was fascinating to hear him discuss the arcane world of tank collecting and dealing with the politics as well. I was flattered that I was able to have innumerable conversations over the phone with him on just such things. It still boggles my plebeian mind.
One of them who has plenty of memories of Jacques was Fred Dorn. I'm sure he has some stories he could tell as well since Fred rarely missed a meeting, much less a chance to have Jacques give a tour of the shops and museum buildings. As many of you know with the leaving of Fred Dorn recently I am, unfortunately, the only surviving founding member of BAT in the club. But as it turns out, the man who is responsible for leading me to Jacques and a great many other tank-related things, Jerry Carducci, is now back in the club after a long hiatus. And Jerry is the link here in terms of my history with Jacques.
I want to thank Jerry again for introducing me to 1/10th armor, and also to Jacques, of course. It was almost 20 years ago soon after we fell in together around the notion of creating a tank club -- and seeing how far we could take it. Needless to say it was extraordinary good luck to have the world's largest private AFV collection basically in one's back yard. As a lifelong tank nut you can't imagine how fortunate I feel to have landed in the Bay Area!
Of course back then it wasn't the impressive collection it is today. Jerry can tell this story better, and I hope he does, but back then Jacques was just starting his wind up. In fact, Jerry gave Jacques info that led him to get his first tank -- a Stuart. But that is for Jerry to tell us about.
To a very real degree BAT and Jacques have been bound together for most of the intervening years -- to our good fortune, and I am sure, to Jacques' enjoyment as well. As I look back I am happy that we did give him some pleasure with our scale battles and so on. Builders in large scale armor such as 1/10th and bigger, which has been Jerry's bailiwick for eternity, were drawn to Portola Valley via, first Jerry's Armor Group/West, then BAT, and got to show their handiwork to Jacques. Since he had scratch-built really large scale R/C models of the M-60 and T-34 when he was going to Stanford University he got a real kick out of all these intrepid builders that came up to the workshop.
By the way, Jacques never failed to let it be known at least twice a year that he really wished we all had gone into bigger tanks such as 1/6th or bigger scale with two-man camera-guided crews and paint-ball cannons. He would've loved that if we could've managed it, and I know he would've turned over the fields of Pony Tracks to us, but, alas, it wasn't in the cards for our little club, obviously. Let's just say not all of us had the budget for that sort of thing. But he never gave up trying to convince us, even bringing it up at the last Battle Days last September. To hear it his argument for really large scale tanks you have to read Recon Report #5. More about that later.
In the early years he gave first Armor Group/West and then the BAT guys tours of all his buildings, ones he rarely showed in recent years -- ones way out back full of vehicles and parts in all kinds of condition. For a long time he let us climb in the tanks and take pictures pretty much as much as we wanted. He personally led the tours of his collection for many years for BAT, recognizing that we were just as crazy about these things as he was and knew he had a great audience. And that was such a great thing about him -- he was always more then happy to spend time with us talking tanks. Especially if it was technical! As time went by he had to have others do this as a practical matter once his private collection became the non-profit Military Vehicle Technology Foundation. But he always treated special guests I would take up to the Ranch with graciousness. Clearly he loved to share his passion with people who wanted to hear what he had to say. And it was always fascinating.
And this passion went way back. Around the very early 90's he did share with us another passion he had -- his huge million dollar pipe organ around which he had a 2-story hall built into his house. But it was his model room -- down in the basement almost -- where we all saw the same tank models that we of similar vintage also knew as kids like the old Auroras and Renwals. He had built them all including the motorized Bandais and Tamiya large scale ones. He was like us at heart, only with a bigger budget! He actually bought the Leopard II when it came out and started building it even though he oversaw a fortune worth hundreds of millions and a collection of the real thing second to none.
In fact, I have an anecdote that is fun to tell. When Jerry, Jacques, and I were together many years ago and talking about what provoked this life-long interest in tanks in each of us we found out a funny thing. It turned out that it was due to seeing the same movie we all saw as kids. The 1952 MGM "The Tanks Are Coming!" with Steve Cochran! ( It was about a U.S. tank crew in a Sherman and then a Pershing during the Allied invasion and progression across Europe.) We got so jazzed by that that we all became treadheads. Anyhow, that is how I remember it. And it isn't a very good movie by today's standards, but for an 6-year old, let's say, in the 50's, it was mind-molding stuff apparently!
Jacques' impact on the club cannot be overstated. Certainly it did wonders for BAT recruitment in that it was quite a fabulous thing to be able to see his collection as a club. It was one of the pillars for the group that's for sure. In fact, it almost became a problem at times in that some times guys feigned interest in R/C tanks in order to get to see the real ones.
For sure Jacques was really important to the Bay Area Tankers. It certainly helped in keeping BAT rolling along, not always smoothly I might add. But for many years now it has been pretty groovy with Mr. Littlefield. He has provided a really nice dirt area on the property for our monthly tank battling. It's in pleasant oak grove in the varied terrain of the Ranch with stunning views of Silicon Valley below. Without asking for it he even added many tons of dirt to enlarge our area last year! And what can you say about having that fully-equipped clubhouse and storage for our diorama items? We were lucky to have had Jacques and this last decade in particular has been golden.
What will happen to this unbelievable collection is something I dread thinking about. At least he got to drive the Panther recently, something that has been the central focus of his efforts these last few years. I'm sure that was a great joy for him. One can only hope that he made some kind of provision for the continuation of the MVTF in one form or another, but like the guy who built the Hellcat and Chaffee I now own, Ron Bair, said to me just a while ago -- to paraphrase -- "Jacques was unique and there will never be again that combination of qualities of ambition and determination that would be able to create such a collection. Absolutely a one-time thing. I am certain it was because of who he was -- his strength of will that allowed him to do this and keep it together in the face of the efforts of the ATF and politicians. In today's politically correct climate I doubt someone could do it and he was able to pull it off for so long. I don't think it will stay together for long and it's a damn shame to lose such a collection and such a guy as Jacques."
Unfortunately I fear that Sandy will be facing an inordinately difficult time as, according to my conversation with one of the members of the board of trustees of MVTF, Michael Green, Jacques "went much faster that he ever believed and did not have time to do a lot of things he wanted."
The implications for BAT are not good, but for now we must think about who he has left behind: a widow, Sandy, young son, Jacquitto, and an infant girl, as well as his sons and a daughter from an earlier marriage.
If anyone wants to share stories or thoughts you can "reply all" so we can all read it.
P.S. For those that want to read an old interview with Jacques I have asked our webmaster, Jay Morewood, to make available in BAT's "Intel" section on the BAT website the Recon Report archives. After so much blood, sweat and tears producing them, there is no longer any point in keeping those magazines under cover any longer. I never made a profit from them when first sold -- I'm not going to in the future either. Given my recent introduction to cancer myself I would hate it if these publications just disappeared. You will find a wealth of stuff there -- now just a historical body of work for the most part -- but guaranteed to be fascinating for revealing a period in time when the tank hobby in North America was really more of a hope then anything fully realized such as it is today. The interview is in issue number 5 in the Intel section.