I took a day off on Friday to take my son Erik, and six of his friends, down to Colorado Springs for a paintball battle. This is how we celebrate his birthday (he turns 15 this coming week.) I’d tried paintball a year ago, and had found it fun, but was content to sit this one out. I’d brought my laptop and a week’s worth of work, and figured I could sit in the minivan and catch up on my paper backlog. Holding down two full time jobs is stressful, and there’s never enough time to get all my work done.
There are definite “groups” at the high school. There’s the drug crowd, the intellectuals, the jocks, the Hispanics, etc. Erik has developed a close group of friends that care about only three things: snowboarding, video games, and paintball. They consider snowboarding and video games a form of recreation. Paintball they take seriously. And they are very good at it. Several of his friends are from wealthy families, and—not surprisingly—they have state of the art paintball guns ($500 and up).
For those of you who don’t know, paintball is a sport in which you wear extra thick, top to bottom clothing, and a darth-vader style face mask. You carry a paintball gun, which looks something like a miniature assault rifle, with a hopper filled with about 300 paintballs, and a CO2 cartridge attached to the gun which provides the propellant force. Paintballs themselves are about the size of marbles. They consist of a liquid interior surrounded by a thin “shell”. When they hit something they explode—which isn’t surprising considering they travel at just under 300 feet per second. When you get hit by a paintball it hurts—about like having your wrist slapped hard with a ruler. And if you get hit on any exposed skin: like you neck or your hands, it hurts worse than that. The paint is very water soluble so there’s no permanent damage to yourself or your clothing, but even so, stopping a paintball is an unpleasant activity.
The fields vary in size and type. Some are simply wilderness with trees and grass and bushes. Others are more man-made, and consist of artificial obstacles like overturned cars, shacks, stacks of wooden pallets, etc. Typically you divide into two teams and you each try to kill the other. If you get hit with a paintball, you’re considered dead and you immediately exit the game, holding your gun high to show you’re dead so people won’t keep shooting at you. Worse than dying is having to surrender. Really good paintball players will sneak up close to you, and then dart forward around a tree or over a hill, point their gun directly at you and yell “surrender!” If you don’t surrender instantly, you get shot with a paintball at point blank range.
It has been said that paintball is the closest thing there is to actual military combat. The tactics are similar and the motions are similar. You hide behind trees. You shoot at each other. You run from hiding place to hiding place. You cover your buddies. You crawl through the dirt while keeping your head down. And so forth. Professional paintball fields have referees (you pay to play), and the games vary. Sometimes it’s a form of “capture the flag.” Other times it’s merely “elimination,” in which you keep playing until all the players on one side or the other are dead. The team with players remaining alive wins.
Paintball is a very testosterone-rich environment. You don’t see many women engaged in this sport. In fact in my experience I’ve seen only one. And she had very short hair, and used language that would make Bruce Willis blush.
As we arrived at the Rocky Mountain Paintball field in Colorado Springs, I was glad I’d decided not to participate. The sky was overcast, it was not a warm day, and lounging around outside the entrance gate were about fifty very tough looking men. They all wore army boots, were dressed in camouflage coveralls, and their paintball assault rifles hung loosely, and naturally, at their sides. We discovered later that these were not weekend warriors at all, but professional soldiers from Fort Carson Army Base east of Colorado Springs. These were the kinds of people you don’t want to meet in a dark alley. They were big. They were strong. They were mean. (At least I assumed they were.) And two-thirds of them were black. None was under six feet. None weighed less than 200 pounds. And they all looked as if they spent three hours a day working out in a gym. Loud rock music was playing from one of the pickups parked nearby. A couple of the soldiers were starting to move with the music and get down, but disapproving stares from the others made them shape up quickly enough.
“I’m going to stay in the car,” I declared to Erik. “I’ve got tons of work to do.”
“You’re not going to play?”
“Well, I don’t know. I mean, you know, it’s kind of cold, and—well, I think I’d just feel more comfortable….”
“You’ve got to play at least one game!”
“Well, we’ll see. Let’s go to the office and get you checked in.
In the hurly burly of checking in I could find a excuse to not check myself in and would end up back in the warm car with my laptop. I was ashamed to admit it, but in truth I found all those violent-looking soldiers intimidating and I did not relish the idea of going up against them in a paintball battle. I was surprised that neither Erik nor his friends seemed in the least concerned.
The guy behind the desk was talking to me about paintball. “I used to be a marine. Was trained for combat. Saw action in the Gulf. Been all over the world. Let me tell you, war is Hell but I’ve never seen anything like what goes on on a paintball field. The violence and aggression is just incredible…”
I thought about my hectic week back in the office, and the stress of my job, and the piles of paper representing work not done, and then I thought of the hectic week coming up, and at that moment I decided the best thing I could do for myself would be to play some paintball. Suddenly I didn’t want to go back to the Chrysler minivan and sit with my computer for six hours. I wanted to be out there on that field myself, taking out my aggressions on the enemy. So, inevitably, I did check myself in, and rented a gun, and a mask and a set of camouflage coveralls. I would play one game and one game only. Just to say I’d done it.
As I and the seven 14 year olds joined up with the professional soldiers from hell at the entrance, I caught a few good natured guffaws.
“Hey, it’s nursery school time!”
“Whooah.. I’m scared.”
“Hey anyone bring the Barbie dolls?”
We divided up into two groups. Somehow I ended up in group A while Erik and his friends ended up in group B. Apparently in dividing out the newcomers (us) one full-fledged adult—pitiful specimen though I was— equaled seven little kids, and the two groups were now considered equal.
This was to be an “elimination” battle, and we each clustered at opposite ends of the ten-acre wilderness field. The referee was in the middle, just barely in earshot of both groups.
Ready? Three, two, one, NOW!
We all took off, racing forwards. Everyone ran as fast as possible and then took shelter in five seconds. Anyone exposed on the battlefield after five seconds was dead. That wasn’t a rule. That was reality. Skill, tactics, and bravery took over now, which put me at a disadvantage as I possessed none of these things. I’d managed to hide behind a tree/ bush combination. I could fire my rifle, while being barely exposed at all. Everyone on the field was in exactly the same situation—tucked or hidden behind something, with their gun pointing forward.
Both sides needed to come closer, and the various members of the teams tried to accomplish that. Occasionally I’d see a soldier dart from one tree to another. Others would crawl through the grass, head down, using their elbows to pull themselves forward.
“Cover me, Bro!”
“I gotcha! Do it!”
Pete would run forward to the next shelter, firing his gun as he went. Bro would lay down an intense fire pattern to cover him. This was going on all the time, as the team members advanced to forward positions.
“Hey, Jimmy. Sam. Take the right flank. Keep your heads down! I’ll circle to the left and try to take that ridge. Go! Go! Go!”
“Damn! Where is that guy? Someone’s got me pinned down and I can’t see where they’re firing from!
“He’s behind that tree up there, Jack! Twenty yards in front of you! If I can make it to that bush off to the right I can take him out!”
I stayed hidden behind my tree. The sound of gun fire was incessant.
Occasionally someone would fire off a continuous burst and it was like automatic weapons being discharged. The air was filled with paintballs—liquid globules of pain and death—whizzing past just over my head:
wzzzzzzz, wzzzz, wzzzzz.
And sometimes it would be:
wzzzzzzz, wzzzz, wzzzzz. Splat!
Whenever a paintball hit a tree or branch it would explode, often coating me in a light spray of paint. The rule was that if you were splashed, even if not a direct hit, and any splash was larger than the size of a quarter, you were considered dead. But that didn’t happen often as the paint vaporizes into a fine mist when it explodes on impact. Peeking through an opening I could see the enemy: figures furtively leaping across from hiding place to hiding place, advancing forward on the ground, or just peeking out from behind a tree, as I was doing. Whenever I had the opportunity, I’d fire my own gun, sending a lethal stream of paintballs towards my adversary. I could see them as they flew, and could see where they hit. It was like anti-aircraft tracers, allowing one to adjust their aim precisely.
Now it was my turn. A recent barrage of firing had just ended and I took off in a flash, running towards a fallen log about twenty yards ahead. I saw one of the enemy step out from his hiding place, take aim at me, and start firing. I dived for cover, kept my head down, and inched forward towards safety, pulling myself with my elbows as I’d seen the professional soldiers doing, paintballs whizzing past inches above me. The thought crossed my mine that I was probably the only guy on the field older than 23, and that I was going to be very, very sore tomorrow. But I was caught up in the fighting madness, the adrenaline had kicked in, and all that mattered now was destroying the enemy.
In other words it was very similar to a day at the office.
A spray of dust erupted beside me as one of my teammates dove for cover beneath the same log I was using. Behind his darth vader mask I could see a large black face and two rows of bright, white teeth as he smiled.
How’s it going, bro?
I was thrilled to have been granted bro status.
“Don’t think I’ve killed anyone yet, but I’m still alive!”
“Yeah me neither. Our team has won the last three games, but there’s some sure as sh*t deadly fire coming down this time. It’s f***ing dangerous out there! Hey, can you cover me? I’m going to try to get to that tree up there!”
“Ready? Go on three. One, two, THREE! Go! Go! Go!”
Bro took off. I fired continuously at the opposing team’s positions, knowing the sound of the paintballs whizzing through the air would keep them under cover while my teammate made it to the next tree.
The game continued. Occasionally you’d hear the sound: “I’m hit! I’m hit!,” and see someone raise their gun over their head and the referee would yell: “He’s hit! Let him out! Let him out!” The paintballs would keep flying, but the dead person would be able to walk calmly across the battlefield, miraculously untouched because it was considered extremely bad form to shoot the dead.
Thirty minutes into the game I was hiding behind a tree, just peeking out with my rifle to try to take aim, when I felt a sharp blow to my head. The force of it knocked me to the ground, and when I reached back I felt the paint smeared through my hair, just behind my ear. “I’m hit! I’m hit!” I cried out, raising my gun in the air, and standing up.
“He’s hit, let him out!” cried the ref.
I walked calmly across the field, all fear gone now, knowing this war was over for me—at least until the next battle—and not being too unhappy about it. I joined the others on a small ridge overlooking the field. The soldiers were relaxed now, out of the battle, and content just to sit and talk about it, or stand casually, looking back at the scene.
But their vocabulary hadn’t become any more refined. The f-word was clearly the word of choice, and they used it like salt, sprinkling the expletive liberally throughout their sentences. (I’ll substitute the word “frigging” instead, for reasons of decorum.) It was a shock when I realized the main thing they were talking about was Erik and his friends.
“Friggin’ deadly out there, man!”
“Those little kids know how to shoot! Sheeet. Friggin’ blow you away!”
“You seen their guns? Man. We’re facing superior fire-power, that’s what the frig we’re facing.”
“Yeah, d’ya see the barrel on that one gun? It’s three feet long! It’s friggin’ star wars out there, man! Cyber-rifles. Laser guided paintballs.”
“Man, a couple of them set my ass up. I was pinned down behind a tree. One of them was firing so many paintballs against this rock behind me that I was getting sprayed with paint. So I tried to crawl out of there and the other was waiting for me to do just that. One shot, right to the helmet. Dead on. Nailed my ass good!”
But they didn’t seem angry. In fact, as the conversation proceeded a certain patriotic pride emerged.
“You know who those kids are? Those kids are our country’s future soldiers, that’s what the frig they are.”
“They shoot like that in a real war, America’s enemies are toast.”
The battle had been waging close to an hour now, and almost everyone was up on the hill—forty or fifty of us, standing around casually, dead men talking. Suddenly a whistle blew loudly, and the ref yelled “Game over!”
In a few moments we could see half a dozen or so figures emerging from the forest—the final players remaining when the whistle blew. As they came closer I realized that two of them had surrendered, and were holding their guns over their heads. Behind them sauntered the five members of the opposing team that had captured them—thus ending the game. The victors walked confidently, guns held loosely at their sides.
The two prisoners were two of the largest, meanest professional soldiers in the whole group—the final members of my own team, the ones who’d stayed alive the longest. Walking behind, guns at the ready, were the one’s who’d captured them and won the game: Parker Downs, Justin Blincoe, Jordan Dorsey, Sam McClennigan, and Erik Voorhees. The five little kids had wiped out an entire platoon, and had taken the survivors captive.
The ribbing began instantly.
“Hey, bro, looks like you had to surrender your ass to the kids!”
“The kids got you did they? They’re bad-ass sons of bitches, that’s what those kids are!”
Every time we chose teams thereafter, everyone wanted the little kids on their side.
“Hey, you’ve got 24 guys, we only have 18, that ain’t fair!”
“Yeah, but you’ve got five of the kids, we only got two!”
“We’ve got five? Cool. OK, that’s even.
No one was talking Barbie dolls any more.
Inevitably, I never made it back to the minivan. Once you start playing paintball it’s very difficult to stop. I kept at it all day, jumping over logs, crawling through the sand, firing off rounds from behind bushes, wading across streams, killing and getting killed. It was good for my soul.
We finished at six p.m., and I started talking to one of the Refs.
“So, you ever get corporate groups out here?”
“Oh yeah, all the time. It’s a great way to teach motivation, teamwork, leadership, that kind of thing. We even have a special program we provide for corporate groups”
He gave me all the details.
I considered reserving the Rocky Mountain Paintball field for the following Friday afternoon, in place of my companiy’s scheduled office-wide meeting at the Hampton Inn. What would really do our morale the most good? All of us getting together to iron out procedures and inter-departmental policies? Or just blasting each other to smithereens with paintballs for an afternoon? Or both? I could see it in my mind’s eye.
“Hey Rob, Cold Fusion rules! Take that!” Bam! Bam! Bam!”
“Oh yeah? Well if you like it so much, you can support it yourself! Eat my paint!” Tat! Tat! Tat! Tat!”
“Hey, Rhonda! It’s been two weeks since I gave you that work order on JSA! Need a little motivation?” Blam! Blam! Blam! Splat!
“Oh, God, my hair! Look, Angie, I’m going to use that work order as a paper towel when I get back to the office just to try to clean up. I’ll send it back to you and claim it’s unreadable! Just like you’re about to be!” Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!
“Hey, Curt, that you behind the tree?”
“Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. That you, Lynn?”
“Sure is. Remember that little disagreement we had last week about who’s territory that sale was in?”
“Uh, yeah, what of it?”
“Well, I think it’s time we settled that little problem right here, on the spot.”
Tat! Tat! Tat! Tat! Bam! Bam! Bam! Splat! Tat! Tat! Splat! Blam! Blam! Blam!
…and so forth.
I knew it would be good for the office. But whenever we decided to do it, I wanted the little kids on my team.