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Hues & Cry of War

paintball soldier
Robert Scheer

Gun With the Wind: Planted behind a Speedball barrier at The Adventure Game paintball field in Felton, a player leans out to take a quick shot at an opponent.

Screams, dreams and honor on the paintball battlefield

By Eric Johnson

THERE'S A WELT ON THE BACK of my arm that hurts like hell if I touch it. Paintball injury. The tops of my thighs burn from crouching in combat position on and off for four hours. My back aches. It's a good ache, though, because I can still feel a little bit of the thrill that comes from seeing a masked head pop up and then pasting it.

It was a perfect day to hang out in the woods with symbolic intent to kill: crystal- clear, a chill in the air with a breeze lifting the redwood branches. We were decked out for the day in the full package--green jumpsuit, Battlemask with Combat Vision lenses and a semiautomatic rifle with 200 rounds of paintball ammo. The men were told to wear their double-barreled ammo tubes like codpieces. The women were issued breastplate-like body armor.

The two in our group were the only women playing out of about four dozen people gathered on the battlefield. Traci was there to write the article. Mary was there, she told us, so Traci wouldn't be the only girl.

Paintball is pretty much a boys' game. It's a modern version of one of the oldest boy games. Soon after we learn to walk, the first thing many entry-level males the world over do is find a long stick, point it at their fathers, and go "Bvvv, bvvv, bvvv. Bambambambambam. Dadadadadadada." It's genetic.

This is not violence. It's nothing Oedipal. It's just an animal urge, a drive, a 'pulsion to get the other guy.

The boys assembled for orientation at The Adventure Game in Felton last weekend were a good cross-section of American manhood. One was there to celebrate his 12th birthday. Another guy, a week before his wedding, dragged along his best man and a couple of friends--a bachelor party with guns. An anesthesiologist and two scrub-techs from the Los Gatos Medical Center had come up from the valley. Three 15-year-olds showed up with their own fancy automatics. And three young Marines drove from Twenty-nine Palms to join their buddy, a UCSC engineering student, in action.

The rest of the 50 guys--who came in groups of threes and fours--had little in common, a bunch of unique characters, each with his own story. But when it came time to take the field of battle, they were transformed. Half became my teammates (Go, Yellow!) and the other half, the enemy. The Reds. Before we could begin, we fell in for orientation.

Roland Chick has given the same speech to similar groups of camouflaged play-warriors every weekend morning for 11 years. After explaining Rule No. 1 ("Don't take off your goggles") three different ways and showing us how to field-dress a paint-clogged gun, he explained the workings of a chemical that is integral to the game--adrenaline.

Sometimes, Chick said, a pumped-up player will ignore the Point Blank rule that decrees that a player who comes within 10 yards of an opponent should yell "Point Blank," which translates as "Gotcha." Other players, primed for the kill, will continue to fire after their man has yelled "Hit," which is paintballese for "Uncle."

If either of these adrenalized occurrences should take place, Chick said, stay calm. Don't lose your cool. Don't forget, he implored us, you're here to have fun. Don't let the game get under your skin.

We sort of listened, but the internal drug had already kicked in. We were itching to go.

Last Man Standing

CHICK LIKES TO LET PLAYERS get warmed up on the Speedball course ("The only one on the West Coast," he gently bragged). The soccer-field-sized course is simple: 41 four-by-eight plywood barricades, set up like X's, arranged in eight rows, with a blue 55-gallon drum at each end.

The rules of the game are also simple: Kill 'em all. (I think there may have been some objective about getting to the other team's barrel, but since it was unlikely that anyone would survive the gamut, that wasn't even mentioned.)

Twenty-five men wearing red-tape armbands lined up at the other end of the field, facing away. At our end, 23 men and two women in yellow did the same. At the whistle, we spun and ran for cover, blasting away.

In my first experience with the game two years ago in Montana, I had learned a lesson: Don't get pinned down. I had gotten stuck in a long-abandoned log cabin, where three guys with automatics trapped me. They advanced bunker-to-bunker, taunting, popping shots through a window opening to my left and an open doorway to my right. My breathing became strained, and my heart beat like a boombox in a car headed into a drive-by ambush. After 20 minutes (probably more like five--time had compressed) I rushed them in a suicidal move designed to just get it over with. My skin crawls remembering the day.

This time, I said to myself with grunting determination, I'm gonna do the killin'. I made it to a barricade 30 yards up on the edge of the field and immediately adopted an offensive position. My gun rested on the top of the plywood wall as I scanned the field for Reds.

My barricade was slightly uphill, and it seemed that if any opponent could see me, I'd see him first and get him. For several minutes, I engaged in effective sniper activity. I picked off a couple of the bad guys before they knew what was happening.

Even with a semiautomatic, that isn't like shooting fish in a barrel. Paintballs travel at 270 feet per second--much slower than real bullets--a .22, for instance, moves 1,200 feet in a second. Paintballs fly like mini-Frisbees. It's like shooting little curve-balls and sliders. But when you're pulling off a couple of shots per second, you can correct for the spin. You don't even have to think about it--your hand-eye coordination takes over.

At the target range--a bunch of pots and pans hanging from redwood branches--I had determined that I could hit a spinning two-egg fry pan at 60 yards if I just kept shooting. So I was beginning to feel pretty cocky, right about the time that a shot out of nowhere exploded the top of my head in a splatter of paint.

Hands held high, I joined the other dead Yellows on the sidelines. Two minutes later, the whistle blew, and the three remaining Reds walked off the field, as did one Yellow, our Last Man Standing: Mary Spicuzza.

Robert Scheer

Floats Like a Butterfly, Stings Like a Mutha: They look harmless and pretty as gumballs, but paintballs travel--and impact--at 270 feet per second.

It's a Guy Thing

WHEN I WAS A LITTLE KID, we called it war. "Whattaya wanna do?" Freddy Preissler would ask. "Let's play war," Ralph Jodice would say. The rest of us would yell, "Yeah," and we'd all run home to get our Daisy pop-guns, which have since fallen out of favor, leaving boys today to play war with sticks, like a bunch of Zapatistas without a cause or a weapon.

We'd set up in an empty lot, hiding behind trees, concocting strategies and scenarios. We had captains and lieutenants, characters lifted from the TV show Combat. "I got ya," Tommy Tammaine would shout.

"Nah, you only winged me," Ralph would holler back.

Sometimes the games would escalate. Mostly, though, we were good sports about war games. We were like little play-versions of Plains Indian warriors, content to count coup on opponents, steal their horses, sure, maybe even cut off their braids--but never really do any violence.

Of course, games can get out of hand. Basketball isn't violent, but Dennis Rodman did kick that photographer. Even baseball players, a generally peaceable lot, will storm the mound and pile into a brawl after a bean-ball. And paintball can, if a player isn't careful, bring out the beast. Any game can lead to the thing it imitates.

Paintball is becoming a popular sport nationwide. A small industry supplies two million players with armor, guns (sometimes called "markers" in a vain attempt at political correctness) and paintballs. There are paintball magazines and paintball Web sites. There are professional players who are lobbying to make paintball an Olympic event.

Three courses operate locally--T.A.G. in Felton, Bear Creek Pursuit outside of Los Gatos, and Woodstalk near Summit Road. Santa Cruz Paintball sells supplies--including "markers" ranging from the $100 single-shot pump-action unit to the $1,500 semi-auto with fanny-mounted CO2 cartridge.

The game can be played in several ways. In addition to Speedball, T.A.G. is set up for a couple of versions of Capture the Flag. And here in California, I was not shocked to learn, there is a game called Reincarnation.

Extreme Gamesmanship

AFTER A COUPLE OF Speedball matches, we moved down to Field One, a small forest set up with 20 or so strategically placed branch-and-stump bunkers, all surrounding a big redwood grove dubbed the Cathedral. Again, there were 55-gallon drums at either end and another in the center of the course. A bandanna was laid over the barrel in the middle. We played Capture the Flag. The object, for forgetful readers, is to get the bandanna and carry it to the opponents' home-barrel--in this case without getting shot.

In the first game, we Yellows figured out that all the guys with their own equipment were playing with the Reds. They set up snipers at the perimeter of the field and picked us off (I went down in the first 30 seconds) and then sent in an attack unit to grab the flag and plant it. They were methodical.

We dead Yellows watched helplessly from the sidelines as the Reds advanced, looking like camouflaged 'Niners running a series of off-tackle plays at 12 yards a clip. The whole thing lasted five minutes.

Lucky for us, the pros were bored with the competition. They ditched us to join in elite games on the upper course. The remaining bunch of stragglers in rented gear were left to have fun.

During the next couple games, I got my bearings. In each, I took out a couple bad guys before I felt the sharp sting of paintball death.

Then someone wisely suggested that we play Reincarnation. It sounded so cool that I shouted "Yeah!" without knowing what it meant.

In Reincarnation, of course, you get reborn after you die. When hit, you race back to your team's blue barrel, touch it, and live to fight another day. Sometimes, only one rebirth is allowed. We decided to play until we ran out of paint. It was getting hot.

The Metro Santa Cruz division of the Yellow team (we called ourselves The Yellow Journalists) decided to strategize. I had joined an improvised unit of real-life Marines in a previous game, and I'd admired how they'd watched each other's backs and communicated on the field.

The senior member of the squad, and, as news editor, the highest-ranking, I took command. "Let's, um, set up over there, and, you know, talk to each other," I limply ordered. When the whistle blew, we instantly fell apart. I got killed twice before the real fun started.

Somehow, Robert Scheer, who had traded his camera for a gun, ended up in the bunker to my right. Another guy, in an impressive Desert Storm get-up, bunkered in on our left flank. Between the three of us, we had the flag-barrel covered. We went into a hardcore defensive mode.

ready aim fire
Get to the Point Blank: Another Storm Trooper wannabe takes aim with a semiautomatic CO2-powered paintball gun.

Photo by Robert Scheer

Terror in the Cathedral

FOR THE NEXT HALF-HOUR (probably more like 10 minutes) we were good soldiers. We barked information at each other. We shot numerous Reds. I felt like a killing machine--untouchable and deadly. Then, out of nowhere, a Red charged our comrade-in-desert-camo and shot him point blank. It was a clear violation of the rule and our guy let him know it, so I assumed he was out and I was safe. When the opponent then nailed me, I called on a Marshall for a ruling and the Red was sent off the field.

It was a sissy move, I now realize. But this was war.

After that, a silence fell on the field. Robert and I, after some battlefield communication, decided to move up into the Cathedral. We advanced, guns at the ready, at first gingerly, and then we broke for cover behind a huge fallen trunk. We waited.

Seconds later, I felt a stab of pain in my left arm, then another. "Hit, hit, hit!" I yelled, raising my rifle over my head in surrender, while more shots popped on my back. "Goddamn it, I'm hit!" I screamed, turning.

He was right on top of me--or so it seemed. When I saw him, I shouted even louder: "That's point blank, you son of a bitch!" I leveled my gun to shoot the guy in the face. Then I caught myself.

"Hey, this isn't point blank," he said, grinning through his goggles. Well, maybe not. But close. "And I wasn't shooting at you, I was shooting at him," he said, pointing just past my shoulder at Robert, who also was dead by now. I exhaled.

"How many times did you get me?" I asked, turning around so he could check my back.

"Well let's see, one ... two ... maybe three."

I counted later. Five. Ouch. Whatever. It's a game.

I don't really know why it's so fun. For some guys, maybe it's being out in the woods, playing with cool toys. But I spend half my life in the woods, and I'm more into mountain bikes and cross-country skis than guns. Many readers surely imagine that the game is attractive only to hyper-competitive freaks who are fantasy-killers at heart, but all the guys I've met are as sweet-natured as your average disc-golfer.

I suppose, in today's way of looking at things, it's an addiction--which used to be called a passion.

It's that chemical. I crave the adrenaline rush, that hair-raising, eye-widening, breath-quickening kick that brings me back to the boy inside, the aw-shucks, tow-headed tyke who just wants to blow his little buddies away.

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From the Oct. 23-29, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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