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Original Issue

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?

On June 27, 1981, Charles Gaines and some friends went into the New Hampshire woods to settle an argument by shooting paint at one another. Look what they came back with

One way of measuring a life--maybe as good a method as any other--is on the basis of how much peculiarity you have helped to generate. I am not talking about the beetle-browed peculiarity that results in Paxil, prison or pederasty but its merry one-hand-clapping brother who leads us away from the glum quotidian toward cosmic mirth. I'm talking the salsa piquant peculiarity that keeps the whole enterprise of life from tasting like a Swanson chicken potpie--the kind generated by, for example, the first human being to practice ventriloquism with a dog or to try voluntarily to free himself from handcuffs under water ... or to shoot a ball of paint at another human being and call it a game. ¶ Recently I was introduced to the splendidly peculiar results of my having been the first person to do the last thing on that list and was presented with a lifetime achievement award for my effort. No, it wasn't the Pulitzer. But that is a prize given less for peculiarity than for the drudgery of intentional accomplishment and has about it none of the Buddhist irony of the award I received in July at a Sheraton hotel in Mars, Pa., where I could have said in my acceptance speech, but didn't, "The last thing Hayes Noel and I had in mind 23 years ago, when we dreamed up Paintball, was to achieve something."

In fact all we were trying to do was settle an argument that had evolved over the course of a month of evenings drinking rum and tonics and grilling bluefish in the backyard of a rented house on Martha's Vineyard. In that argument Hayes held that the survival instincts he had developed living in the jungle of Upper East Side New York and working as a stock trader could be effectively applied anywhere. I believed otherwise. What all this rhetoric would nightly boil down to after the second or third rum and tonic was Hayes's (who is as intractably competitive as a gamecock) claiming that his finely honed urban survival instincts would outperform those of individuals such as myself not only in the city but anywhere--including the woods, an environment in which I had grown up and with which, he would cheerfully admit, he had little acquaintance.

Something had to be done to teach this puppy respect, and onto such bald necessity does a salsa piquant peculiarity sometimes rain.

I was living at the time in New Hampshire, a state with no shortage of woods, and when a fellow sheep raiser sent me a catalogue that offered a CO2-powered pistol used by ranchers and farmers to mark bred animals with balls of paint, milieu and means came together like the cue and eight ball in a perfect side-pocket bank. After testing the pistols in a duel (following which, it is my journalistic duty to report, only Hayes could testify as to how much it hurts to be hit by a paintball), we enlisted our friend Bob Gurnsey, then a New Hampshire ski-shop owner, and devised what in hindsight can only be called a grandly peculiar method of resolving an argument.

On June 27, 1981, the three of us, along with nine other argument-resolvers--among them a doctor, a movie producer, an investment banker, an Alabama turkey hunter, a Vietnam vet and a New Hampshire forester--slipped into a hundred acres of woods near my house from different points around its perimeter at a pre-arranged signal. Each of us wore camo and shop goggles, and were equipped with a temperamental Nel-Spot 007 bolt-action paintball pistol, 20 or so balls of paint, extra CO2 cartridges, a compass and a map of the 100 acres indicating the location of four flag stations and the home base. At each of these flag stations hung 12 flags of a particular color. The point of this game was to be the first man to reach home base with four differently colored flags and without having been marked with paint by another player.

You talk about fun? Even Hayes (who, I'm convinced, spent his time lost and whimpering under a bush until someone--me--mercifully found and shot him) had fun. It was not surprising that each man played the game as he lived; the bold seeking firefights, the cautious sneaking through the woods avoiding them, the duplicitous perching in trees. Even less surprising (to me, anyway; Hayes still believes it was a fluke), the game was won by the forester, who never fired a shot and was never even seen by another player.

End of argument, but the beginning of Paintball. There were three writers other than myself in that first game, including the late Bob Jones, who wrote the first article about it, for this magazine. That article, and ones done later by the other two writers, for Time and Sports Afield, described the totally absorbing, often comic adrenaline-overdose experience of playing the game, and suddenly tout le monde wanted to join in. Showered with letters from people asking how they could do that, Hayes, Bob Gurnsey and I responded generously, in the American spirit, by starting a company to help those folks out, in exchange for their money. I wrote some rules for the game, as well as for a sort of Capture the Flag team version devised to seduce more people who needed help, and we put those rules into a shoebox along with a Nel-Spot pistol, some paintballs, a cheap compass and a pair of shop goggles, and sold the kit through the mail for many times what it was worth. We called our company the National Survival Game, and it flourished.

Soon, we were able to move it out of Bob's basement and hire people, and one of the first of those was a fetching young New Hampshire restaurant owner named Debra Dion, who worked as the company's public relations director until 1987, when she moved to Wexford, Pa., to operate, with her husband, Ryan Krischke, one of the first of the Paintball fields franchised for commercial play by NSG.

In the meantime I had sold my stock in the company to Hayes and Bob and gone on, as is my resolute tendency in life, to more work for less money. Over the years I lost all contact with Paintball. Although I knew it had morphed into an industry, developed into a sport as well as a game and become rife with high-tech gear, I didn't once feel moved to play again and never checked out the new hopper-fed, semiautomatic guns that were, I was told, to the 007 what an IBM laptop is to an abacus.

And in fact, I probably would have gone the rest of my life without Paintball had Debra not called last winter to invite me to her 14th annual International Amateur Open Paintball Festival and industry conference in July.

"We want to give you a lifetime achievement award," she said, and I didn't have one, so I said yes. Also, she promised to let me play with one of the hot new guns and shoot people with it.

The event was held in Butler, Pa., over the course of five days, and it surpassed my wildest expectations for peculiarity. It featured the world's largest Paintball trade show--more than 70 vendors selling guns (or "markers" as they are now called), paintballs, helmets, clothing, marker-customizing equipment and a slew of other stuff; daylong team competition on four levels among 1,500 players from all over the world; tech classes; clinics on game strategy and safety; an industry conference with seminars and lectures on subjects such as compressed air safety; a two-day Scenario Game; BMX biking demonstrations; a lot of heavy-metal music; a comely masseuse giving body rubs for a buck a minute; a weird-haircut competition; and a mysterious group of shirtless young men who played some fierce, silent, ritualistic-looking version of dodgeball all day every day.

The Paintball competitors were mostly teenagers, slender and fleet as young bushbucks, many of them spangled with tattoos, tongue studs and nose rings, who between competitions would wander the fairgrounds dressed in colorful uniforms, with visored helmets cocked back on their heads, practice-tapping the triggers of their markers like two-fingered trumpet players on crystal meth. Triggered in this way by the quickest-fingered, I learned, some of the newest ($1,500 and up), chip-controlled markers are capable of firing more than 20 paintballs a second.

Putting this astounding amount of paint in the air, I further learned, is the name of the game in modern Paintball, which these days is divided into recreational and competitive forms that together make up an $800 million-a-year industry, with more than 10 million players in the U.S. alone and a 13% annual growth rate. The competitive form is regarded as a sport rather than a game and is played on a number of levels, up to a professional one in which players can earn, through endorsements mostly, six figures a year in one of two acronymic and acrimoniously opposing leagues. Most of the teams in these leagues are owned by a few Paintball tycoons, who underwrite them at a loss in order to advertise the markers, paintballs, apparel and magazines they sell. Judging by the ones I met in Pennsylvania, those men tend to be large and positively brimming with delight over their unlikely fortunes. Gino Postorivo, for example, was delivering pizzas in 1989 when he played Paintball for the first time, and is now the blithe 35-year-old owner of National Paintball Supply--which does more than $100 million dollars a year in sales of some 10,000 Paintball-related items--as well as two of the nine Paintball magazines and more than half of the pro teams.

And there was Bud Orr, 60, a California machinist, drag-boat racer and motorcycle builder who in 1985 got tired of all the mechanical problems the old bolt-action guns were having, went out to his shop one Friday evening and in the two hours before Miami Vice and two hours after it created the first pump-action Paintball marker. With $1,000 of capital, Bud started Worr Game Products, which he had sold--shortly before I met him--to the ski giant K2 for $10 million.

Understandably in fine spirits, and a naturally generous and sympathetic man, Bud took me under his wing when I expressed an interest in playing a little competitive Paintball. As it happened, I needed generosity and sympathy. After Bud had outfitted me with a yellow-and-black jersey, baggy black pants, shoes, helmet and gloves, and showed me how to work the unspeakably slick Karnivor marker made by his company, I felt like one of the many fly-rod anglers I see who are carrying and wearing $3,000 worth of gear but can't cast.

The field of play Bud led me to, the smallest of nine at the event, was about 100 by 120 feet, surrounded by a 20-foot-tall screen of black mesh (to protect spectators) attached to telephone poles, with a dozen or so inflatable bunkers of various sizes and shapes, behind which players take cover and shoot copiously at one another. Luckily for me, it was charity play at this field--three-man teams of professionals going against anyone foolish enough to take them on, with the entry fees going to the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. This format dispensed with the usual niceties of capturing a flag in favor of two teams simply blasting away until all three members of one were eliminated.

Which didn't take long; the games I watched were one- to three-minute blurs of athletic diving and sliding behind bunkers, with paintballs swarming the air like maddened bees. Since I was not much anymore at diving and sliding, and had gotten no faster in 10 minutes of practice than two or three trigger pulls per second, the format didn't seem tailor-made for me, and my two pro teammates somehow intuited that. As we walked to our end of the field to begin my first game, one of them asked if I thought I could make it to the closest bunker and maybe just stay there. Since the bunker was only 40 feet away and was tall enough to stand behind, that seemed to me a capital idea.

And it was. From behind that bunker--while my teammates slid and dived on my flanks, charitably drawing fire--I was able to pick off a few enemy players in the four games I played. Moreover, as paintballs pounded against my bunker like hundreds of fierce little fists, I was allowed a little time to ponder the bizarre exhilaration of my circumstance. Buzzed on adrenaline, dressed to kill, the Karnivor rattling inexpertly in my hands, I felt, I decided, like Abner Doubleday pitching to the Yankees. How much more peculiar can it get?

Well, a good bit more, I found out the next day.

Only around 6% of the 10 million U.S. Paintballers participate in competitions; the rest play recreationally in backyards, on one of the more than 3,000 commercial fields around the country or in Scenario Games. If playing competitive Paintball feels like being in a live shoot-everything-that-moves video game--and it does--playing Scenario is like stepping into a low-budget war movie. Every June in Wyandotte, Okla., for instance, more than 3,000 players gather in campers to reenact D Day in the mother of all Scenario Games, one that goes on for two days, assigns individual roles to 1,600 defending "Germans" and 1,600 "Allies," who attack across a river in landing crafts, and that features tanks, smoke bombs and helicopters. There are Scenario Games that lay siege to medieval castles, attack VC-harboring Vietnamese villages, free maidens from dragons, take part in Custer's Last Stand and play out practically any other bellicose plotline you can image and some you can't: such as breaking the Blues Brothers, Jake and Elwood, out of prison and then fighting for the Army of the Blues to keep them from being recaptured by the evil Forces of the Establishment, or FOEs.

Like many of those at the International Amateur Open, T.J. and his wife, Dawn, are possessed by Paintball. Dawn is the editor of Paintball Sports magazine, and T.J., when he is not commanding one of his two tanks in a Scenario game, operates a website for Paintball tank information. They live on Long Island, and one of the tanks parked behind their home has made them notorious. The larger of T.J.'s tanks, a replica of the World War II German Tiger, features an enormous sound system over which T.J. and Dawn, his turret gunner, play Metallica or the 1812 Overture wide open as they drive into battle. Or the New York City firefighters' bagpipe band. "That one really pumps up the troops," T.J. says.

The other tank, the one into which he invited Debra and me to help hunt down FOEs, is modeled on a World War II German Panther. T.J. cut the roof and doors off a 1990 four-wheel-drive S10 Blazer, built a roll cage for it and put a fiberglass shell around that. He cut gun ports into the side and put a swiveling turret on it and a PVC potato-gun cannon capable of shooting Nerf footballs that "disable" any tank they strike.

T.J. says he's "obsessed with turrets," and when Dawn gave up her place to let me give it a go in one, I could see why. In fact, I wanted intensely never to be anywhere else. From that giraffe's-eye view I could see skirmishes on all sides of us, smoke bombs going off, snipers dressed like bushes, two generals (one of them named Barbie) in negotiation, and "marked" players from both teams laughing and walking out of the woods together to sit out for 15 minutes before they could rejoin the war.

When two FOEs jumped out of hiding and fled, I cut down on them feeling as invulnerable and omnipotent as one of Hannibal's soldiers on his elephant. Their backs striped with paint, the men waved at our tank and grinned, and I realized that I was grinning too, as were Debra and Dawn, firing out of ports below, and T.J., as he maneuvered us through the trees. I felt seized by grinning because of this glimpse of the other side of the looking glass, the cosmic mirth side of battle, and I couldn't stop even after some accursed FOEs disabled our tank with a Nerf football mortar round.

"I told you," said T.J. "You get to where you live for this s---."

"What do we do now?" I asked him.

"We're blown up for an hour, and it'll be the dinner break by then. I guess we're done."

My old pal Debra has never taken anything she didn't like lying down. "The hell we are," she said. "Charles is one of the inventors. Get this thing rolling!" She looked at me, both of us grinning like hyenas. "And you, get back up there in the turret."

I could have kissed her for that, and maybe I did.

Each man played the game as he lived--the bold seeking firefights, the cautious avoiding them, the duplicitous perching in trees.

Buzzed on adrenaline, dressed to kill, the Karnivor rattling inexpertly in my hands, I felt like Abner Doubleday pitching to the Yankees.

Paintball is like being in a live shoot-everything-that-moves video game; playing Scenario is like stepping into a low-budget war movie.


Photograph by Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures


The LTZ (Less Than Zero) team was locked, loaded and ready for action in the 2004 international amateur open.


Photograph by Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures


Gaines (left) hadn't fired a paintball since (above, from left) he, Gurnsey and Noel dreamed up the sport.



[See leadin above]

  [See caption above]


Photograph by Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures


Team Navarone (left) won the first big-money tournament in 1987; "Paintball Sports" debuted in '89.




Team Navarone (left) won the first big-money tournament in 1987; "Paintball Sports" debuted in '89.



[See leadin above]

  [See caption above]


Photograph by Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures


The protective gear makes Paintball relatively safe, but that doesn't mean it won't leave a mark (above).


Photographs by Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures