After a white-water rafting trip in a New York state park during my sophomore year at Pitt-Bradford, I found out that the outdoor club was offering a free paintball game. I had always liked martial sports but had never played paintball. Since I didn’t want to brave new territory alone, I invited my housemates Pat and Colin to come along.
The “course” we used was a makeshift one, the kind that neighbor kids and I had dreamed of building in earlier years. It was in the middle of the woods, and several trails had been cut and dug, leading from one base to another. The trails also allowed flanking and the course setup must have resembled a figure eight from the air. In the middle of the course were several pieces of cover. These ranged from wooden pallets to old water barrels to makeshift plywood bunkers, which were especially cool.
This setup, overall, would probably be known to most players as “woodsball.” Yeah, I did my research. Most of the players wore camouflage of military or hunting patterns and I would say at least half of them were experienced. Thank God during the first match we had a majority of the good players on our side. You could tell rookies from professionals–most of us new guys wore civilian clothes rather than camouflage, and some even wore track pants and hoodies.
The guns we used were Tippmann A-5 semiautomatics, for those of you who are familiar. They had good velocity, were decently accurate, and didn’t jam once (in my experience). They are best described as smooth, lightweight, pitch-black carbines, light enough to be run with for a prolonged time and neither long nor tall enough to be awkward at any angle. The mechanism was made of steel, as was the barrel. The fore-grip, pistol grip, and sights were all hard plastic. The hoppers held between 25 and 35 rounds. The CO2 tank which fed the mechanism and launched the paintballs with shots of concentrated CO2 bursts doubled as a stock.
Whenever we tried to put the CO2 tanks on the back of the guns, we had to unplug the tanks with a knife, and then quickly screw the tank on through the thread before we lost any excess CO2. I went through two tanks before mine sealed and thought, “Wow, I bet that looked great!” The barrel had to be threaded into the carbine in a similar way. I remember when we started the game. At the sound of the referee’s whistle, I prayed, “I really hope this doesn’t blow up when I first shoot it.” I was afraid I hadn’t threaded either or both ends correctly.
I had never played paintball before this, but I was eager, and when the first match started I was fresh as ever. My adrenaline was so high from sprinting in the woods between trees trying to avoid shots that when I first got hit, I didn’t feel it. By this point I had also started to feel the effects of running to and fro for the last hour, and I spent most of that time crouched. My skin was red, my breathing was erratic, and my hair, shielded by my cap and mask, was wet. The masks we played with were cheap and fogged up very easily. I kept thinking, “How do people play a game like this in masks like these?”
My first two kills in the game were the result of friendly fire. Two good ole’ boys, probably Bradfordians, had the smart idea of flanking the enemy team to the right side of the main effort and doubling back on the inevitable counter-attack. That would have been well and good, but they hadn’t told anyone their plan and so when I was moving up the trail with my team I was none the wiser.
They were both wearing hunting camo complete with facemasks, so whenever one of them stepped on a twig I thought we were in for our first firefight. I told the other guys to hold up and took aim, and when I saw the two figures moving side by side, I yelled, “Fire! Fire!” and let off maybe 7 or 8 shots. The other 5 or 6 guys probably shot the same amount. Thirty-five-odd paintballs later, one of the poor guys raised his hands and said, “We’re on your team, jackass.” I was mortified.
The brush was thick, the leaves were still on the trees; leaves were also on the ground. It was hard to move anywhere without making noise. The best way to do this was to move during bouts where everyone on the field was shooting. The noise would cover your foley. Paintball guns aren’t very loud (comparable to slightly less than a silenced firearm) and their recoil is very slight, but aiming and worrying about being hit is a good enough distraction.
My housemate didn’t like to be in the fight. He hung in back and fired his weapon so little that when I ran out of rounds in the last two games, I ran back to him to take ammo, and in one case, his carbine. Pat ran behind every time we broke from cover, so I lost track of him halfway through the afternoon.
My housemate Colin threw himself into the game and paid dearly. I’ll be honest, I found it funny to see Collin shot to pieces sometimes, but there was one instance that wasn’t as lighthearted. At least, not immediately. Collin was in an open clearing between two sets of trees that walled a wide ditch that most of our teammates were using for cover. They were smart and Colin, bless his heart, was in a moment of weakness.
He was shot down in the open mercilessly, in a way that his flailing like a rag-doll caused me to emit a sigh, safely behind a tree, that was nearly a laugh. Colin posed before flailing like Willem Defoe in the movie Platoon. This was unintentional but memorable. After this, he wrenched around on the ground, continuing to be shot up and down both sides of his body. I still wonder why he did not attempt to get up and out of the line of fire. What I do know is once he had combat-rolled far enough to find himself “safely” behind the trees I was positioned behind, he yelled toward the opposing team, “I hope you have a heart-attack so bad it kills your whole fucking family!”
He was angry and I thought this was hilarious. I was incapacitated by a fit of incessant, wheezing chuckles that left me unable even to return fire. Colin had always been the comedian of our house, and he took any opportunity to make the people around him laugh. Even after a pummeling from the opposing team, he was finely demonstrating his talent here.
All in all, it was a fun day. A good workout, a test of fieldcraft, and a comedic spectacle, all delivered one after the other and all at once. As my roommate Patrick remarked, quoting Apocalypse Now, “Things were simpler out there.”