It began 30 years ago when somebody got the bright idea to shoot a friend with a Net-Spot 007, a tool used for marking trees and cattle. Thus, the sport of paintball was born. The weaponry has evolved a bit since those ten-round branding sticks. Players now splatter each other with machine guns, grenades (pressurized canisters of paint) and land mines (which spray everything within a 30-foot radius when set off remotely). At Survival Game of Texas, the closer you come to simulating actual warfare, the better.
My initiating experience is a round of Capture the Flag on the Vietnam field, a section of East Texas woods with hooches and a full-size train car for cover. The rules are simple: paint on the head, torso or within the underwear line is a kill. First team to bring the enemy flag to its base without getting shot wins. T-Bone, a rather ominous-looking character with skull earrings, has opted to use his own equipment. Instead of the standard-issue single-shot rifle, he's brought a full automatic with LCD display. I'm planning to stick close to him.
When the whistle blows, I'm immediately pinned down behind a tree. I get shot in the leg several times, but to my chagrin, the ref keeps declaring me alive. (The referee may be going easy on members of the media -- as the saying of the house goes, slaughtering newbies is not good business.) The pain's about right: enough to make dying a dreadful prospect, but not enough to keep me from playing. (The pellets do leave welts for days!) When the enemy (mostly high school student council members) has been eliminated, T-Bone has me carry the flag to victory.
The regulars don't exactly fit the stereotype. By day, T-Bone, or Tomas Sanchez, works in oil, and took up the sport when bad knees kept him from playing baseball. The guy in charge, Michael Boot, is studying sculpture in college. Judd "White Rabbit" Cary wants to be an elementary school teacher, and his wife, "Chick," was an avid player before she got pregnant.
The attraction to a sport like this is curious. The drive for violence is as hardwired into our genes as sex, and like sex, it has come to create more problems than it solves. This oversize video game may serve as a sort of aggression prophylactic, a safe way of satiating the urges without the consequences. Or, perhaps some people never outgrow playing soldier. Whatever the reason, out here, shooting people is fun.
Our next mission is to storm the castle -- I'm supposed to cover T-Bone as we attack. I see some heads poking through one of the windows of the wooden playhouse, and I'm pretty sure I hit both of them.
"Just so you know," the ref whispers, "that's your castle."
Friendly fire -- one of the casualties of war. They do try to keep it realistic. Every now and then, it can remind you of why you never want to use real bullets.