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Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?
December 06, 2004
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
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December 06, 2004

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

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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.

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