"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.