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.