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Mine was probably the last generation of American boys whose favorite game was "war." Any spare time that we had aside from school, church and chores would find us bellying through the woods or hiding behind trees, toy tommy guns cradled in our arms. Small boys do not believe in death, and because we were shooting nothing more deadly than our imaginations, all our "wounds" quickly mended. Yet we were, in our minds, fierce warriors, and all of us looked forward to the day when we could charge up a beach or take a hill.
This may explain why, on the morning of June 27, 1981, 47 years old, balding, bespectacled and running to blubber, I stood at the edge of a 125-acre patch of New Hampshire woods, clad in camouflage gear, pistol in hand, my face grease-painted brown, black and green, and again prepared to play war.
Elsewhere on the perimeter of these woods, 11 other men, similarly dressed and armed, were taking their last compass bearings and checking to be sure their guns were loaded. Our pistols were large-bore Nel-spot 007s, CO handguns manufactured by the Nelson Paint Company of Iron Mountain, Mich. for the marking of cattle. The guns fire dye-filled plastic balls about half an inch in diameter which burst on contact, thus marking the "victim" with paint. Effective range, we were told, was 30 yards—a long shot for even a finely built conventional handgun, especially under "combat" conditions.
"These pellets will sting at close range," Charles Gaines warned in his invitation to participate in what he calls The Game, "but injury is unlikely, if not impossible, unless you are hit in the eye. To guard against that, safety glasses are mandatory."
Gaines is a 39-year-old Alabaman, gentleman to the core, a body builder with arms like I've got legs, and a writer who with his book Pumping Iron, done in conjunction with photographer George Butler, put that new Austrian Alp on the maps: the one called Arnold Schwarzenegger. A fine novelist (Stay Hungry and Dangler), Gaines is also an accomplished outdoorsman—bird hunter, fly-fisherman, white-water canoeist and rock-climber.
"We began discussing The Game about five years ago," says Gaines. "A gang of us were sitting around up here in New Hampshire, and the talk turned to survival. Some of us were hunters and woodsmen, but others had never stepped off a mowed suburban lawn. The question arose as to whether survival was an instinct or something that had to be learned. The city guys, of course, said they were every bit as good at surviving as the country guys—maybe better, thanks to all the dangers of the city. So finally we came up with this: The First Annual Survival Game."
Basically, the rules of The Game are these: A 125-acre "playing field"—a parcel of wooded, boulder-studded, hilly land unfamiliar to all the players—is divided into four quadrants, named Blue, Yellow, Red and Green. In each of these zones, a red-shirted quadrant judge stands watch over a dozen flags the color of his quadrant which hang from a convenient tree limb. The 12 players, three to a quadrant, enter the woods simultaneously but far enough apart from one another to make it impossible to know exactly where anyone is. Each player is armed with a Nel-spot pistol. The point of the game is for a player to make his way into each quadrant, capture one flag from each of the four flag stations and escape from the woods to a home base outside the playing field without being marked with dye. The first player to do this wins.
Simple enough: a slightly more complex version of that age-old kid's game. Capture the Flag, with the added element of perhaps a little pain from the dye pellets. The complicating factor lay in the nature of the players. "The Committee wants represented a variety of professionals and personalities," wrote Gaines in his invitation, "and seeks in common among the Players only a demonstrated tendency toward wit, variety and savage competitiveness.... A few of you are acknowledged woodsmen and/or hunters; others of you are not. The Committee deems that neither woodsmanship nor marksmanship is as important to the effective playing of The Game as are wiliness and a sharp instinct for survival that might have been as finely honed in the streets of New York as in the woods of New Hampshire."
The mix of players was a good one. Three had little or no experience of the woods, either as hunters or nature watchers. Five were experienced big-game (everything from Rocky Mountain bighorns to African buffalo) or deer hunters and one of this group had hunted men: He had been a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol leader in Vietnam, also know as a "Lurp." The remaining three, including Gaines, had some hunting experience, but mainly as bird hunters of the upland persuasion, where the gunner doesn't have to worry about stalking or making a lot of noise. All of the players were highly, and in some cases intensely, competitive. It had been hoped that at least one woman might be enlisted for this first game, and although a few expressed early interest, none showed.
After studying maps of the playing field supplied by Gaines, each player was required to submit his game strategy, either on tape or in writing, before the horns went off on Saturday morning at 10 o'clock. These strategies would be kept secret until after The Game, at which time they would be evaluated as to their efficiency. The strategies revealed more about the players, man for man, than mere appearances might have suggested. Take Ronnie Simpkins, for example. A jolly, blond, rather roly-poly Alabaman of 32, he looked about as threatening as Winnie the Pooh. Yet when he isn't farming in Camden, Ala., Simpkins is out in the "woo-uds," usually hunting wild turkeys—the wariest of game birds. A consummate tracker and marksman, he has as well a fierce killer instinct that would do credit to his Johnny Reb ancestors. "Mah strategy," he told the tape recorder in a piping drawl, "will be, in the mornin', to get into the woo-uds somewhere between 100 and 200 yards, or within shooting distance of the flag station, as quick as I can, and wait till one or two of the pursuers that are next to me try to capture a flag—and then eliminate each one of them...." Then the drawl intensified. "And Charles Gaines," he said, "I'm gonna waste you—fust!"