There was lots of screaming, and shouting, and ducking behind obstacles and convenient hiding places. In other words, I was playing paintball, a practice more commonly associated with twelve year old boys and emotionally frustrated rednecks than with young journalists with an interest in social issues.
Turns out I love it.
This all started when I went to visit my friend Eli’s paintball range to fly a camera-drone over some unobstructed turf.
Perhaps I should explain: I do indeed possess a small consumer-range camera drone, and I do indeed require lots of empty space to fly it over, lest I run afoul of strict FAA regulations that frown upon that kind of behavior. Let’s move on.
I was flying, with the assistance of Eli, when he suggested that I try playing paintball. I’d already driven there and I was in a pretty good frame of mind, what with the sudden arrival of both spring and some modicum of expertise with a camera drone. So I agreed to try paintball.
I was outfitted with a large black hoodie, as well as a full-length facial mask that resembles the sort of thing that a plague doctor might wear during the Dark Ages. Professional players wear more protective equipment than these rather basic remedies, but it’s really all you need: paintball pellets will sting like a bitch when they hit your tender exposed flesh, but won’t actually cause permanent injury. (The same can’t be said about your eyeballs, which is why everyone wears the face mask at all times within the range).
I was then handed an air-powered gun, with a battery-powered tumbler on top that takes in the paintballs. They’re ejected with extreme prejudice when you pull the trigger. You don’t pull the trigger like that of a normal gun, where you do it once and with great intention and purpose. Instead, you toggle your fingers on a paintball trigger really rapidly, like when you’re tapping on a desk and expectantly waiting for somebody. “Spray and pray” is an effective technique in this sort of game.
“Try it out,” Eli said, and I walked over to a small target range that looked exactly like a lesser Jackson Pollack painting. It took me a few minutes to pick up the toggling motion, but once I did, I was merrily pinging targets with extreme prejudice.
“She’s a killing machine,” Eli’s brother said, approvingly.
Then I went to actually play. The paintball range is set in a huge stand of eucalyptus trees, outfitted with blinds and hiding places and brush, allowing you to lurk and pick off the unsuspecting. The Delia family has outfitted the place with a number of forts that resemble something right out of a National Historic Site brochure about doughty pioneers. Players can take over these forts than protect them against the opposing team. This is considered extra fun.
The players, almost all dudes (a shock!), were outfitted in tactical-looking protective gear and baggy clothing. The baggy clothing is strategic — it helps cushion the blow if you do get hit. “You can always tell the sharks because they have nice guns,” Eli’s brother pointed out.
Some of them had decorative face shields painted with skulls or fangs, or other appropriately aggressive items. One guy had added rainbow-colored feathers to his. Ages ranged from 10 to pushing 60 among the immediate paintball warriors, with most clustering in that fuzzy range of adolescence from 13 to mid—twenties.
As paintball players will point out, there’s an instructional purpose to the soft-tissue trauma of getting whomped with a paintball pellet: it motivates you to get a lot better at paintball.
Paintball isn’t real warfare, but as it turns out, the adrenaline rush you get isn’t too far off from the real rush of having angry people spew hot lead at you at close quarters. Police and the military use paintball as both training and recreation.
That’s why I loved it, I’m pretty sure. I’ve spent the past three years living in places where crossing the street can become an exciting exercise in existential terror. A week where I don’t find my heart thumping with the exultant pleasure of continuing existence after escaping yet another run-in with the Death Angel (in the guise of, say, a tuk tuk) is one that feels somewhat muted and colorless of late.
Coming from a Southeast Asian metropolis with limited rule of law to the manicured and aggressively safe climes of Palo Alto and Stanford is enough to give anyone in their right mind whiplash. If you’re me, it mostly makes you unusually pissy.
Paintball fills that emotional gap. All of the adrenaline and aggression. Absolutely no risk of being run over by a drunk in a 4-Runner in broad daylight, as would be my likely undoing in Phnom Penh.
I spent the rest of the weekend after my stint at the paintball range in an unusually cheery mood — smiling at random motorists on the freeway (whom I usually consider rat-bastards), being unusually pleasant to skeezy old guys at the bar, waiting in lines with much more patience than I can usually muster
Paintball, in my mind and in the mind of others, is usually associated with libertarians — the kind of people who want to corner you somewhere and talk about the Gold Standard in increasingly agitated tones. This being California, Paintball Jungle is a lot less about Apocalypse Prepping, and a lot more about having a good time pretending to be engaged in urban warfare.
“I only allow positive people here,” said Eli’s dad to me, the founder of the place and a former international paintball star. And indeed, he was right: most everyone seemed to be in a good mood.
I’m glad I tried paintball – it’s the happiest kind of bloodlust.
If you want to try it out yourself, come to Paintball Jungle in Vallejo. It’s near the Wine Country, too. Imagine what kind of weekend you could have.