Shooting someone in the head is more complicated than it sounds, as the first Godfather movie demonstrated so well. For instance, in paintball–the modern adult game version of war–head shots are against the rules. So as Michael Corleone discovered, the victim doesn’t always die neatly and quietly. In fact in paintball he doesn’t die at all. Instead of indecorously losing his brains, he’s more likely to indecorously lose his temper and swear a blue streak. Sometimes it’s just as ugly.

Fortunately, I shot a very nice person in the head. I had him pinned down behind a tree about ten yards away, firing off rounds whenever a body part strayed into the open. The minute he foolishly poked his helmet out to determine my position, I put a paintball right between his eyes and watched the thin red liquid run down his cheeks.

I felt guilty about it, though head shots are common enough. Paintball teaches you that in the heat of mock battle, people get pretty goofy. They ambush their own men, and they shoot their own feet checking to see if their guns are out of ammunition. You can’t keep people from committing acts of stupidity against themselves–after all, that’s the essence of democracy–but head shots are different. Traditionally, the victim yells “Head shot!” and everyone gamely gives the victim time to gather his wits before resuming the fight.

Still, I was worried enough to trot over and check on the poor guy. He was stunned, just starting to wipe the paint off his goggles with the back of his hand. The hand, possessing few absorbent qualities, was ineffective. I offered him a camouflage handkerchief. He was pathetically grateful.

“Wow, you sure got me,” he whistled. He looked embarrassed and waved off my apologies. “No, no, don’t worry about it. It happens. So what do we do now?” I had hit him, so he assumed I knew what I was doing. In fact, we were both new players, “newbies” in paintball parlance. Now that I’d left my cover, we had no idea how to reconvene the battle.

“Well, I could go back behind my tree and we could start over,” I suggested, but neither of us wanted to get into that again. “We could count to ten or something,” he tried. We finally agreed to split up and go in opposite directions, trusting ourselves not to stalk each other. I ran back through the woods toward my team’s fort and remembered something Karl von Clausewitz, the eminent 19th-century military philosopher, had written.

“In the large-scale combat that we call war hostile feelings often have become merely hostile intentions,” Clausewitz wrote in his opus, On War. “At any rate there are usually no hostile feelings between individuals.”

Back in college, various courses had taught me that Clausewitz’s book, based on his experiences in the Napoleonic wars, shed light on World War II, the Vietnam war, even the arms race. Now it looked like his observations were just as relevant to late-20th-century paintball battles in suburban Chicago. A prescient guy indeed.

War is merely the continuation of policy by other means. –Clausewitz

If war really is a continuation of policy by other means, then perhaps playing war is a continuation of childhood by other toys, as my cousin Carly has observed. What she actually said was, “Paintball players are like a bunch of little kids,” but it comes to the same thing. Tom Daniel, Carly’s boyfriend and an avid player, disagrees. Vehemently. The way he describes it, paintball is a civilized substitute for primitive human instincts.

“A lot of people think uh-oh, paintball, army simulation, a bunch of boneheads out there,” says Tom. “It’s not the case. You’ve got regular guys who enjoy challenging their physical being, their endurance, their mental capacity, their survival instinct. That’s what it satisfies: that one instinct that we’ve evolved out of socially, in a sense, but we still have it–an instinct for fighting for one’s preservation.”

I’ve watched Tom collect paintball equipment for more than two years now–setting up cardboard targets in the apartment, painting camouflage on helmets, chasing loose paintballs under the furniture. Once I dropped by and Carly said he’d just been modeling different ammunition belts for her, trying to decide which looked best. Piles of paintball weapons had proliferated rapidly around the dining room. I found myself intrigued.

Tom was delighted to find a new player so unexpectedly, like an army recruiter salivating over a volunteer who already has a college degree. Other people divided into two opposing camps: those like Carly, who was disgusted by a dark, murderous side of my personality previously hidden from her; and those like my friend Neil, who begged to come with next time.

Paintball guns are illegal in Chicago, so the game is yet another industry that’s moved to the suburbs. No one knows how many paintball players live in the metropolitan area, but about 5 area stores deal exclusively in paintball and 20 or so other sports and army-surplus stores carry some paintball equipment. Store managers estimate that five to seven paintball fields operate within a two-hour drive of the city. A typical field charges $10 per person for the day and another $10 to rent a gun and goggles.

In many ways, paintball is a sport like any other. Organized games use referees for close calls, like whether someone is dead or not. (Come to think of it, maybe paintball referees could find extra work at the Missouri Rehabilitation Institute, the hospital that always seems to need an expensive court case to figure that out.) Safety equipment is required, with goggles mandatory at all times during a game. There are all kinds of expensive accessories, and the more you play the more you think you need.

For my first paintball outing, we drove about one and a half hours down the Stevenson to Doc James’ Sport Combat Park in bucolic Wilmington, Illinois. When I picked Tom up he was pulling on layers of camouflage army clothes, a black ammunition belt, and a helmet that looked like it would be good protection on another planet. “This is some of the regalia I wear to psyche people out,” he explained. He had a similar outfit for me, and I nearly psyched myself out looking in the mirror.

We left to get Tom’s paintball buddy, Dan Michalak, and Tom worried about my preconceived notions. “What do you expect to see?” he fretted. “Because a lot of people think it’s a bunch of boneheads out there being real aggressive and mean.” No, no, I protested, absolutely not. Basically, though, he was right. I didn’t expect a bunch of guys discussing Nietzsche. Yet Tom is an educated, open-minded person, I thought, an actor, not the sort I picture spending his weekends tinkering with gun mechanisms and gelatinous, water-based paint bullets. Perhaps I was unfairly prejudging paintball players.

“Say, I hope there’s a lot of people out there today,” Tom said. “When there’s more people out there, there’s more people to shoot at. You don’t mind getting hit as long as you take out a few people with you, heh heh heh.” I took my prejudices back out and dusted them off. Just in case.

We pulled up in Dan’s alley to load paintball equipment from his back porch. His huge black dog, Spike, quivered on the end of a chain and barked until his eyes went back in his head like a shark’s just before it attacks. “Watch out,” said Dan, picking his way across the yard. “Bombs.” Despite Spike the shark dog, Dan is friendly and erudite, an industrial designer.

Once we hit the expressway, I asked him and Tom why so few women play the game. As if I didn’t know.

“That’s natural,” said Tom. “OK, men, we have an aggressive and a sexual side to us. You know, we’re like constantly in heat and constantly aggressive. What’s happened in the course of our evolution is, we’ve sublimated our sexual energies into arts, into business, stuff like that. But we still have an aggressive side. There’s an instinct to fight and get stronger and eliminate weakness.”

“I don’t know if I agree with that,” Dan objected from the backseat.

“Don’t you feel that there’s an instinctual part, like the fighting, the aggressive aspect, that’s common to man?” Tom challenged him.

“Well, you could say that of a lot of sports,” Dan countered. “I don’t think it’s a matter of being aggressive. It’s a matter of pitting your skill against somebody else.”

“So you don’t buy Tom’s psychosexual theory?” I asked.

“Well, I can buy into it, but I’m not entirely sold on the whole concept. I’m sure it’s one element,” Dan said carefully.

To someone who has never experienced danger, the idea is attractive rather than alarming. –Clausewitz

I wondered if playing paintball would desensitize a person to guns and violence or heighten his appreciation of the inherent danger.

“It’s an education, a combat education,” Tom insisted. “After you play this game you realize how easy it is to get shot. When you’re playing and you get shot in the arm you’re out. Or if my buddy Dan gets shot in the head, he’s just got a head shot, he’s still in the game. In real war you just lost an arm and your friend just got killed. And you’ve gotta drag their body away without getting yourself shot. There’s nothing glorious about it at all.”

We dropped that for a while and went over the rules. The most popular game is Capture the Flag, which has a 20-minute time limit. Two teams occupy opposing forts. A whistle signals the start, and each team sends a contingent to the opposing fort to capture the enemy flag, leaving some members behind to defend the home fort. A team must carry the enemy flag back to its own fort to win. If a person is killed while carrying the flag, he has to return it to the enemy fort.

“How can you bring back the flag if you’re dead?” I objected.

“Well, that’s the rules of the game. It’s not reality,” said Tom.

In Commando, another popular game, there’s only one fort. One team defends it against an attacking enemy team. “It’s really great, all these people in a condensed area, so you get a lot of firefighting,” said Tom. “You gotta realize the object isn’t for you to survive, it’s for your team to get the flag. So it’s gotta be done as a suicide mission. You move in as fast as you can, then somebody yells something like “rock ‘n’ roll,’ or whatever the code word is, and everybody goes crazy yelling, and you run in there, you just shoot, and nine times out of ten you get shot, and everybody’s freakin’ out, and there’s one person who gets in there without getting shot and drags the flag out of there and it’s great,” he finished breathlessly. It’s just a hunch, but I think Commando is Tom’s favorite game.

“Then there’s Elimination,” said Dan. “You got no friends.”

“No friends,” Tom repeated.

“And you need friends,” added Dan, “but it’s Elimination, every man for himself.”

“That doesn’t sound like much fun,” I said doubtfully.

“It is when you win,” Tom cackled.

As we neared Doc James’s, we began discussing strategy. “We’ll stick together as a squad and help each other out,” Tom told me.

“Should we let her in on the male bonding experience?” Dan mused.

“OK, let’s do it,” said Tom, launching into a short lecture on how the delicate flower of friendship blooms in combat. Dan threw in a cautionary warning: “Now, we’re not saying Tom or I are going to jump in front of you and take a paintball for you, though.”

Stories flew around the car about Doc James, whose very name makes him seem mysterious. The word is, Doc James is an ex-Green Beret. Tom thinks he was a medic, Dan thinks he was a soldier. They’ve both heard that Doc was on Nightline once, discussing paintball. There are good-natured tales of Doc’s tendency to boast about the game’s popularity, particularly as related to attendance at Doc James’ Sport Combat Park.

“Oh boy, I can’t wait to hear what he has to say to you,” laughed Tom. “He’ll talk your ear off. He’s definitely a salesman.”

He turned to Dan. “Have you called his house lately and gotten his machine? It’s pretty funny. ‘Due to the great weather and spectacular foliage, paintball has become incredibly popular and we’ve increased our field ability to be the best in the midwest.'”

We left I-55 for some rural two-lane routes and finally turned onto a dirt road. “Do you have butterflies?” Dan asked me. I didn’t, probably because I didn’t know what I was getting into. “Oh, you will, you will. I’m getting butterflies right now,” said Tom. “You’re gonna be like ‘Oh, shit’ when we get started.”

Everyone rates the enemy’s bravery lower once his back is turned, and takes much greater risks in pursuit than while being pursued. Everyone gauges his opponent in the light of his reputed talents, his age, and his experience, and acts accordingly. –Clausewitz

“Just don’t be intimidated,” Dan advised, and he might have been quoting old Karl. “Soon as I see somebody’s intimidated, I know he’s mine. They can’t shoot you if they’re running away. You can just chase ’em down. So don’t let anybody know it’s your first time. You can tell rookies right away. They’ve got this worried look in their eye.”

Tom and Dan get special pleasure from intimidating new players with their elaborate war gear. Amateurs show up in jeans and T-shirts, renting goggles and unsophisticated guns from the paintball park. Hard-cores like Tom and Dan dress in full camouflage, with ammunition belts, black army boots, gloves, helmets with visors or built-in goggles, and paintball guns that cost between $200 and $400 and look like Star Trek props.

“Me and Dan will come up, take out our clothes and our stuff, practice some shots, and people are like ‘Woooaaaaaahhhh. Look at these mercenaries,'” Tom noted gleefully. Sometimes, he said, they add black ski masks. “There’s the psychological aspect of not being able to identify someone. You walk in with that mask on and they’re freaked out, man.”

“You know what he did one time?” said Dan proudly, jabbing a thumb in Tom’s direction. “He told people we were Chicago SWAT.”

“And they fuckin’ bought it, man. They bought it!” Tom hooted.

“I just kept my mouth shut,” said Dan.

“They bought it, they believed it, they ate it up!” Tom laughed.

“Yeah, he was like, ‘Tom is just my alias,'” Dan said. “You know, him being an actor, he just got into the role. And I just kept nodding. One guy came up to us and said ‘Why’re you wearing that mask?’ And what’d we say, Tom? ‘No comment’?”

“We said, ‘We’re not at liberty to say,'” Tom chuckled. “All deadpan, in the mask, and you’re eyeballin’ them. You don’t even blink. You don’t blink.”

The aggressor is always peace-loving . . . he would prefer to take over our country unopposed. –Clausewitz

Frankly, nothing about that quote suggests paintball. I just get a big kick out of it.

At Doc James’ Sport Combat Park, a wooden fence separates the dirt road from a clearing in the woods that serves as base camp. A rustic cabinlike structure, the park office, stands to the left. Across from it, two pavilions hang over picnic benches where the troops rest between games and combat casualties await resurrection in the next round. Farther on, customers practice splattering bottles, bull’s-eyes, and dummies at a ragtag shooting range.

The heart of the combat park lies beyond–little forts scattered in the thick woods, with names like “Alpha Camp,” “Camp Delta,” and “Camp Bravo.” The term “fort” is used loosely here. These forts are slightly more sophisticated than the one you and your friends built in a vacant lot when you were ten, mainly because Doc used wood cut for the purpose rather than odd scraps from your dad’s basement workshop. On the other hand, what Doc James calls the SWAT Hotel belongs in an Our Gang short: a plywood structure of tiny winding rooms with a few windows cut out, reportedly used by local police forces for practice drills.

We were late that day; about 20 other players already swarmed about busily checking their gear. I walked over to the park office to sign a release form, feeling a little self-conscious in my army duds. A young boy, maybe 11 or 12, was working on his bike next to the cabin. He stared at me, then whipped around when I stared back. I signed my forms and returned.

“You look surprised to see me,” I said.

“No I’m not,” he retorted. “I’ve seen women here before.” I shrugged and walked away. “So what are you doing here?” called the boy, who turned out to be Doc’s son, J.D.

“I’m gonna play,” I called back.

J.D.’s attitude proved common. On first seeing me, many of my male paintball colleagues gave double takes that would land them the lead role in any bad sitcom.

To introduce the principle of moderation into the theory of war itself would always lead to logical absurdity. –Clausewitz

Dan and Tom and I gathered our gear and hurried to the shooting range for some quick practice. A canister of carbon dioxide attached to the gun propels the paintballs, which are about the size of superballs. Before each shot, you work a pump on the gun, then pull the trigger. Tom and Dan also use plastic attachments, appropriately called “weenies,” for easy paintball loading. A weenie holds about 40 paintballs, while rented guns may hold only 10. I was glad to be carrying a weenie-equipped weapon from what I was beginning to think of as Tom’s Paintball Surplus.

We all carried test tubes of extra paintballs in our ammunition belts. A cardinal rule is to reload during lulls in battle, since running out of ammunition during cross fire is highly undesirable. To avoid such certain death, I wondered whether you should conserve paintballs during a battle, try not to shoot too aimlessly. Absolutely not, said Tom. Start firing and keep ’em coming.

Among the many factors in war that cannot be measured, physical effort is the most important. –Clausewitz

I still hadn’t seen Doc James when referees split us into teams. We joined the red team, tying red rags around our upper arms and heading off to Fort A for the first round of Capture the Flag. The red team had about 10 to 15 members; they were hard to count, since they were all tearing through the woods at a pace that suggested reaching the fort was the object of the game. Once there, we introduced ourselves and soberly shook hands. I studied everyone’s face. Two seconds later I’d forgotten all their names and hypnosis wouldn’t have made me recognize a single face.

Three people volunteered to stay behind and defend Fort A, and the rest of us split into two assault forces that would charge Fort B from opposite directions. We stood around adjusting our goggles nervously, waiting for the starting whistle. I was hoping for enough time to return my pulse to normal, since I guessed correctly that the run to Fort B would be a lot like the run to Fort A, except worse.

Tom, Dan, and I formed an assault team with one other person, a big blond guy about 50 pounds overweight who looked like he spent most of his time with farm animals. The whistle launched Tom and Dan into the woods like greyhounds. Even the big guy moved surprisingly fast, so for most of our mission I concentrated simply on breathing, not running into trees, and adjusting my goggles, which kept fogging up. Theoretically, we were also advancing surreptitiously behind cover and scanning the woods ahead for an ambush.

Tom was right; once we got started, I was, as he said, “like ‘Oh, shit.'” Terrified. Running through the woods with a gun expecting to be shot any minute will do that to you. I had gone into the game with only a vague desire to finish it alive. But now it seemed urgently important to avoid getting shot, not just because I didn’t want to sit out the rest of the game, but because I didn’t want to die.

We reached a creek and risked an open crossing over the narrow bridge. On the other side, Tom and I lost Dan and the big guy in a field of six-foot bushes and weeds. We were hunched down, creeping carefully through the underbrush when Tom bumped right into an enemy soldier creeping just as carefully in the opposite direction. The enemy got the jump on Tom, killing him with a single shot to the chest. I managed to return fire before he could get off another shot, a solid hit in the stomach. My first kill.

My excitement was tempered by grief at Tom’s premature death. He and the dead enemy brushed themselves off, rubbed at their wounds, and headed off, grumbling, toward base camp to join the other corpses. “Ah, shit,” said Tom. “Well, you go on.”

I caught up with Dan and the big guy at the enemy fort. It was mysteriously deserted. Either they’d opted for an all-out assault, leaving the fort unattended, or they’d already been massacred. But the flag was still there. The big guy rushed in and grabbed it, and we raced back to our own fort. Dan and I covered the big guy and the precious flag, constantly wheeling around in anticipation of an enemy pursuit that never materialized.

Our team gave us a hero’s welcome back at Fort A, and we all sauntered back to base with the flag, trading war stories. I saw what Tom and Dan meant about the bonding thing: These guys were OK. I still couldn’t name or recognize one of them, but we’d accomplished something together. We’d annihilated another group of human beings. It was a good feeling.

The best strategy is always to be very strong; . . . there is no higher and simpler law of strategy than that of keeping one’s forces concentrated. –Clausewitz

For the third game we switched to Commando, a 15-minute round with the red team designated as assault. Tom was elated, and gathered us for a strategy session. The rest of the team, I should mention, had put themselves under Tom’s command after he captured the flag in game two before the enemy even had time to assault our fort. Tom had told me earlier the problem was seldom having too many leaders. “New people especially are dying to have someone tell them what to do,” he’d said.

Tom replayed his pep talk about Commando being a suicide mission. The point wasn’t for us to live as individuals, but to throw ourselves in a human wave at the fort. Someone would survive, and the team would win. Everybody nodded at Tom with big eyes. “Look, we’ll go out first,” said Tom, indicating Dan and me. “We’ll bear the brunt of the attack. You guys just have to follow. So when I yell ‘rock ‘n’ roll,’ everybody charges the fort and yells their head off. OK? And you gotta remember to really scream. Freaks ’em out.”

The red team crept up to the fort, quietly taking positions behind trees. The enemy was already peppering us with shots, making everyone skittish. Tom crouched and waited briefly, then rushed the fort, screaming “rock ‘n’ roll!!!” as promised. Dan and I were right behind him, shooting wildly into the fort. Aiming accurately is tricky while suicidally assaulting a fort, but I killed at least one enemy soldier before getting blasted in the leg and then the arm.

“Dead!” I yelled, holding my gun up in the universal symbol of surrender and praying the crazed enemy defenders would cease fire. Tom had claimed repeatedly that getting shot didn’t hurt. What a liar. I had a bruise mark on my thigh for two weeks the size and color of a rotten lemon. It was powerful motivation to avoid any future suicide assaults.

Tom, Dan, and I had been massacred in seconds, largely because the rest of the red team remained cowering behind their trees. Tom and Dan were furious as we limped back toward base camp. As a commander, Tom clearly felt betrayed. He reminded me of George C. Scott in Patton after Patton gets demoted for slapping around a wounded soldier.

“I don’t believe it,” Dan fumed. “We said you guys don’t have to sacrifice yourselves, we’ll sacrifice ourselves, but you have to be behind us to take advantage of our sacrifice! Then we turn around and no one’s there.”

“They’re all behind trees wasting paint!” Tom seethed. “It’s a waste of 15 minutes!”

Back at the pavilion, Tom calmed down enough to assure me that usually Commando was great fun. “You know what’s great is playing defense when the other team goes ape shit on you,” he confided. “‘Cause they’re all rushing in and you’re just going ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, and you’re takin’ out as many guys as you can.”

“That’s exciting,” Dan agreed.

The history of warfare so often shows us the very opposite of unceasing progress toward the goal, that it becomes apparent that immobility and inactivity are the normal state of armies in war, and action is the exception. –Clausewitz

I made the strategic decision to sit out the last game and meet Doc James, who was hanging around the park office. Tom’s description of Doc was eerily accurate.

“This is a very small group. Usually we have very large groups, and we’ll have about 20 judges,” Doc said quickly. “I was on Ted Koppel,” he added.

Doc is a man of medium height, probably in his mid-40s, with a wiry, weathered look that screams “Vietnam veteran.” He says he started the Wilmington combat park about ten years ago. He speaks in a calm, deliberate voice no matter what he is saying, like Clint Eastwood playing a State Department spokesman. Doc claims his is the very first paintball combat park in the country. On closer questioning, he claims his is the very first paintball combat park in the midwest. And he likes relating his Nightline experience.

“It was back when the game first got started, and they had on some lawyers and psychologists who felt that the sport was too aggressive, breeded violence,” said Doc. “My first response to this one guy was, ‘Have you ever played the game?'” He imitated his Nightline opposition shaking his head. “I looked at Ted Koppel and he looked at me, and we both kind of chuckled. You know, it’s the same scenario as, I’m a Vietnam veteran and some guy’s gonna ridicule and say we shouldn’t have been over there. Have you ever been to Vietnam. No. End of conversation. How can you express any knowledge of something that you have no experience of.” Doc doesn’t bother putting an inflection on questions with answers he considers obvious. “I told him the American people are without a doubt the most aggressive people that I have experienced. Therefore the sports that we play are a representation of our . . . enthusiasm.”

Doc said many of his clients are fathers and sons. “There’s a lot of camaraderie, a lot of friendship. Tension is relieved and it’s relieved in a way where as it’s leaving, it seems to be replaced by this adrenaline rush that you experience. And when you leave the result is this smile and contentment. Fulfillment that you accomplished something, you know, and fresh air. All we do is add a few implements, and Mother Nature does the rest.” Doc makes paintball sound like a combination of sex and a Boy Scout camp out.

Paintball got started when people like Doc found completely unintended uses for cattle-marking guns. “A friend of mine took me up to a farm in Wisconsin,” Doc recalled. “We’re goofin’ around in the barn, and this guy had two cattle-marking guns. Before y’know it, we’re shootin’ at each other and we’re like, “Can you get more of these?’ So a couple of weeks later we go back up there and he had four guns. Pretty soon he had eight of ’em, and we’re goin’ up with teams every week. And I came back one week and just ordered 20 guns and rented ’em.”

In general, however, Doc doesn’t like talking about his past. He was a Green Beret in 1967 and ’68, he said, and then spoke vaguely about being a stockbroker before the combat park. “Did it for ten years. Then I went off one day and did this,” waving his hand toward a paint gun, “and I just never went back to that desk. Adios, I’m outta here, I’m buyin’ some paint pellet guns.”

He attributed the combat park’s success to his own military experience. “The terrain here is just absolutely geographically perfect for this kind of game. When I first walked through this park, I saw it happening,” he said, with the faraway look of a man with a vision. “Where I’d played first, we had just woods, no ground cover. Ground cover is important. If you have ground cover, and then you have woods, you’ve got a jungle and then you can create the authenticity.”

Doc denied that fewer women than men play paintball, but he readily speculated about why fewer women play. “The type of women who like the outdoors is a smaller percentage than there is of men,” he said. “Henceforth crawling in the woods, snakes, spiders, ants–I mean, it’s nothing to do a roll and a dive and get up and boomboomboomboom,” he said, making a quick shooting motion, “and go down to reload and see you’re in the middle of a million ants. And when you have that type of environment, you know, it’s not very attractive to ladies. That’s my opinion.”

Doc mused that women might also be scared off by husbands and boyfriends. “The menfolk get home and spin some fish stories that make the women think it’s a little more ferocious than it really is,” he said.

Doc was selling pop and microwave pizza from the cabin, and he generously offered me a can. “Do you have any diet?” I asked, and the various referees listening to us stared. “No, we’re in the jungle,” joked one. I told Doc that if he wanted to attract more women, he’d have to get some diet pop. “She’s right,” Doc declared, surveying the others, as if daring them to disagree. “You’re right,” he repeated to me.

Surprise therefore becomes the means to gain superiority. . . .Whenever it is achieved on a grand scale, it confuses the enemy and lowers his morale. –Clausewitz

The drive home was a litany of war stories. “The ultimate war story we have, what a day that was,” Tom reminisced. “We were playing Commando, we’re defending, and Dan-o climbed a tree and I stayed at the bottom of the tree to protect him. The other team comes running down the trail toward our fort. I’m looking right at them and they don’t see us. Dan’s like, ‘Don’t shoot yet, don’t shoot yet.’ Finally they’re right on top of us and we’re like, ‘Now.'”

“A hailstorm of paint,” Dan grinned.

“Yeah,” said Tom. “We took out 14 of the 16 guys, just between the two of us. It was amazing.”

“They couldn’t figure it out, because they never looked up,” Dan explained. “So all they saw was Tom. All this paint’s coming from this vicinity, and they’re like, ‘What the hell’s this guy doin’ over there?'”

“Wiped ’em out,” Tom finished smugly. “And they’re just freaking, they were running, they couldn’t find cover. It was just–it was a turkey shoot. It was the best.”

One can make the point that action in war, insofar as it is true action and not mere existence, is never completely free from danger. –Clausewitz

If paintball is a dangerous game, its chief hazard comes from nature. In a word, itch weed.

“People wear T-shirts out here in the summer, and it looks good in a Rambo movie, but when you hit the itch weed . . . ” Doc James’s referee Bill Branson let his sentence trail off ominously. It was a few weeks later, and I was hanging out at the registration cabin while paintball battles raged in the nearby woods between a large group of bankers from the Northern Trust, plus Tom and Dan. A group of dead soldiers straggled into camp together. “Looks like some heavy action there,” Bill observed.

One corpse might have walked off the set of Laugh-In, his clothes were splattered with so many different colors of paint. “Hey, is that your version of rope-a-dope? Just to get hit so many times that you’ll tire them out?” snickered one of his friends.

Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain. –Clausewitz

Two other dead guys plopped down at a picnic bench to check their equipment, one excitedly explaining to the other how he’d managed to kill him. “I saw you didn’t see me, so I just ran down by the water, and I came up and I was just like this,” he chattered, demonstrating a ready-to-shoot pose. “I just put a bead on you, man. You didn’t even see me!”

His victim tried an excuse. “Hey, I asked this guy, ‘Is there anybody down there?’ And he said no, so I said ‘OK, I’ll go down there.'”

I wandered over to the Laugh-In soldier to gather details on his colorful death. “I was killed so many different ways, what’s that movie–‘10,000 Different Ways to Die,'” he lamented. “Actually, this is the first time I’ve died today. The other times I got hit in the head–once by you,” he suddenly realized. I was embarrassed to recognize the guy that I had, in fact, shot between the eyes. “You’re pretty good,” he said. “Oh, you’re playing with these mercenaries,” he whistled respectfully as Tom walked up to us. Tom and Dan had worn their ski masks during the first few games of the day, inspiring just the rampant fear they so enjoyed.

Red paint dripped from a corner of Tom’s mouth. He would have looked authentically dead lying down. “It was point-blank,” he marveled. “I stormed the SWAT Hotel. I was in there, I turned the corner, and there’s a guy there. I waited for him to stick his gun out and shot him right in the hand. Then I’m running in there, and there’s a guy sitting in the corner who shot me right in the arm.” He still looked stunned.

J.D., Doc James’s son, walked up and started wiping off Tom’s paint wound with a camouflage handkerchief, then with his hand. “I don’t care, I’m used to this paint,” he said. Tom asked him if he owned a paint gun, and J.D. happily detailed his military hardware. “I got a mask. I got an Uzi–it’s a pump and it holds at least 40. My dad, he was a Vietnam veteran,” he added, changing the subject as only kids can. “He was a medic, and by the time I go into Special Forces–”

“You’re gonna go into the Army?” Tom interrupted.


“Why?” said Tom, bewildered.

“‘Cause I want to. ‘Cause I wanna be like my dad,” J.D. answered. “Anyway, my dad says I’ll probably know more than those guys do by the time I get there. I’ve had this place all my life.”

“I’ll tell you one thing,” said Tom, shaking his head and looking genuinely worried. “I hope you never see combat.”

Most of J.D.’s talk might have been transcribed directly from The Donna Reed Show, both the starry-eyed praise for his dad (“My dad helped me with the honor roll this year. He takes me to Great America, to Showbiz Pizza, he takes me everywhere. He’s the best!”) and his reasons for opposing hunting (“I just don’t think it’s fair to the deer to die”). Take away the paintball Uzi, and you have Paul Peterson.

The Northern Trust Bank people are a large, friendly group that get together to blow each other away once a year. They’re organized by Keith Amendola, 28, a second vice president in commercial lending from Orland Park. The group included two women, the first I’d seen besides myself. Amendola said many of the people he brings out are novices, and I asked if he gave them any special instructions.

“Not really. Just run like hell,” he shrugged. “We had one guy go out with an orange hunter’s hat, and I think he was going out to goof around. He didn’t think it was going to be as intense as it was, and he came back in about a minute and a half covered in paint. He quickly changed his hat.”

Amendola said he understands why some people might consider the game offensively violent, but he thinks playing it has helped him understand what soldiers in Vietnam went through.

“It makes you think,” he said. “I remember the first time I played, I got hit in about a minute and a half, just sitting in a foxhole, right between the eyes. So I’m sitting there yelling ‘Head shot, I’m not dead’, and y’know, I’m thinking, ‘My God, if this was the real thing, I’d be on my way home in a bag.'”

On the ride home that day, Tom and Dan ate MREs, “Meals Ready to Eat,” which are army meals in large black plastic pouches. They warmed them up with their own body heat, tucking them under their shirts. I was incredulous. “You’re going to eat these?” I kept saying. “This is how you’re cooking it?”

“How else do you propose I warm it up?” asked Dan, getting a little testy. “It’s better than eating it cold. I’ve heated them on the Xerox machine before. Hey Tom, what do you want? Ground beef with spicy sauce or beef stew?”

Both meals smelled, to be charitable, like regurgitated Chef Boyardee Beefaroni. “This is amazing!” Tom raved. “For only two bucks! Man, this is tasty! Hey, cherry nut cake!” he exulted, pulling more and more food out of the pouch. “Hmmm, peanut butter and crackers. Well, it isn’t Peter Pan, but it’ll do.”

Soon enough, the talk returned to war. “We were the ones who wound up invading the fort in that last game,” said Tom. “We surpassed our whole team.”

“We moved up, we captured the flag, and we got back to our fort,” Dan related. “But we couldn’t get back in because they’d invaded our fort. And they shot Tom.”

“Ah, well.” Tom waved it off bravely. “Today people looked at us like ‘Ooooooohhhhh.'”

“You’re right,” I said. “The masks really worked. I heard people talking about you.”

“Noooooooo,” Tom whistled. “Honest to God? Victory!” he shrieked.

“See what I mean?” said Dan. “It’s a simple tactic, covering up your face.”

“After a while I pulled it off though,” Tom admitted. “I had to breathe.”

Back at Dan’s, as we planned our next paintball venture, we drank Dan’s home-brewed beer with one hand and pushed Spike the shark dog off of us with the other. The beer was amazing. “We call it Dan-o Dry,” Tom chuckled. “Total Dan-osity.”

Dan raised his glass. “Here’s to . . . next time we set up a better ambush,” he said. “Watch this,” he added, opening the back door and putting a finger on the doorbell while still standing inside. “Spike goes crazy whenever the bell rings, even if he can see nobody’s here but me.”

As it turns out, Dan bought Spike after a 4 AM burglary occurred while his wife was home. “I worry about my wife,” he said. “I mean, sometimes you really wonder what the world’s coming to. I don’t get it.”

But we should not habitually prefer the course that involves the least uncertainty. . . . There are times when the utmost daring is the height of wisdom. –Clausewitz

Tom sat in the backseat, pondering a high-tech paint gun advertised in a paintball magazine. He gazed at the ad, talking about barrel lengths and trigger mechanisms. “It’s tempting,” he brooded. We were speeding away from the city on another paintball adventure.

“Did you guys play a lot of war games as kids?” I asked.

“Yeah, didn’t you?” said Dan, a little defensively. “I don’t think I played more than anybody else.”

“When I was a kid, I played in the neighborhood with a bunch of guys and we’d all collect toy guns,” Tom remembered. “And we’d just have ’em on ourselves. We’d walk around with one on the leg, one on the hip, the shoulder . . .”

“OK, you’re asking why we do this,” Dan interrupted. “My own personal thing is, because it’s like playing again, like when I was a kid. As adults we have so little time to do that. It’s like recapturing your youth. But then he,” jabbing a finger at Tom, “he’s saying there’s a whole psychosexual thing.”

“Yeah, there is!” Tom put down the magazine.

“Everything we do is, so that could be applied to just about anything,” Dan argued. “Name me one thing that isn’t influenced by that.”

“All I can tell you is, it’s a natural release for me to play this game. It feels good,” said Tom.

“For me it’s the creative aspect,” Dan maintained. “For a creative person like myself, playing is a way of keeping in touch with my creative self. You have your highs and lows obviously, and the more you can do to get yourself through the lows, the better.”

We’d been driving nearly an hour when I asked exactly where we were headed. “We’re playing in an unincorporated area today,” said Dan. “It’s what you call outlaw.”

“Outlaw paintball,” Tom grinned. “We’re renegades.”

“You have bail money, right?” Dan asked me, mock seriously. “Tom, I thought you told her about that.”

So. I was on my way to some undisclosed location to break some laws. It seems Tom and Dan are loosely associated with a group of paintballers who meet periodically at this unincorporated section of an outlying suburb. One guy is a police officer for the suburb.

“None of ’em are yahoos,” Tom said. “We all respect the safety code, and we respect the area. It’s real muddy, though.”

“I think the area’s contaminated,” said Dan. “Industrial waste. You see the color of that water? It’s kind of a weird green.”

(I pictured myself at the doctor’s office ten years from now. “We normally only see this type of cancer in toxic-waste haulers, or Chernobyl survivors,” the doctor says. “But when would you have been exposed to vast amounts of PCBs or radiation?”)

“We don’t know that for sure,” shrugged Dan. “I’m just speculating. The color of the water, and the smell over there.”

“This sounds like a really bad idea,” I said, as we pulled into a forest preserve parking lot and Tom and Dan piled out to meet a group of guys standing near a van. One wore a black T-shirt with a drawing of Oliver North, one arm pointing righteously up. North’s torso had been drawn in the shape of Southeast Asia. A large caption read, “North: The Right Direction.” He turned out to be a cop too.

Our little army went on a 15-minute march through some woods, past an old factory, and finally along a railroad embankment before everyone flung down his equipment and started gearing up for battle. So far, the area looked like harmless undeveloped land, but it smelled suspiciously like Wolf Lake.

Aside from Oliver North, they seemed like a nice bunch of guys. We’d forgotten our ammunition, and several people generously sold us some of their own limited supply. Everyone was dying to try the brand-new laser sight that Tom had just installed on his gun.

In the wilderness, paintball is reduced to its most basic form. There’s no headquarters to defend, so one team stays at a base camp while the other goes off to hide in the designated playing area. After an agreed interval, the base team goes out to hunt down the opposition. The game goes on until one entire team is dead.

Our official playing area started at a stand of trees marking the edge of a football-sized field with scattered islands of chest-high underbrush. The railroad embankment ran along one side, a creek along the other. Dirt hills the size of apartment buildings loomed at the far end of the field.

Our team won the first round without any help from the three of us. As the hunted guerrillas, Tom, Dan, and I had set up an ambush near the embankment. We lay on our stomachs in the high weeds, ready to massacre any scouting parties, for about half an hour. Nobody came near us. We were like pathetic Japanese World War II soldiers on a forgotten Pacific island.

By the second game, Tom and Dan were like thoroughbred horses kept at the starting gate while everybody else ran the race. They were crazy for action. We were the hunters, and the team split into two forces, the three of us covering the embankment and the rest of the team creeping along the creek. We crawled through the underbrush in fits and starts, expecting to fall into a nest of enemy soldiers at any moment. Instead, we reached the dirt mountain range without incident.

The main battle was raging between the enemy, who had taken up positions in the mountains, and our guys near the creek. Tom and Dan itched to join the fight, but there was no cover in front of the mountains, and if we ran back to the other end of the field and came up the creek bed, we risked missing the whole war again. They favored an assault on the mountain range itself.

Granted, it wasn’t exactly Hannibal crossing the Alps, but then Hannibal didn’t have ugly pools of neon green water to contend with. Tom and Dan took off through the mud and antifreeze puddles, but I made a hopeless attempt to find a way around back before risking future chemotherapy sessions. I ended up picking my way between what I considered acid pits, occasionally rolling across muddy slopes to keep out of the enemy’s sight.

Finally, I crawled to a dirt summit and surveyed the battle. Directly below, on three separate hills, the enemy was keeping our guys pinned down behind bunches of underbrush and smaller hills. I crouched and breathed for a while; I’d have one chance to open surprise fire. I collected myself, crawled back to the summit, and took aim. It was, as Tom would say, a turkey shoot. My second shot killed the enemy on the middle hill below me. He yelped like a poodle, I thought happily as I dove back behind cover. The other two were able to position themselves beyond my range, so I made my way back down to the field. By that time, our team had again kicked ass.

I was killed almost instantly in the third game, after setting up a faulty ambush. Dan saw the most action that game, but we didn’t hear the full story until we reached the car later. Dan had tangled with Oliver North.

“I took him out,” said Dan. “I hit him in the leg, and he was still firing, and I had to yell about three times, ‘Look at your leg!’ So finally he’s out, and we’re trying to outflank the other guys, and [Oliver North] walks up behind us and yells to his buddies, ‘Hey, they’re over here.’ And I swing around and get a bead on him, and I say, ‘Hey, dead guys don’t talk.’ And he goes, ‘Well, I’m still talking.’ And I said, ‘Then I’m gonna shoot you.’ So then he says to me, ‘Well, I’ve got a real gun in the car.’ So I figure I better not say any more. I could’ve said, ‘Hey, it’s a long way to the car buddy,’ but it didn’t seem like a good idea.”

Tom and I were disgusted. I always figured Oliver North was a jerk, but that anyone would be goofy enough to threaten someone with a real gun over a game . . . I thought, perhaps naively, it seemed even goofier for a cop.

“Brains in his ass,” Dan grumbled. “You get assholes like that in any sport. And did you hear that rule? If you get hit and the paintball doesn’t break, you’re still out?”

“I’ve never heard that rule,” I said, like I’d been playing paintball for years.

“That’s a dumb rule,” Tom agreed.

Dan was still working off steam from his fight with Oliver North. “I mean, what’s the point in having paint, you know? Let’s just throw rocks at each other,” he griped.

Finally, the general unreliability of all information presents a special problem in war: all action takes place, so to speak, in a kind of twilight which, like fog or moonlight, often tends to make things seem grotesque and larger than they really are. –Clausewitz

“Didja hear about Doc James?” Tom asked me recently. “Went out of business. I think some other paintball field bought the place.”

Tom’s news saddened me. The way he’d joked about Doc James, I’d expected Doc to grate on my nerves like an MCI sales call–or worse yet, like an AT&T commercial about an MCI sales call. Instead, Doc had been refreshing. So few people have any but the lowest tolerance for their job, but here was a guy who still happily recalled saying, “Adios, I’m outta here, I’m buyin’ some paint pellet guns.”

I talked to Doc, and he confirmed that another paintball operator was running his field. But he said he hadn’t actually sold the place. The other operator had lost his own lease, and he and Doc had worked out a business arrangement. “He runs the park, and I don’t have to go out there, and I get a percentage,” said Doc.

Still, I couldn’t help remembering Doc, just this past summer, standing proudly on the park office’s front porch and surveying his own little jungle. “It’s like having a restaurant,” he’d said happily, “and every time you open the door every table’s filled until the time you close.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.