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War Is . . . Messy : Men, Women, Children Flock to ‘Battlefields’ to Fight Each Other With Balls of Paint

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was a 12-year-old predator, a lean, short-legged war machine with his store-bought camouflage jumpsuit and semiautomatic rifle and muddy helmet in hand as he coolly surveyed the silent woods of Newhall.

His boys called him Suicide Mike. He’s the man, they said, a miniature Rambo.

Suicide Mike sighed, explaining why he was the meanest little marauder this side of the Antelope Valley Freeway. “I like shooting the hell out of people,” he said. “It’s why I live. Pogs are dead. Now the thing to do is fight wars.”

On Michael Daclan’s 12th birthday, a dozen of his friends devised a suitably manic way to celebrate: Run around some wooded slopes in full military battle gear--hooting and hollering like wild men, firing automatic weapons, maiming, wounding, killing and being killed.

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At least temporarily, in a “paintball” war.

They come mostly on Saturdays and Sundays, the whacked-out Weekend Warriors, middle-aged Marines and wanna-be war heroes, flocking to places such as Close Encounters, near the Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways, to get a little macho aggression out of their system.

They’re yuppies and their children looking for a woodsy weekend thrill beyond reach of the suburbs. They’re married couples, mothers and sons, brothers and sisters. Robert L. Shapiro, one of the lead defense attorneys in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, recently brought his teen-age son to Close Encounters, said owner Mike Schwartz.

Out here, the weapons fire not bullets, but small, hollow balls that explode on contact into messy globs of nontoxic, biodegradable, food-based paint. The players stalk the woods in half-hour games.

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“We’ve had cops and Marines and every other kind of soldier you can think of,” said Schwartz, 44, a former Navy airplane mechanic who saw noncombat duty during the Vietnam War. “They all agree this is close to the real thing.”

The point of paintball is to form two teams and battle to capture the enemy’s flag. Players describe it as a combination of dodge ball, tag and hide-and-seek--with paint pellets zinging through the air.

Although they aren’t bullets, the balls nonetheless pack a sting. Players compare the sensation to being hit with a sharp rock or stick.

One player said: “Getting hit in the neck is the worst. It’s like reeling out your fishing pole and having the hook catch you in the back of the neck. Some guys are sicko. They juice up their guns so the pellets hit harder.”

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Paintball was born of a decades-old practice among East Coast farmers and railroad men of marking boundaries by firing paint pellets at trees and telephone poles.

Today, battlefield owners say, there are more than a half-million players nationwide and 500 playing fields. Southern California, they say, is dotted with a dozen or so. Hundreds gather at Close Encounters each weekend and companies rent the field for private games during the week.

Schwartz says the game’s popularity increased after the Gulf War. “It used to be, you wore a pair of fatigues and nobody wanted to look at you,” he said. “Now, war is no longer looked down upon.”

More than 80% of the players are men. Most games are pickup-style--teams chosen up at random moments before the whistle blows.

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Still, there have been some strange battles:

Such as the company executive who took notes on the play to gauge how workers handled pressure, who would emerge as a leader and who would panic.

Then there are the Pepperdine fraternity battles. Pistol-armed pledges are given two minutes to hide before being hunted down by the frat boys.

For the most part, however, Close Encounters caters to the beginner. Schwartz prides himself on “turning wimps to warriors,” teaching tactics and strategy to the wide-eyed and wanting. For $35, players are equipped with a single-fire pistol, a mask and several hundred paint pellets. More sophisticated firepower, camouflage suits and ammunition pouches can bring a day’s expenses to more than $100.

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At the camp’s three 40-acre battlefields, beginners have other advantages: Their single-shot guns fire farther than those of more experienced fighters. They also get “reincarnation privileges"--if killed within the first 10 minutes of battle, they often are allowed to rise and fight again.

Other rules put a lid on aggressive emotions: Players can shoot an enemy only twice before he is adjudged dead. Swearing is not allowed. And players cannot fire from closer than 10 feet.

Burbank newlyweds Leticia and Spencer Siegel said they appreciated the work of real soldiers after being in the paint gun battles.

“It’s scary at first,” Leticia Siegel said. “They blow the whistle and you feel yourself running for your life. But then you get to shoot somebody. . . . You get to say to yourself, ‘Yeah, I wasted that guy. One less enemy to worry about.’ ”

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