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Fighting With Paint, and Having a Ball

I hear the shots a split second before the bushes next to me absorb them, a patch of cool neon green dripping from the leaves left as evidence. I grip my gun. I crouch next to the tree. My hands are sweaty.

Blam! Blam! I feel the wet slap on my back almost before I hear it. “Dead man!” I yell, hoisting my gun to the sky.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, I have recently taken up the sport of paintball. The game consists of two teams competing to capture each other’s flag by eliminating opponents. The way you get eliminated is to get hit, or painted.

Getting hit by a paintball isn’t terribly painful, but it hurts enough to motivate seriously evasive action. Conceived in 1981 by three guys using modified tree markers, the game has since evolved into a worldwide phenomenon. According to Action Pursuit Games Magazine, paintball is played in 50 countries. The United States Paintball League is the foremost professional arena; I think it’s possible we may someday be watching Monday Night Paintball.

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Along the way, though, paintball has had to fend off its share of critics. It’s aggressive, they say. It feeds a dangerous social pathology. The case for paintball as harmless fun was not helped when four young men in Van Nuys were arrested four years ago after going on a paintball shooting spree, hitting pedestrians, bicyclists and even homeless people.

The road to redeeming paintball in the minds of skeptics may be a long one, but it has been undertaken with determination and imagination. To make it more acceptable to parents, the paintball gun has been renamed the “marker.” Still others call it a “gelatinous nodule accelerator.”

In my experience, the criticism is unfounded. For me, a 22-year-old Gen X-er who was playing action video games when I was 4, paintball is simply a variation on the backyard game so beloved by baby boomers--cowboys and Indians. Only there is no argument about whether you are hit. The paint tells the tale.

If you are a new paintballer, it’s best to start at an organized field, with rules that keep the games fun. You can rent equipment, including guns, masks and sometimes even jumpsuits. Also, all games on an organized field are overseen by a referee. The referees make sure everyone wears masks, enforce boundaries and promote fair play.

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The only organized field in Ventura County is the Urban Quest Paintball Field at 5011 W. Gonzales Road, Oxnard. For $40, you get 100 rounds of paint, which isn’t enough to paint a picture but might suffice for your first time out. (You can always buy more.)

The five fields, each about half the size of a football field, include two village settings where plywood buildings can be used for cover, a jungle-style field with bamboo tunnels and bunkers, and a tire field that is littered with various types of cover. There is also an open area for faster games.

Along with the regular fields, there are a number of renegade fields frequented by rabid paintballers. They include an abandoned warehouse on Ventura Avenue, a brushy area called “Santa Anas” closer to Ojai, and river-bottom locations from Ventura and Camarillo to Fillmore.

My first time at the warehouse, I didn’t feel nervous. I think everyone has an innate confidence when it comes to something like paintball. It doesn’t look difficult. How hard could it be to pick up a gun, er marker, point and shoot, er accelerate?

Walking out onto the field, I realized that I had no idea what I was getting into. We separated into teams on opposite sides of the field, and everyone ran off into the undergrowth.

A little voice inside me said: Aw, yeah! It’s go time! But I didn’t have a chance to listen to it. A round of shots rang out from the other side of the field--the most powerful markers can fire on automatic at 15 rounds a second--and I nearly tripped over myself diving for cover. After regaining my footing, my bladder and my bearings, I decided to follow one of my teammates into the undergrowth. We ran steadily, and it got quieter. I stopped to catch my breath while my leader plodded on. It got quieter. After he was out of sight, I didn’t feel much like moving.

You know those scenes in movies where everything gets really quiet? I became sure that I was surrounded. A whisper in the bushes to my left and I aimed my gun. A stick cracks in the grass to the right and I jumped, fumbled with my gun, and aimed it. I fired a shot and hit a suspicious tree.

Then I heard some reports in front of me. I crouched, listening intently and was startled when my leader came walking out of the trees with his gun held high. “Dead man!” he yelled, a bright orange splattering of paint on his chest.

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The silence was louder than ever. Should I charge? My instinct was anything but Ramboesque. But hiding seemed a sneaky thing to do.

Suddenly I heard someone shooting nearby. I began hearing thuds in the grass all around me. I tucked lower and looked behind me. There in the trees I saw an enemy player, and here I was wriggling around in plain sight. I stumbled over to a tree for cover, out of breath.

I angled my gun around the tree and fired blindly for a few seconds. I hit nothing. Meanwhile, an enemy player swooped around the side and flanked me. You know what happened.

I had a few minor welts to show for my day, including one in the middle of my back. I found that paintball, like anything else, takes long hours of practice to do well.

If I can master the patience--and the vocabulary--I just might make it a habit.

FYI

Paintball supplies can be purchased at:

* Battlefield Adventures, 47 S. Oak St., Ventura. 643-4190.

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* H+S Complete Paintball Supplies, 2343 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura. 643-1433.

* Ojai Valley Surplus and Discount, 952 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai. 646-2350.

* Urban Quest Paintball Field, 5011 W. Gonzales Road, Oxnard. 986-8802.

Alex Field is a Times desk assistant.


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