My blood boiled as I raced into the forest. I leaped over logs and tangles of twigs, and moved deeper and deeper into this jungle of darkness. Watching carefully for movement in the dense foliage ahead, I readied my finger on the trigger of my gun. Shots came suddenly, echoing from the southwest, rapid-fire reminders of the battle about to begin, and I wished for a moment that I could turn into a horsefly and buzz safely into the canopy above. But, alas, I was who I was, where I was, and this was war. And war is hell.
Actually, this was just the Paintball Jungle, a 65-acre plot grown over with eucalyptus trees just west of Highway 29 in American Canyon. Every Saturday and Sunday, the Jungle swarms with a hundred or more masked gunmen who shoot each other in good fun with half-inch diameter paintballs. Guests can show up unannounced any time on weekends, rain or shine, but first thing in the morning is best. That's when owner Robert Delia, aka "Magic Carpet Bob," a scarred and handsomely grizzled Navy vet and former professional paintballer, delivers his 30-minute orientation speech.
"Gather round for your orientation!" he shouts at about 9am. Fifty eager paintballers do as they're told, forming a half-circle around Bob, who stands waiting atop an old monster truck tire to enhance his mighty stature. By now we've all signed waivers, paid our $55 in dues at the open-air reception desk and been equipped with guns and helmets, but there are some basic safety rules we must hear about, first and foremost of which is to never, ever enter the target range or the forest without first putting on one's safety goggles.
Bob also briefs us on the various game styles we'll be enjoying, like Capture the Flag, Center Flag and the Elimination Round. Each, happily, involves running through the woods, hunting people with a relatively harmless gun: a boy's dream.
Yet a scattered dozen or so of my peers seem to take this business very seriously. They have come dressed in full army fatigues with American flags embroidered on their sleeves. They wear jungle-green bandanas and camouflage foliage in their hair. Several of these men have gigantic $1,000 machine guns with silencers and sights, and I want to tell them that there's a real army and a real war out in the world, in case they're interested.
"Now, remember," says Bob, "the whole point of this in the end is to have fun. Now are you ready?"
"Yeaahh!!!" comes the war cry of an army.
Several Jungle employees come around to tie our arms with either fluorescent red or green ribbons, thereby dividing us into teams. I receive a red ribbon, which is actually pink. On a loud speaker, a male voice orders us to our bases. "Greens to the Hornet Nest, Reds to the Airplane Bunker. Game starts in three minutes!" I put on my goggles and follow a gaggle of stern-postured pink soldiers into the thick woods, and this drops me right back into the previously interrupted narrative, which, as you recall, had me racing through the jungle. Ahem.
"Hey, pal, you know where you're going?" I asked the camouflaged fellow ahead of me.
"Naw, this is my first time here."
Yet the bumbling lot of us somehow found our base, where a referee sat waiting, holding a walkie-talkie and wearing an orange vest. Our flag--more of a rag, really--flew proudly in the middle of the Lincoln Log-like structure. Sheltered turrets stood at the five corners, and the prospects of dwelling in this cozy inn for the duration of the 30-minute game, taking cheap shots into the woods at enemy and terrorist sympathizers, wooed me into declaring, "I'll defend the fort!"
With six others, I entered the small complex, climbed up to one of the guard platforms and made myself comfortable at a firing slot in the wooden wall. Momentarily, the ref received a message through the walkie-talkie. Then a loud horn blew in the distance, echoing through the woods, and our man shouted, "Game on! Go get 'em!"
Two dozen of our pink soldiers dashed westward into the woods toward the unseen enemy with the goal of retrieving their flag. For several minutes, we heard nothing while watching the surrounding sphere of jungle for enemies.
And then from one of our sentinels: "Movement to the southwest!" I, too, saw an apparition out in the shadowy woods to the northwest, and a second later a paintball from the south breezed past my face and splattered on a post behind me. We were surrounded. My comrades began shooting from their respective duck-blinds while I stayed low, waiting for the prime opportunity to blast an enemy fighter in his vitals. Opportunity arose when I spied someone about 200 feet away crouched behind a stump. I aimed through the slot in the wood structure and popped off a half-dozen rounds, but I watched each of my paintballs zip waywardly and splatter in the foliage before reaching their target.
There must have been 20 Greens around us, and they were closing in. An armed man ran out from behind a tree and charged forward. He was just 60 feet away, hoping to reach the next patch of cover before anyone could take him out, which I did.
"Hit!" he shouted, nobly obeying the honor system. He straightened up, lifted his hands skyward and calmly walked off the scene. I enjoyed watching him perish.
We picked off several more insurgents, but the Greens had us outmanned. Increasing volumes of paint splattered all around me, and the breeze of paintballs overhead kept me cowering on my knees. And then they were in our fort, swarming viciously like hornets. Presumably, a similar battle was taking place across the forest at the Greens' base, but the horn had yet to blow and it seemed our flag was going to be the first to go.
I fired feverishly, hitting nothing but wood and earth. Abruptly, a line of machine gun fire pat-pat-patted up my front side. Paintballs hurt, and I screamed in fright and lifted my gun in the air to announce my death. Meanwhile, my men dropped like flies, and the Greens made off with the flag. The ref, still standing by with his walkie-talkie, announced the loss to the horn blower. The trumpet sounded through the woods a moment later, and the game was over. Ten remained before closing time.
While most paintballers at the Jungle make an entire day of running around in the woods and getting shot, I didn't have what it takes. By 1pm, with a dozen welts rising on my head, neck and torso, I was toast. I was bleeding in several spots, my shirt had been torn open and, frankly, I thought these wounds were pretty darn awesome.
Magic Carpet Bob owns the Paintball Jungle with his partner of 27 years, Karen Kazman. Bob's adult sons, Eli and Zoe, also help out with the business. Zoe even played on the same professional team as his dad back in the early '90s, traveling across the country and Europe, and together helping to win for their team the Paintball World Championship in 1991, about the time that we tried to loot Iraq for its oil the first time around.
But the paintballers I've seen are a far cry from real soldiers; they're lovers, not fighters, and Eli believes that paintballing is the second greatest form of recreation in the world.
"It's the most fun you can have with your clothes on," he quips.
For others, it's therapeutic, a chance to blow off some pent-up steam from the office. Ryan Crain, 28, a creative-marketing director from Vacaville, sees paintballing as harmless, a chance to be something that most days of the week he's simply not.
"It's great," he says. "You're outside, playing dress-up and running around like a soldier in the woods."
Ditto for me. Stalking strangers with a toy gun answered a long-neglected boyish desire to hunt and be hunted, an urge I once satisfied through classroom daydreams of fighting in wars both ancient and modern, and kicking ass, of course. Perhaps the most satisfying thing about paintball is that the game makes sense; your enemies are as real and tangible as their neon wristbands. In today's real wars, it's just so confusing! Men, women, children, newlyweds kissing on the altar--any of them could be terrorists, and the only safe thing to do is to blast them, safety goggles be damned.
But what do I know about war? Paintballing took me to my ultralight personal threshold for violence, and I hope that I never have to put on army fatigues and load a real weapon.
Because I've read that there's a real war going on out there. It's not in a jungle of eucalyptus trees, and I hear it's hell.
Paintball Jungle, 2 Eucalyptus Drive, American Canyon. 707.552.2426.