When the squadron leader gave the signal, we hurried forward, crouching and firing, making for an overturned cable spool. Or I should say they were firing, the other guys on my team. They were plugging away, spraying the field with ordinance, taking no chances. But I was trying to be as stealthy as possible, moving hard on the enemy’s right flank, using the trees and deadfall as cover, firing not a single shot.
Before long I was far out on the left, in a position to catch the enemy in a crossfire, just as Gray had counseled. Over there, somewhere on the other side of the heavily wooded battleground, Gray had presumably done the same thing. From our flanking positions we could cut them to pieces as they advanced, riddling them with paintballs.
But I still couldn’t see the enemy. So I kept moving, crouching and scrambling, and before long I had nearly made it to the fortress, a paint-splattered two story structure with empty window frames and a crude parapet, behind which defenders could shield themselves and fire down. It had not yet been claimed by either side.
I hunkered down and scanned the woods in front of of me. Then I saw it, a flash of red and white. It was the blonde teenager in the red motocross jacket. He was on the other team. He was the enemy. He was getting into position and he hadn’t seen me. I raised my weapon and drew a bead on him. Then I pulled the trigger.
At this point my teammates had expended about a thousand rounds of ammo as they’d moved up on the fortress, but I had yet to fire my first paintball, the first paintball of the day, the first paintball of my life. “Shit,” I muttered and dropped down behind a plywood barricade as a dozen rounds came plunking into it. The enemy had seen me.
I pushed and pulled on the bolt. Nothing. I turned the gun over in my hand, frantically trying to discover the secret to unlocking it. It thwarted me. A dozen more rounds came rapping into the 4 foot plywood barricade behind which I hid.
I looked around and saw one of my teammates come sliding in behind a fallen trunk. He popped up and started firing.
Using his cover, I raced across the 30 yards of exposed ground and slid in beside him. “Hey,” I shouted, my voice muffled by the clear acrylic shield of my mask. “How do you make this work?”
He took the gun, jerked the bolt back and forth a couple of times, fired off a couple of test rounds, and handed it back to me. “Sometimes they jam,” he said.
Great, I thought. Story of my life. Here I was pinned down behind enemy lines with a full magazine of ammo, having courageously advanced at great risk, only to find myself hampered by a defective weapon.
“Cover me,” he said. I nodded and started firing in the general direction of the blonde kid. My teammate slipped away. And then the most amazing thing happened.
The blonde kid stood up and raised his hands, the agreed upon signal for surrender. I had hit him. He was done. In another context he was a dead man.
Hmm, I thought. This paintball thing is sort of gratifying.
The Furthest North Southern State
I first got the idea of playing paintball as I was struggling to find something interesting to do in Indiana. When you are writing a US travel blog, it’s feast or famine. Some states are a virtual cornucopia of interesting things to see and do; and some states are as thin and flavorless as a rice cake. Indiana falls into the latter category.
Oh sure, there’s the Indianapolis 500, but that’s a once-a-year event that has suffered a decline in interest as infighting among sanctioning bodies and the rise of stock car racing has tarnished its luster. Other than that, what is Indiana famous for? The world’s largest rocking chair? The world’s oldest Santa Claus statue? The Dan Quayle Vice Presidential Museum?
One thing I have observed about Indiana is that it’s a reliably red state located smack in the middle of reliably blue states. Culturally and politically, Indiana is the furthest north southern state. And there are few things a southerner enjoys more than firing a gun, particularly if it’s at another living thing. I decided that a rousing round of paintball would be just the thing to capture the flavor of a red state like Indiana, once I overcame my fear of being shot.
Rehearsing for the Apocalypse
My friend Randy Gray had played paintball before. He was the only 40+ adult I knew who had played it once and was willing to play it again. Paintball is a sport for young men. It involves a fair amount of running, crouching and lunging. Two days after it was over, I was surprised by how sore my muscles felt.
In addition, it’s a tad stressful. Getting shot is never pleasant, even if the projectile bursts on contact, splattering you with water soluble yellow paint. It’s worrisome. And paintball has been known to attract sadistic types who take sinister glee in ramping up the maximum rate of fire from 5 balls per second to 13, and increasing muzzle velocity from 300 ft/s to something higher, so that when the ball hits it breaks the skin. Playing paintball is like getting into a snowball fight with bullies who pack rocks.
Of course there are rules against that sort of thing, but violations are hard to detect, and the general feeling is that anyone tough enough to participate in a sport that involves shooting one another ought to suck it up and take it like a man, no matter the injustice.
It’s very primal, very high school, the kind of thing most adults are only too glad to put behind them as they get older. But not Gray and I. We wanted to get a taste of what it’s like to be a testosterone-geeked young male in a red state these days where job prospects are bleak and the future is uncertain, but the opportunity to shoot things is always at hand, even if the enemy isn’t.
The idea of remaking the 1980’s film Red Dawn was laughable until recently. Based on the absurd premise of a Soviet invasion of the US repulsed by teenage boys, the original film was lambasted by critics and considered a non-starter as a remake. Yet 28 years later here we are.
The premise has been updated to feature the North Koreans as the bad guys, and interest has been keen among young red state males. The current malaise afflicting rural America, a potent combination of boredom, frustration and easy access to firearms, has turned the new version of Red Dawn into an apocalyptic wet dream for those with the courage to dream.
And it’s not just a dream for some; it’s a lead pipe certainty. Many red staters honestly believe that if the liberals are not flushed from Washington, the country will be taken over by socialists, terrorists, communists, you name it. Those with an evangelical streak believe the apocalypse is right around the corner, and they fervently hope for it, itching for a final cataclysmic battle between good and evil. For which they limber up with a little paintball.
Paintball Indiana is a 20-acre outdoor paintball facility near Martinsville about 30 miles southwest of the Indianapolis metro area. It consists of three distinct game zones each with a unique set of barricades. There’s the concrete battleground strewn with sections of concrete pipes and barriers. The bunker battleground dotted with 5 foot high inflatable bunkers. And, my favorite, the woods, presided over by the fortress, ringed round with short plywood barricades, sections of concrete pipes, and fallen tree trunks.
As a battleground the woods provide the most cover and the broadest field of fire, allowing a newbie like me the opportunity to survive after more experienced players have been cut down.
In fact, in my first battle I held out to the bitter end, taking a position behind a white oak and firing up at the parapet of the fortress where an enemy combatant was striving resolutely to pick me off. When the referee called the game, I was feeling sort of smug and wondering whether I had missed my calling as a soldier. I had used precious little ammo, notched one kill, outlasted Gray, and still didn’t know what it felt like to be hit by a paintball. That would soon change.
The trappings of paintball include an electro-pneumatic semi-automatic rifle (“marker”) with a 200 ball hopper capacity, a compressed air tank attached to the gun, an ammo pack for reloading in the field, and the all-important paintball mask, a sturdy wrap-around face shield that protects the eyes, ears, and face but leaves the top of the head exposed.
You are not permitted on the battlefield without your mask because the greatest danger in paintball is getting an eye shot out. Such an accident would likely put the whole concern out of business since the greatest cost in running a paintball facility must be the insurance. There is very little else that costs so much.
At Paintball Indiana, the central command center is basically an open-air kiosk that looks like it was hammered together in an afternoon. The restrooms are Port-a-Potties. And the sign at the entrance is little more than a lawn sign of the kind used by political candidates. Gray and I drove by it three times before we found the place.
The Scariest Part of Paintball
After our firefight in the woods, the next venue was the concrete battlefield. In a throwback to grade school, a pair of captains took turns choosing teams. I was selected fairly highly. They must’ve liked the cut of my jib.
Sadly, however, I didn’t last long. I got pinned down behind a concrete drainage pipe a mere ten yards from base and was still strategizing my advance when I felt the sting of a paintball on the back of my hand.
If you’ve even been thwacked with a golf ball, you have a fair idea of what it feels like. It’s enough to cause a welt, but not enough to make you pack it in for the day. The trouble with paintball, however, is that once you’ve been hit you’re supposed to raise your hand, signal your surrender and walk off the battlefield through a barrage of enemy fire, none of which, fairness dictates, should be directed at you. The scariest part of paintball comes after you surrender.
I showed Gray my wound, the red welt dripping with yellow paint on the back of my hand. We both agreed that, if we ever did this again, gloves might be a smart idea. So would a hat, although that hadn’t occurred to me – yet.
Domed and Doomed
We moved next to the bunker battleground. This was by far the smallest battlefield, perhaps 50 yards square. So quickly would we be under fire, and so relentlessly would we be fired upon, a ten-foot square tarpaulin had been stretched between two posts at either end to permit eliminated players to take shelter, lest they be peppered with paintballs while trying to leave the field. Only about four feet of space existed between the tarp and the boundary fence behind it.
The choosing up of teams went cruelly against me this time. I was one of the last chosen. I had been exposed as a fraud. What occurred next did nothing to lessen the impression.
At the word go, a moment’s hesitation cost me the opportunity to get out to one of the flanking bunkers and I was instantly pinned down in the center of the field in a grotesquely vulnerable position, taking fire from all sides. And the fire was close. My assailants were no more than 30 yards away. So when the first paintball hit me, splatting against my shin, it stung like a bitch.
I raised my hand, signaling my intention to withdraw and was shot again in the rib cage, just below my raised arm. Figuring it was a mistake, I tried to stay cool and turned to go, whereupon I was shot in the back, twice.
Having learned my lesson, I hurried to the tarp and squeezed in behind it with seven other guys, all of whom had been shot multiple times, and all of whom were grumbling and groaning. One guy was rubbing his head and complaining that he’d been “domed”. This was fresh nomenclature to me. It meant that he’d been shot in the head, apparently a painful experience.
A barrage of paintballs riddled the front of the tarp. It shivered and shook with the force of the onslaught. More guys were trying to squeeze in behind it. I put my hand down to shift my position and took a shot on the back of the wrist. I stood to turn and got a taste of what my teammate had been whining about. A paintball hit me square on the side of the head, in the exposed area above the mask, stinging like hell.
By now it was getting too crowded back there. Some of the guys had had enough and lifted the boundary fence and escaped that way. I was contemplating doing the same when the referee called the end of the game.
Gray saw the yellow splat on the side of my head and commiserated. Smiling, he asked if I wanted more. I declined.
In the course of a few hours I’d gone from being a battlefield hero to a welt covered, paint splattered shmuck. I’d had my fill. I suggested we call it a day.
But I didn’t complain about the rules violations. I sucked it up and took it like a man. Paintball is not for blue state pansies who quibble over principles of conduct. It’s for fearless young red state males who know how to handle a firearm and are eager for some foolish adversary to invade their territory.
As a way to appreciate the culture of a certain type of Indianan it goes a long way.
The red state fascination with guns and shooting things has always been something of a mystery to me. By diving head first into their world it opened my eyes. For a brief shining moment, after I had taken down one enemy and held off another, when I was feeling empowered and heroic, I could see the lure of it.
And then I got shot in the head.
Check it out…
Martinsville, IN 46151
My American Odyssey Route Map
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All images by Malcolm Logan and Randy Gray, except for: Testosterone-geeked red state male, Public domain; Red Dawn poster, Non-Free Media Data (see Fair Use claim below); Paintball Field, Petr Kadlec
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Article: Red State Reckoning: Playing Paintball in Martinsville, IN
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