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Caught in a crossfire

Unexpected e-mail exchange helps a big cynic understand the allure of paintball

Just beyond the clearing, murky figures skulked among the scrub pine.

The peace of a sunny weekend morning neared an end.

A numerically superior enemy was about to attack. The baked hay scent of dry brush and parched dirt hung in the moment.

“Won’t be long now,” said a camouflage-garbed defender crouching behind a ridge.

He was right.

And when the assault came, the quiet instantly gave way to clomping footfalls, confused yelling and a loud THWACK THWACK THWACK as the opposing forces exchanged fire.

“Fall back! Fall back!” someone shouted.

“I’m hit!” cried another.

All around it sounded like crazed roofers with nail-guns were trying to finish a dozen different jobs before a thunderstorm.

THWACK THWACK THWACK. The noise ripped the stillness of moments before.

“Get up there, Travis!”

Marble-sized, candy-colored spheres zipped through the air. Some hit tree branches and burst into a pastel mist. Others found their targets.

Ssssssssssss … SPLAT. “I’m hit!”

“You guys, I think they’re coming around the side.”

THWACK THWACK THWACK.

“Fall back! Fall back to the north tower!”

Welcome to paintball. Everything you know is probably wrong.

Or perhaps I should just speak for myself.

Early this summer, I received an e-mail from a local woman who suggested I ought to write something about paintball. I forwarded that message to the features editor, along with my own tacked-on observation expressing surprise that this activity was still around after all these years. I also dismissively speculated that perhaps it had become the new miniature golf.

But instead of forwarding it, I accidentally sent that as a reply to the woman touting paintball. Oops.

After a bit of awkward backtracking, one thing became increasingly apparent to me: I was now pretty much obligated to find out about paintball.

Anyway, that’s how I came to meet Dale Burbridge, the e-mailer’s husband.

Burbridge, who turns 44 this week, operates Nitehawk Paintball ( www.nitehawkpaintball.com). A class of ’83 Mead High School alum, he works as a press operator for a commercial printer in downtown Spokane.

His dream is to turn the organizing of paintball events into a full-time gig.

Burbridge played for the first time a few years ago and says he got hooked inside 15 minutes.

“The idea that you are going to be hunted,” he said. “It’s a rush.”

Plus, you can shoot back.

Craig Miller, vice chairman of the Paintball Sports Trade Association, described the activity’s appeal this way:

“The urge to ‘hunt and survive’ has been a primal signal in human DNA since the dawn of man. When playing the game of paintball, players experience a thrilling ‘mock danger’ that triggers the same high adrenaline dosages as those enjoyed by skydivers and motorsports racers, and this ‘extreme’ thrill sensation can be very compelling, even addicting.”

But not everyone wants a paintball field next door. One local paintball pioneer, who didn’t want to be quoted by name, said that’s especially true in Spokane County.

So Burbridge acquired 26 remote acres in Lincoln County, north of Reardan, Wash. It’s there that about 150 paintballers gathered one recent Saturday to do battle.

It’s a mostly young-adult male activity. But there was a smattering of women and children.

Lots of guys wore military-like attire. A few others looked more like they were dressed for warm-weather snowboarding.

For every wild-eyed commando seemingly auditioning for the label “troubled loner,” there was someone asking, “Is your mom here today?”

Burbridge knows that some skeptical outsiders view paintball as a favored pursuit of special-forces-wannabe wack jobs in combat boots. His challenge is to sell the sport as an action-oriented family outing.

It helps that he seems like a good guy.

The festivities started with a safety spiel, delivered by one of Burbridge’s helpers. It covered the usual: Full-face masks must be worn at all times. The compressed-gas guns, also known as markers, must be calibrated to fire paintballs below certain speeds.

When someone is “dead,” stop shooting at him or her. No alcohol. No fighting. Watch your language. Et cetera.

Then the guy giving the talk concluded with, “Who here is ready to shoot the hell out of each other?”

Everyone, it seemed.

There are different kinds of paintball games. One of Burbridge’s specialties is setting up scenarios. Say, against all odds, the president’s helicopter has been forced down over hostile territory and he or she has to be protected.

On this day, a group of players would attempt to defend their headquarters on the far side of a shallow ravine. The attacking force would outnumber them 3-to-1.

The defenders each wore a band of yellow duct tape. The attackers wore red. Or maybe it was the other way around.

After the players had time to deploy, Burbridge shouted “Game on!” His call was relayed throughout the woods by orange-vested referees.

As the soon-frenzied engagement proceeded, it quickly became apparent that there are two types of players.

One blazes away, loosing a trigger-happy stream of paintballs at virtually anything that moves.

Others stalk and aim, seeking the chance to squeeze off the perfect shot. Snipers, they’re called.

The paintball guns typically have an effective range of about 75 yards. How much it hurts to be hit by a paintball depends on how close you are, what you are wearing and where you are struck.

“It stings, especially when you get hit in the fat rolls,” said one player.

But just having a paintball whiz by your head is enough to get your attention.

If you ever played cowboys and Indians or pretended you were a soldier with other kids in your neighborhood, you might recognize the vibe of this subculture. It’s about playing.

“It’s the hide-and-seek thing,” said Burbridge.

There are rules for coming back to life after you’ve been killed.

People say things like, “I’ve got your name on one of these balls, sucka.”

The command structure sometimes breaks down in the chaos of free-fire zones.

And every once in a while, you will see a cornered foe boldly step into the open and go out in a blaze of glory as a fusillade of paintballs splatters him with make-believe carnage.

Fake war is heck.

After the defenders had been vanquished and Burbridge had called out “Game over!” the paintballers trooped back to the campground-like parking area.

Some looked tired and sweaty from clambering over the battlefield. But there was a good-natured buzz as players verbally replayed their favorite moments from the first of the day’s scheduled conflicts.

The former combatants talked about head shots, gun jams and the hot dogs Burbridge’s mom was grilling outside a hut across the way from the portable toilets.

“It’s not about violence,” said Chris Frank, a construction project manager who plays along with several members of his family. For him, it’s a game that rewards players who strive to improve each time out.

As you get better, the whole thing gets to be more fun.

An onlooker noted that the rainbow-splotched Larry Krause apparently had sustained multiple mortal wounds during the action.

“Oh, I got shot lots of times,” the 69-year-old paintballer said with a broad smile. “If you ain’t getting shot, you ain’t playing.”

Paul Turner can be reached at (509) 459-5470 or pault@spokesman.com.