Just like other families, we have a busy, and most often, a hectic itinerary; calendars filled in, written in pen: work, school, roasting, deliveries, and studies. When schedules align, and a golden opportunity arises, we get together as family to celebrate birthdays; for us, here in the Pacific Northwest, that celebration begins with pizza and ends with cake and ice cream. Twixt the food: paintball.
Dressed in camouflage — a mottled design of greens and browns, etched in fabric — we prepare. I braid my beard for battle while a black mask sits on my skull; a shemagh of black and brown wraps my neck. We discuss our first war game: 'Capture the Flag'. CO2 canisters spin onto the back of our guns as balls of paint occupy hoppers. We test shoot our guns. The familiar whack of the ball hits its mark: the tree target turns blue in a splatter of paint and broken shell.
Safeties on. Teams arranged. Flags drawn. Guys vs Girls. Our two sons, along with my nephew, are with me. Our daughters, along with my niece and another family member, are on the opposing side.
“What side do you want?” I ask
“We'll take right,” they say as one.
“Sounds good. Masks on.”
Pulling down the black mask, my breathing becomes trapped as exhaled breath tries to escape the vented plastic that protects my face. While dragging gloves over my hands, we march down the slightly slopping sidewalk of dirt that cuts through the brush and bramble; giant pines scrape the sky as a summer sun shines downward upon us. We find our spot and plant the flag: a long wooden stake finds purchase in the earth's soil.
“OK,” I say, “who wants to guard and who wants to advance?”
“I'll guard,” our youngest son answers.
“So will I,” our oldest son replies.
“Cool,” I say, as I look to my nephew. “We'll advance.”
“Yeah,” he says, while nodding.
“READY?!?” I yell, calling to our 'enemies'.
“YEAH!” comes their reply.
“SAFETIES OFF! 3-2-1-GO!!!”
As we quickly bound forward, making ground before having to go silent, we communicate with hands and head nods. He signals me and tells me through specific motions his intent of movement. I signal in agreement and drop to the ground; peering through the clear polycarbonate lens, I scan the horizon, past the growth that hides me as I look for any movement.
Some branches move in my peripheral. I look to my side and take notice of a pair of legs running through the growth. I lift up my gun and line up the sights; as the trigger is pulled, a green and blue striped spherical round is shot and finds its mark against the camouflage of greens and browns; now polluted in a shade of teal. “OUT!” They run off, hands overhead, to tag 'home' and re-spawn.
I have given up my position to my oldest daughter; I turn around as she quickly hides behind a column of trees, protected by the thick trunks and bark. We volleyball back and forth. Crawling with my belly to the ground, I find new cover as I advance. A ball flies overhead. Stopping, I barely break the horizon to see her cover fading. On my knees, I support myself on a smaller tree, not enough for cover; just enough for —
“OUT!” she yells, her hands held high.
Scanning the wooded playing field, I spot their red fabric flag tied upon the end of the marker. Cautiously creeping forward, my stride small but gains speed and momentum. The entrance swallows me as I grab the wooden stick and make my escape through the backside, pushing limbs and leaves aside. Down the embankment and finally planting foot on our terrain. A few more strides towards our flag.
“GAME OVER! WE TOOK YOUR FLAG!”
We meet in the center of the playing field. “Safeties on. Masks off.” My youngest son tells me, “Dad, i shot myself in the toe.”
Laughing, I reply “How?”
“I don't know.”
We all walk back up the trail. The other family members warming themselves by a late summer's evening fire. The sun inching its way towards the darkening horizon. We reload our hoppers and decide on "Predator" for the next event. “I'll be it if no one else wants to be,” I say.
“Can I?” asks my nephew.
He ambles off into the wooded distance. As he disappears in the autumn backdrop, we plan our attack. I check the time and declare to the world his safety time has expired. Down a different dirt path, we make our way to the center of the woods. “OK, you two take left, you two take right, you two take center. I'll stay here in case he tries to come behind us.” Soon, I stand alone, watching and listening. The time ticks slowly as my breathing echos, hitting the vented mask and penetrates my ears.
I drop to the ground. Two legs sprint by as my nephew spins around, unloading a barrage of dye-filled cartridges. Watching his gait, I level the sights. "THWACK!-THWACK!-THWACK!" He jumps behind a tree and returns fire. Shells bursting around me. I'm able to find a weak spot in his cover. Aim. Trigger pulled. Sphere propelled forward. “OUT!” He comes out of hiding. “Finally,” he admits, “I kept getting hit but they weren't breaking.” “Really?” I ask. “That stinks.”
“Safeties on. Masks off.”
Another game is played. The sun disappears behind the trees. We clean up, place and light the candles, and then sing 'Happy Birthday'. Cake is eaten. Presents are opened. The day is done.