One of the perks of being in a church youth group is having a standing group of people to spend time with in a setting that won’t make your parents worry about the status of your salvation. My youth group friends and I spent our summers playing putt-putt, Frisbee golf, diving off the platform at the Rosemeade pool and getting sunburned at amusement parks. We were game for most any adventure so when it was announced there would be a paintball excursion, the group was abuzz. I had no real interest but I signed up to play. I preferred laser tag or Duck Hunt when I was in the mood to shoot at something but all the other guys were going so I bandwagoned. It was only after I’d signed up that I was informed I had to sign a waiver because being hit by a paintball hurt like hell and would leave bruises in fashionable shades of deep purple and cloudy charcoal all over my body. Too late to back out, I got in the van to drive across town to the place where bruises and being shot at were considered “fun.”
The course had three different battlefields so each game consisted of three rounds. The first was in a roped off, heavily wooded area. The trees loomed large above us and as I scanned the field, I realized their robust trunks would provide ample coverage for hiding as well as serve as sturdy shields against airborne paint. My fear of physical pain didn’t dissipate after I was done with the junior high football field—the concept of a linebacker charging toward me with the intention of slamming his body into mine was not appealing—so I was looking for anything that could prevent a pellet full of lime green paint from bulleting through the air and into my head. Sure, you aren’t supposed to shoot people in the head. Sure, that’s supposed to get you disqualified from the game. But a shot is a shot and I knew people would take them wherever they could get them. I also knew when I signed the waiver that I’d made a grave mistake in coming on this adventure, a feeling that grew more dooming with each passing minute.
When the shrill whistle signaled the beginning of the first round, my plan to hide behind the trees fell apart rather quickly. The other team was advancing toward us and the first pat-pat-pats of the paintball guns sent me into a panic. Looking for another option to avoid being hit, I noticed a hollowed-out log on the ground that was just large enough to lodge my lumpy body into and hide from the world. With no time for second guessing, my fear of being pelted with paint overrode me fear of bugs and I threw my body onto the leafy ground. Shimmying through the mud, I crawled into the log like a paratrooper on a sugar rush. The pat-pat-pats popped all around me but I was perfectly concealed inside my wooden fort.
From my mildly claustrophobic vantage point, I could only see part of the course through the other end of the log. Sticking my gun through that end, I realized I could potentially pick off people as they walked into my field of vision. The genius part was that since I was so well hidden, they’d never know where the paintball came from. I didn’t consider the fact that if I was discovered, I had no way to shimmy out of the log to avoid being hit. Leaving it to chance, I called upon the ghosts of every game of hide-and-seek I’d ever played, asking them to keep me hidden, and I fired away.
My shooting plan would’ve been perfect had any of my Boy Scout rifle training stuck but since it hadn’t, I wasn’t hitting a single person who ran by. I was so good at Duck Hunt at home, but the ability to aim and hit real people escaped me. I got lucky at the end of the round though and was able to pick off two of the last remaining members of the other team. I smiled a silent Grinchy smile as they yelped and spun around looking for the shooter. When the round was over, I snuck out of my log compartment and joined the rest of my team to the tune of high fives on account of my ingenuity and success. This was a banner moment. Not only could I do well in this game, but I now knew if I found a good hiding spot, I could avoid the battle and the bruises altogether. I’d found my rhythm and thought perhaps I’d prejudged this paintball thing.
Then we moved onto the next course for the second round, one that was far less dense in tree trunks. My stomach sank into my butt as I looked at the terrain of dried-up bushes and a groundcover of twiggy nightmares. Any hope of moving through the forest without the crunch of dead wood giving me away was now a thing of the past, as was the rhythm I thought I’d found. With no log to hide in this time, my best hope was to camp out behind one of the few trees and pray for a miracle. If the worst happened and the other team found me, I told myself I could at least take some shots at the older guys in the group as they shot at me. My pea brain reasoned that perhaps landing a couple good shots could count for something when I didn’t want to play in the pick-up basketball game or when I was terrible at Tomb Raider.
The whistle blew and immediately, the crackly stomps of teenagers running over the deadened forest floor erupted like the Fourth of July. Wooden explosions of crunch, crack and snap popped from all directions. I tried hiding behind the tree but as the twiggy crackles got louder and closer, I knew I couldn’t be a sitting target so I reluctantly joined the fray. The only thing I knew to do at that point was to run, so that’s what I did.
Snaking my way toward the other team while trying to stay as far away from the central action as I could, I huffed and wheezed along the outskirts of the playing field. The world seemed to explode around me. Hearing the sounds of air rifle fire mixed with the wails of teenagers as they received fresh bruises, I all but shouted “I want to go home!” It wasn’t fun, I hated being there, and running in the open made me even more nervous. I tried to shoot at people but I never managed to hit anyone. Once I was out of breath, I skulked along the roped-off boundary looking for places to hide.
There were none. I was trapped out in the open.
Unable to find a way out, I focused my attention where the action was the loudest. I remained locked onto one cluster of the opposite team as they slowly made their way across the field about twenty five yards to one side of me. With my rifle pointed in their direction, I followed them as they moved. As I prepared to take a shot at the one closest to me, my youth pastor rose up on the other side of a dried bush beside me like a Velociraptor hunting her prey. He appeared without warning and didn’t say a word. He just lifted his rifle, looked me dead in the eyes, and pulled the trigger.
One moment, I was staring through his safety goggles and into the steely determination in his eyes, the next moment, there was a pat!, a yellow explosion, and paint splattered all over my camo shirt. I felt the sunny droplets of paint as they splashed onto my face and they felt like failure. So much for my encyclopedic knowledge of Jurassic Park. The attack came not from the front, but from the sides by the raptor I didn’t even know was there, just as Alan Grant said it would.
Then, a miracle happened. I heard my youth pastor say, “dang,” and he began trying to scurry away. Like Scooby Doo when the monster flings open the back door, his feet were moving but he wasn’t going anywhere from slipping on the dead ground beneath him. I hadn’t actually been shot! The hit didn’t count because the ball never hit me; it detonated upon impact with the bush! I shook off my frozen Bambi daze, pulled up my gun and started firing at him, confident I was going to win back this moment.
I didn’t land a single shot. I was mere feet away from him but because I was so rattled (or just plain bad at it) that I missed every shot. He scurried away unscathed and I retreated toward the nearest tiny tree in a dead sprint. So much for redemption. Thankfully, the round eventually ended.
The final round’s course was an empty field with grass that reached up to my knees. Peppered throughout the open space were tall dilapidated wooden walls that could serve as shields in the face of a looming paintball onslaught. My team hunkered down behind one to come up with some form of strategy but you can only stay hidden behind a wall for so long before you have to go on the offensive to win the game. The plan was to wait them out and once they were in the open, we’d pick them off one-by-one. I also did one last check for how many paintballs were left in my gun. Three. Only three rounds were left. We’d been given a certain amount at the beginning of the game and had to make it last for all three rounds. I’d been so aimlessly trigger-happy that I was left with only three paintballs.
I stood terrified behind the wall, peeking through small holes to figure out where my best view of the other team would be. I was basically defenseless and as such, I needed to know if they were approaching so I’d be ready to surrender. I knew that if someone whipped around the corner and pointed a gun at me, I’d have to change my pants. I also knew they would yell as they shot me. That’s how we do it, isn’t it? We’re conditioned to yell as we shoot. It’s a twisted high we tap into as we pulverize someone else’s self-esteem. Most action films in the 90’s were green-lit on the principle of yelling while you shoot.
The game began with a final blow of the whistle and not a single person on either team moved. There was only silence. If you emerged from behind the wall, you were completely exposed and I was apparently not the only one who didn’t want to be pegged by a flying ball of hurt. The late summer grass blew in the breeze, dead and flammable, and the air was silent—something that frayed my nerves even more.
Minutes went by though it felt much longer. At some point, someone had to take a chance and begin the attack. One of the more athletic boys on our team decided it was his day to be a hero and he lead the charge by example. He ran straight toward the other team, firing paintballs at anyone who peeked from behind their wooden walls. They fired back and he was quickly out of the game but with that newfound confidence, the other team launched their attack, charging toward us. Shouting, they funneled every ounce of their pent up teenaged aggression on shooting each and every one of us.
I went into fight-or-flight mode. Like a feral animal, I was getting out of this one way or another. I could see the other team approaching and knew I was running out of time and options. I could either stand still and wait for someone to whiz around the wall and take me out, or I could fight.
Choosing the latter, I spun around the corner of the wooden slat like Tom Cruise before he became insufferable—the Mission Impossible version of him—and with my hands trembling, I took three shots. With the first, I aimed straight ahead and hit a girl in the chest. Boom. With the second, I turned to target one of the older boys who was closing in on our walls and missed him entirely. With the third, I turned my gun toward the ground and pulled the trigger.
A ping of pain and a splash of fluorescent pink paint later, the toe of my old basketball shoe was covered in what I’d engineered to be a direct hit. As fast as the sting registered, I lifted my gun in the air—the sign that I’d been hit—and began making a loud to-do over the shot that had taken me out of the game and, most importantly, out of the line of fire. I overplayed it, guffawing in amazement at how incredible it was that someone could hit me exactly in the shoe. If I’d seen someone making such a big deal out of that, I would’ve shot them again just for good measure, but thankfully, my ruse worked. I sat on the sidelines, basking in the cleverness of my cowardly escape.
At the end of the round, which my team did not win, we walked together back to the front of the course, sharing war stories and comparing bruise sizes. I laughed along with everyone else and perked up when my youth pastor said he almost had me but I got away. Me. I’d evaded being hit. I felt like a hero minus the part about my fear-based self-sabotage in the final round that made me a weasel and a coward.
When we played Frisbee golf, I had no problem laughing about my own failings. My discs routinely ended up in the creek next to the course and I’d laugh as I waded into the water to fish them out. Some rounds, my aim was so awful I gave up on the game entirely and just waded in the creek waters with my friend Tiffany. For the length of the course, we picked up any Frisbees we found floating along the way. It was a summer afternoon in Texas and wading through various depths of cool suburban creek water made perfect sense to us. Why couldn’t I laugh off my inability to be a proficient paintball player like I could with frolf?
Mulling over my lack of integrity once I was back at home, I made a decision to liberate myself from the expectations I’d self-placed on my manhood. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a part of the group, but there’s also no integrity in lying or cheating your way out of something because you’re uncomfortable. From then on, if I didn’t want to do something, I no longer pressured myself into doing it to appease others.
I’d been in this pattern since middle school. The only reason I ended up on a football field was fear of being made fun of and of not being seen as a man. I had no business on that field just like I had no business on a paintball course. Despite my early miniature triumphs in the game, I was miserable from the outset and my time would’ve better spent doing something else. Besides, I’m plenty man enough without those things. I spent a day trapped inside my own fear and it wasn’t the sort of fear that’s healthy to face head-on, but a fear of not measuring up to the other guys on the course; a fear of being less-than. Today, I don’t steer clear of adventure or of trying new things, but I do those things because I want to. It’s an entirely self-motivated way of thinking, but to lose the shackles of peer pressure requires you to be a little selfish. So what if I don’t do what everyone else does? I don’t need to modify my behavior just to fit in.
I never played paintball again. I’ve had many opportunities to do so but I know it’s not for me. I also had to throw out those old basketball shoes once I got home. The pink paint from my self-sabotage would never wash out.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon.