Sunday, March 28, 2010

Paintball, Part the First - With Apologies to David Foster Wallace, Wherever He is

Striking thing (b) turns out to be an illusion, one not unlike the illusion I'd had about the comparative easiness of golf from watching golf on TV before I'd actually ever tried to play golf.
- David Foster Wallace, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"

Right now it's Sunday, 11:08 PM Central Daylight Time, and I'm sitting at my computer keyboard trying to summon up all the moments of triumph, pain (often literal), and embarrassment that accompanied my foray, the afternoon prior, into the world of amateur paintball. (1)

I was invited to participate in this gathering of paintball enthusiasts because it was being held as part of an all-day bachelor party for a friend, whom I generally refer to as Senior. (2) And so, just before 11am on Saturday morning, I drove my car onto Highway 77 headed south toward Lakeville, MN (3), and the MN Pro Paintball Grounds.

After a brief hiccup with directions, I find myself turning onto a dirt road that advertises the patch to MN Pro Paintball, and am almost immediately presented with a sign containing a stern warning that, if I do not have business along this road, I may be considered a trespasser and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. (4) Undaunted, I drive down the bumpy dirt road, eventually finding my way to the parking lot and the group of men waiting for their chance to play paintball.

The group of guys standing around the parking lot can be roughly divided into two groups; those who know Senior himself and are friends with him, who tend to be older, and those who know Senior mainly through his son JR, and who tend to be closer to JR's age. As I get out of the car and join the growing scrum of weekend warriors, it's clear that there's another broad division that can be made: those who've played paintball before, all of whom have their own camouflage apparel and some of whom have their own compressed-air paintball guns, and those who haven't, who are dressed in various grungy-looking outfits ranging from jeans and a leather jacket to sweatpants. (5)

The invitation asked us to arrive between 11:00 and 11:30 AM, and since it is almost exactly 11:30 AM, I fear I am holding up the party. It turns out, though, that neither the best man nor the groom-to-be himself have arrived yet, so we all stand around in the late morning chill and shoot the shit.

One young man in particular catches my attention quickly. He's not someone I've met before, and ends up being a friend of JR's. What attracts my attention is that he's already dressed head-to-toe in the traditional forest camouflage colors of the Army Rangers, and while we wait he opens the trunk of his car to reveal his own paintball gun as well as an entire case of extra paintball pellets, purchased at the 'pro shop' run by the same guys who run the grounds -- apparently it is cheaper to purchase your ammunition in the 'pro shop' than to wait until buying extra rounds at the site. This guy (whose name I never do get straignt) encourages the rest of us to get together in groups of four to purchase an additional case and split the 2000 balls between us; apparently the rental package covers only 200 rounds of ammunition, which this guy warns us probably won't last very long.

Eventually the best man, named Bruce, and Senior himself arrive, and the group of us head down to a convenient group of picnic tables to hear the safety briefing and complete our rental packages.

(1) - Anyone reading this who is quite well-read may recognize this as an homage, of sorts, to the opening of David Foster Wallace's essay, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," which begins in the Fort Lauderdale coffee shop while he's waiting for a flight to take him home to Chicago after having just completed a seven-night Caribbean Luxury Cruise on which he was sent by the editors of Harper's magazine. Wallace's essay is one of my favorite pieces of writing, ever, and while I'm certain there's no chance I can match it for length (it runs over 100 pages in his book of published essays, the book taking its title from the title of this particular essay, and when I recently decided to record it as an amateur audiobook as a gift for a friend, the audio ran nearly four full hours) and little chance I can match it for clarity and insight (you'll have to read it for yourself, as there's no chance I can do the thing justice in any kind of summary that would fit between parenthesis on a blog), I couldn't help but be reminded of it time and again in the past day-and-a-half or so since leaving the paintball grounds. If Wallace's consciousness survives in some afterlife that's aware of events on Earth (Wallace committed suicide just over a year-and-a-half ago), I hope he's at least a bit tickled by the homage.

(2) - The friend's actual name is John Corbett, Senior, which distinguishes him from his son, John Corbett, Junior, the latter whom organized and sent out the invitations to the paintball extravaganza. Those of us who refer to Senior as 'Senior' are generally those who've met him through one of his gaming hobbies, either D&D Miniatures or something similar; his family and 'older' friends call him 'Jack', since Senior doesn't like to be called 'John'. Senior's son also doesn't like to be called 'John', nor does he like to be called 'Junior', so we refer to him as 'JR'.

(3) - Lakeville is one of the well-to-do exurbs of the Twin Cities, built up by developers to accommodate upper-middle class white people fleeing as far away from the urban center as they can get while still being able to commute to their jobs within the inner ring of Twin Cities suburbs, or possibly downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul itself. The paintball ground is not the most apposite symbol of the odd combinatorial sense of privilege and fear that drives people to live here (at least, those who haven't lived here their entire lives), for reasons that will become clear later; the best symbol of the kind of people who choose to live out here would be the Celebration Church, a mega-church affiliated with the World Assemblies of God Fellowship and thus Pentecostal. The church building faces Interstate 35 and has a huge, ornate facade, looking oddly like a casino as I drive past looking for my exit.

(4) - It turns out that it's not the paintball guys who are responsible for the signage; they lease the grounds from the owners, who run a tree farm on the site, and the large quantity of pine trees on the site leads me to believe (though I never actually get confirmation) that the signage is meant to deter those people who'd poach Christmas trees from the site.

(5) - The latter outfit is part of my own apparel; JR noted in his e-mail invitation that one shouldn't wear anything one thought highly of, so I'm decked out in an old pair of black sweatpants and a grey cotton sweatshirt that boldly reads "U.S. Polo Association" along the chest, the much quieter label behind the collar, however, shows that the shirt itself was made in Pakistan. My only concession to camouflage is the forest-green shirt by Faded Glory (a Wal-Mart imprint, purchased a few years earlier in Kansas City and no longer really fitting) that mostly covers the sweatshirt. As it turns out, sweatpants were not a terribly intelligent choice of apparel for playing paintball on damp fields covered in dead grass exposed by melted winter snow, of which more later.

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