It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. My community lived in relative peace -- shopping, sunbathing, recreational surgery -- while in the hills of Simi Valley underage kids were being gunned down by paintballs.
I'm a pretty peaceful dude. If I were king, our troops would shower the Middle East with LSD until they all discovered oneness. There would be no Us and Them, just Brothers of the Blue and Green Marble.
"This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius..."
You can see, then, why I might balk at the idea of paintball, and by "balk" I mean make the sound of a chicken. Still I showed up at Paintball USA, where players poured in wearing camouflage and motocross helmets. I looked for, but could not find, Mad Max.
Mike Schwartz, owner of Paintball USA, Close Encounters, says that it's like playing G.I. Joe but in real life. I myself was into PlaySkool, and casualties were rare. Weebles wobble, but they don't fall down.
At the sign-in desk we found Art, head referee. Art would not divulge his surname but swears that he is not running from the government. Art, in fact, had the hyper-organized feel of a Green Beret and probably knows the truth about Roswell.
Art wasn't the tallest guy in town, but you got the feeling that should you cross him, he could skeletonize you by hand. Remember Vavoom from Felix the Cat? The one who started avalanches with his voice? That's how Art covered the rules.
"DO NOT SHOOT THE LIZARDS. THEY WILL DIE."
Art led the way to battle, his Lieutenant Dan to my Forrest Gump. He was already splattered with paint and looked like Abstract Art (buh dump bump). We arrived at The Jungle Field, which teemed with the abandoned tractor tires that are indigenous to Simi Valley.
Twenty-six-year-old Mike Corral had driven all the way from El Monte to kill me.
"Don't worry," he said. "You'll barely feel it."
At which point Ventura native John Bonzagni revealed a jawbreaker-sized welt pulsing in his neck.
High-end paintballs rupture more easily and therefore hurt less, the moral being to fight with the most affluent enemy possible. Paintballs come in every which color, making the mountain look like Whoville and smell like a box of crayons.
Shhh -- Art was giving the countdown:
"REMOVE YOUR BARREL PLUGS! THREE, TWO, ONE ..."
At the whistle we all charged forth like Children of the Corn shooting everything but the lizards, Montague versus Capulet, Hatfield and McCoy. Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow. Oh, the humanity!
Thank God for my war caddie, Ramon Godinez, who headmans Zephyr Paintballs in Ventura. Ramon strode the battlefield chin up like Achilles or Hector or Antonio Banderas.
Filling my gun with marbles, he said, "Make yourself as small as possible and hug the bunkers." Which is pretty much how I live anyway.
Games are refereed by teenagers in crossing-guard vests. You can also identify them by volume: "LET HIM OUT! HE'S BEEN HIT! VAVOOM!"
Shooting a gun satisfies your hands like they have their own erogenous zones. I aimed at an overflying Cessna and Art brought me back to earth: "HEY! HEY! HEY!" (Art can see out of his ears, something they teach you in the Green Beret.)
Referee Bryce Clatt stood on a tree stump to shelter our video whiz, Anthony Plascencia, who got pummeled anyway -- once in the butt and twice in the camera. It looked like he had been egged by the Easter Bunny.
"CROSSFIRE DOES NOT CARE WHO YOU ARE. WEAR YOUR HELMET AT ALL TIMES."
Ramon nudged me forward, which disagreed with my chief military objective -- to stay close to Ramon. I rolled into a somersault, knowing from Walker, Texas Ranger, that a man is invincible while performing the somersault. Unfortunately, I hadn't locked my hopper and -- rookie move -- lost my marbles. So it goes.
My trusty war caddie brought more, and soon I was wreaking havoc on Them. I didn't have a target, just a message: This guy is crazy and seems to have unlimited bullets.
Paintballs are the most expensive part of the show. If you're not careful, you could blast fifty dollars in a day. The cheapskates are the ones on the perimeter going, "Nope, not a clean shot ... wait ... no ... OK, pow..."
Ramon spotted a man for me to shoot.
"Shoot him?! I don't even know him."
I fired frantically through a coward-hole in the plywood until Ramon, my periscope, said, "You got him! He's hit!"
I was a made man.
Ramon pushed me toward the foxhole, where I was lavished by enemy fire. I turned back to Ramon, who shook his head no, so I started back and forth like a duck in a carnival game until OUCH! SON OF A --
A paintball thwacked my middle finger, which throbbed like a dozen bee stings and would make it difficult for me to communicate in traffic.
"I think you're out," said Ramon.
"No, I can go on. Weebles wobble, but they don't fall down."
A crossing guard appeared overhead. "He's been hit! Let him out!"
I slouched off the field -- helpless, impotent, a nine-fingered freak. Paintballs popped in the distance, felling comrades who, sadly, had started high school only this year. For them, too, darkness would soon descend on the Crayola-scented dream.
What did I think of paintball? You want to know the truth? YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH.
Seriously, my facial tic has died down and I've almost stopped clenching my teeth. The shrink says that someday I won't even remember The Battle of Whoville.
All things equal, maybe paintball could be used to decide all military conflict. I mean, isn't dying a formality anyway? Why not paint each other up -- spray paint, enamel bombs, whatever -- and the country that comes away cleanest wins.
Then we could all clean off with a giant water balloon fight while Blue Angels drop daisies from the sky and we swing from abandoned tractor tires:
"This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius..."