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By TERRY TOMALIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000
TAMPA -- The man in the camouflage suit adjusted his ammo belt and filled his $1,000 paintball gun.
"Don't be intimidated," said Herb Read, pointing to the man as he prepared for battle. "Just because you have a fancy gun doesn't mean you know how to use it."
Tattooed, head shaved and ready for some good, clean violence, Read tried to explain the finer points of the sport before we set off to be massacred on the paintball field.
"The balls travel at 200 miles an hour, so it will sting a little when you get hit," he said. "Just play until you get hit or run out of ammo.
"When you leave the field, keep your mouth shut. 'Cause dead men tell no tales."
Read went over the safety rules: Keep the plug in the end of the barrel when the gun is not in use and be sure to put on your head gear before you step onto the field.
Then I noticed the fine print at the bottom of one of the handouts. For men, a protective cup is a good idea.
"Hey, wait a minute," I said. "What's this business about a protective cup?"
Don't worry about it, one of my teenage teammates said. "I've played out here 20 times and haven't been hit there once yet."
That may be true, I said, but what about the 21st time?
"That's it, let's go," Read said. "You're up."
D-Day had come and there was no time to back out. So I grabbed a magazine off the picnic table, shoved it down my pants and headed off toward "The City," a ramshackle collection of makeshift buildings and bunkers in the middle of a grassy field.
Our mission: Take territory, eliminate the enemy and escape unscathed.
"This is the plan," I told my comrades. "I'll charge the middle bunker, you move up the right flank, you move up the left flank and establish an interlocking field of fire."
They nodded in agreement.
"Let's go men," I yelled. "Follow me!"
I took off running, and the magazine slipped down my pants leg. I tried to shake it loose but tripped and slid face first into the bunker as paint balls splattered the wall above my head.
"Nice move," said Read, the referee. "You look like a professional."
I glanced over my shoulder and discovered I was alone. And by now the enemy had zeroed in on my position.
"I'm hit," I yelled. "You got me."
Bam! Bam! Bam!
"For Christ's sake, I'm hit," I screamed. "Stop shooting."
I limped off the field nursing my bruised ribs and back, cursing my colleagues and plotting my revenge. Perhaps I'd have better luck in The Jungle surrounding Heartbreak Ridge.
The game was simple, Read explained. Two teams and one flag. Winner take all.
My experience in the plywood buildings of The City had taught me one thing -- trust no one. If I was going to survive to play another day, I'd have do it alone. So when the whistle blew to sound the start of the game, I disappeared into the meanest, nastiest patch of scrub I could find.
Then, crawling along on my belly through the dense underbrush, the sweat stinging my eyes and fogging up my facemask, I made my way toward the orange flag. There it was 20 yards away . . . a seemingly insignificant piece of plastic, the center of my universe.
But I was too late. Two members of the opposition, the hated enemy, had gotten there first. So I crept under a bush, slid behind a tree and set my ambush. I waited patiently as they approached, and when they were less than 20 feet away, let them have it.
They tried to run but I cut them off at the palm tree, screaming and firing my gun.
"Time out," the referee yelled. "Let's see who's hit."
My paintballs had found their mark. Both members of the opposing team had been hit several times. Then the ref discovered some paint on my finger. A round had hit my gun and splattered my hand. I hadn't noticed the wound in the heat of battle.
"You're out!" he said. "Leave the field."
Muttering at my misfortune, I walked back along the path I had made through the brush. Then I noticed something out of the corner of my eye and thought to myself, "Isn't that poison ivy?"
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