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Just Shoot Me

A reenactment of the historic invasion of Grenada? Paintball? It sounded like a good time--until the first time I got killed.

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1210 Hours

By his third resurrection the war correspondent prefers being dead, where he can at least lie down out of the sun. We've been in the hospital 20 minutes. A steady stream of casualties marches over the bridge that spans the creek between the hospital and the American base camp. Each herd of dead is resurrected on the half hour. During the 1983 Grenada invasion, 19 U.S. servicemen died in 48 hours, but during this reenactment, if that's what you'd call it, aside from the war correspondent's nine eventual deaths--well, who's counting? The only real casualty so far has been the 300-pound guy who collapsed from heatstroke. The war correspondent's shirt is greasy where shot. The paintball bullets, of course, aren't really paint, they're bath-bead-size globules of colored glycerin. Or something. Everyone the WC asks has a different answer: vegetable oil, delible ink, soapy water, even fish oil. Shooting humans with these weapons didn't occur to anybody until 1984, when a psychiatrist in Florida introduced the idea as stress management for executives. Before then the guns were used by the forest service to mark trees.

1330 Hours

We move in single file--Platoon Four, U.S. Army Second Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment--up along the riverbank, wading through chest-high brush, and then, at the command of our platoon leader, split into two parallel squads. The point man ahead will presumably warn us if we run across anyone with a blue armband. We wear red armbands. The air has the humid electric bite of ozone, or perhaps it's testosterone. Our weapons, though frightfully precise, are somewhat unwieldy, given the heavy tanks of compressed air that we must bolster under our arms like bagpipes, and the hard plastic bladders, "hoppers," filled with bright red gum balls that obstruct the line of sight. If the map is accurate then due east is what would be the Ross Point Hotel, where original (that is, 1983) military intelligence indicated the presence of 400 Canadian, British, and American citizens that in the end turned out to be 12 Canadians reluctant to be evacuated. Platoon Four couldn't care less about Canadians. We are on a recon. We come to a roped boundary.

Our platoon leader gets something on the radio. Beyond this boundary is the alleged governor's mansion, and surrounding the governor's mansion is an alleged battalion of PRA, the Grenadan People's Revolutionary Army, the tatterdemalion force that assassinated Maurice Bishop, the leftist prime minister. The PRA, with the help of Cuban advisers, was building an airfield that the Reagan administration viewed as a Soviet arms pipeline to Nicaragua and El Salvador. That, plus the State Department's concern for the 600 Americans at St. George's Medical School, was reason enough for the U.S. to invade. Given that the invasion, dubbed Operation Urgent Fury, took place only two days after a suicide bomber killed 241 marines stationed in Beirut, some Americans were rude enough to believe that Grenada was a face-saver for Reagan. But no one in our platoon much cares for equivocating geopolitical piffle. That's all in the past, we say. We just want to lay down some paint.

Anyway, it is with the forces of the Marxist junta that our right flank suddenly finds itself engaged in a firefight. The rest of us conceal ourselves as best we can under the foliage. Foliage that is mainly neck-high stinging nettles. The nettles make good cover but greatly distress bare skin. The burn between one's fingers is easier to disregard, however, with bullets of uncertain substance whizzing overhead. The more the fighting goes on, the more frantic become shouts for the medic. If you are shot and the medic gets to you within 45 seconds, you are miraculously healed. Unless it's a head shot. Then you have to march back to the hospital and await resurrection. It goes on until we are bored (or frightened) enough to return fire. Then they return fire. We shoot back some more. Then the Marxists fall mysteriously quiet.

We can hear the enemy conferring on their radios. We wonder whether Dollack himself might be among us, because normally during these things Dollack will emerge from his Winnebago and enter the world of his creation. Wayne Dollack is the man who invented us. He's the auteur who has transformed the woodland Fox Paintball field southwest of Chicago in Millington, Illinois, into the island nation of Grenada on October 25, 1983, just as a year ago he transformed it into Vietnam. White men from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan play regular paintball here most weekends, but this is a Wayne Dollack production. Every year he transforms a few dozen conventional paintball fields, from California to the Poconos, into battlegrounds historical and imagined, even fabular, like the one later this year in Ocala, Florida, Dollack's home base, where an army from the future will invade the past and the past will retaliate by sending an army into the future. Dollack was inspired to transform Millington into Grenada not because it was a great battle but because of the hillock on the property, which he thought could stand in for Hill 275, the high ground overlooking the Point Salines airfield where, in reality, there was no exchange of fire, as the marines marched up the hill and the barefoot Caribbean soldiers dropped their guns and ran.

Those of us who require some degree of verisimilitude find it in the parallels of organizational mayhem between Grenada 1983 and Millington 2001. For instance, where U.S. forces, lacking proper intelligence, famously relied on old Grenadan tourist maps, and where marine and army units almost decimated each other when the boundary line between them changed because the units hadn't exchanged liaison officers (very important, those liaison officers), in Millington at 0700 hours, the semi carrying 8,000 cases of Zap paintballs drove off the road into a ditch and backed up traffic for an hour. The parallel further holds because the squids, paintball virgins, or at least the scenario squids--guys who play traditional capture-the-flag-style paintball but have never donned the role of a Cuban or cyborg--are all saying, "I don't know what the hell's goin' on, tell you the truth."

The big glitch, of course, was that the Dollacks didn't show up until the last minute. It's a miracle they're here at all, really. Because a week earlier, driving home from another scenario, coming into Macon, Georgia, in a rainstorm, Wayne came off the exit ramp a bit too fast and rolled their traveling road show, the fifth wheel, their command central, and all those props--the rig was packed to the gunwales--went scattering across the Georgia highway: gold bars, briefcases, fake money, vials of DNA, computer gadgetry, land mines, dynamite, rubber snakes, missiles, an alien corpse in a metallic suit, and rubber body parts, eyeballs, fingers, hands, severed legs...

Some believe that Dollack, despite broken ribs and a collapsed lung, is among us, fighting with the foot soldiers, playing a Cuban or American marine, no one knows which.

Whereas paintball is ordinarily a more perilous version of capture the flag for grown-ups--or in tournament play, more like high-speed, close-quarters tag--Wayne Dollack has infused the game with narrative. (Like all good stories, Dollack's are addictive, and he has something of a cult following.) As the author of these scenarios, he injects himself personally into his story lines. He might be out here buying information with a briefcase full of fake $100 bills. He might be wearing makeup, a prosthetic nose, heavy camouflage. Given his injuries, some of us look for someone with a limp.

Our platoon leader in the weeds ahead, finger to his lips, or approximately where his lips would be behind his face mask, delivers a few hand signals that the two soldiers nearest the correspondent take as their cue to rush forward and drop to their bellies. The war correspondent moves to follow, exposes himself above the brush line, is shot, and falls. Medic! he screams. Medic! His chest is on fire but he's glad to be lying down where he can't be shot anymore. Then around him men are down. The air fills with rat-a-tat and the trees overhead splat and spit with the pop pop pop popping of a horizontal hailstorm. Medic! A guy with a head shot walks past, murmuring that he's fucked, he's fucking dead, and it's true, the medic can't do a thing for a head shot. The medic finally appears in the clearing where we've all been massacred, but he's shot in the head too.

We were ambushed. Our entire platoon is dead. And if that's the way Dollack set this up, who are we to protest? He dreamed us up; he gave us our identities; he set the odds. Fate is not in our hands. We start the long march back along the river and across the bridge to the hospital.

1500 hours

We are sitting in the hospital, waiting to be re-resurrected, grooving on the reggae that's pumping mood into the forest through speakers set up along the line of battle, when here comes the son of Wayne Dollack, bejeweled and silken and paisleyed, beaded and braceleted. He comes waving his arms like some mystical stork. He has frizzy long hair and a reddish goatee and wears a snakeskin Mad-Hatter-style top hat and Lennon spectacles.

Snakebite was not in the accident with his dad, but Wayne's third wife, Jackie, was, and even though Snake's not getting along with her so hot at the moment, he's glad she survived. Of course she's here, because a Dollack scenario is a family affair. Jackie works behind the scenes, doling out ID cards, getting around the best she can on her new walker. Snakebite goes by Snakebite so as not to ride on the back of his famous father, 'cause he has a kind of fame of his own, and you'd know that if you ever heard about the scenario in Jim Thorpe, PA, where he played tribal chieftain for the Khmer Rouge wearing nothing but a sari skirt and a shrunken head around his neck, and for the entire game he and his platoon pounded on bongos to calm the jungle spirits. "I would've brought my drum here but there just wasn't enough room. I got a big djembe, weighs about 50 pounds. It's my baby."

Snakebite wears a pistol in a shoulder holster over an embroidered Indo-peasant blouse. Earlier we'd seen him outside the Dollacks' Winnebago, pacing in angry circles, staring hard at the ground, ranting quietly. He's bummed 'cause he lost his knife. It fit into his belt buckle and came out like this--he makes a stealthy jabbing motion in the air. A friend gave it to him as a gift. He thinks he lost it cutting wire to jury-rig new props to replace those lost in the accident.

He's talking a mile a minute and he congas the air to the reggae but also to the pop pop pop popping that rips through the copse of trees along the stream.

It's been a hell of a week. If not for the accident they'd have been here five days ago, building sets, laying out props, fine-tuning the story line, plotting maps. They wouldn't have shown up at the last possible minute. But considering, things are running surprisingly smoothly. Considering it's a miracle Snakebite's father's even alive. They wouldn't be here now if his dad had listened to

the doctor, but his dad was like "We're gonna do the damn thing. Because if people are having fun, then it's like OK." But his dad isn't up to snuff and so Snake is sort of playing the part of his father, and that's a heavy role to assume, the heaviest, to play Wayne Dollack. He's sweated through three shirts and his tobacco-strained voice is almost gone, but he loves to play the MC as much as Wavy Gravy. You could see it in his eyes this morning when he addressed the troops, like he might have been introducing Jim Morrison to a million naked hippie chicks instead of giving a pep talk to 350 guys in camouflage.

Snakebite says his dad is healing his broken ribs with meditation. He fondles a jade Buddha dangling from a necklace of wood and stone beads and what looks like werewolf fangs. "These dog teeth are from Brutus--he's been dead for two years. What happened was, he was fighting with all my dad's other dogs. He'd bite them on the back and leave big gaping holes, so my dad took his fangs out. My dad was gonna throw them out--I was like 'No way, I'll make those into a necklace.'" And these other beads he got for a candy bar at a Rainbow Gathering. What Snakebite would like more than anything is to sit quietly by a stream with a little hippie chick and let her massage his blues away. He leaves us to contemplate our bright wounds.

The inkblot on the war correspondent's stomach has taken the shape of a bird. Curious if he's the only one hallucinating from heatstroke, he takes a Rorschach poll of what each man believes his wound resembled. One guy says his is a breast, another a lion; the soldier tinkering on the circuit board tucked inside the grip of his gun with a Swiss army knife says his looks like a "fucking splat!" Then the guard looks at his watch and tells us we're breathing again and so we put on our helmets and load more bullets into the hard plastic bladders, and our Lazarus battalion runs, crouched, back over the bridge, leaves snapping over our heads in a flurry of pop pop pops. We vanish into the woods.

1800 hours

The American command post is a shanty with a dirt floor and a blue tarpaulin roof. "General" John M. Stanley sits in a bucket chair, M16 across his lap, his elbow crooked on a plywood desk scattered with maps and a spitting ham radio. A single mesh window looks out on his front line and the bunkers made of hay bales and pallets and stacks of sewer pipe and sections of picket fencing, behind which his soldiers mill about, at ease, waiting for missions. Paranoid, the general has put a fire wall between himself and his men. "Nobody! Nobody gets near me! Nobody! I don't care if you're my cousin or I slept with you last night!"

The command post is supposed to be the one safe place where somebody can stop for a smoke or a drink of water or to unfog a mask, but the general isn't taking chances with another assassination attempt. An hour ago a grunt came inside to clean his goggles and left a bomb. It took the general an hour just to get an engineer to rebuild. "Their mission is to kill me, but if nobody gets close to me it doesn't happen. A spy will have a mission card. He has the mission of trying to eliminate me. So he'll come over here and say, 'I want to speak to the general over our surrender.' I know he's a Cuban. The one spy to come over here says, 'I want to talk to the general.' I says, 'No you don't, we're winning,' and I shot him. I been doing these long enough, I know Wayne's thinking."

The general's first sergeant and bodyguard, a 19-year-old with blue hair who's kinking and unkinking an empty Mountain Dew can, reiterates. "They can have an assassination card. They can have a 007 card. There's poison cards and stuff like that.

"If I touch a poison card or anything like that I'm out. And they get 500 points any time they can take me out. But I got I Love Me cards which bring me back, I got two of them for instant life, and I haven't had to use either one."

Stanley was there for the real Grenada invasion. He was with the Rangers when they dropped onto Point Salines, the cold war airfield under construction. But this time around the general has the nuke device. They weren't expecting to find a warhead today. Platoon Four found it in the forest, but the general doesn't have any intel on it yet. Meaning, he's got a nuke but no nuke intelligence. He scrunches his face, scruffs his bristly head, and tries to concentrate on some strategy. It's hard to do strategy with no intel.

The ham radio speaks up. Calling Charlie Delta Foxtrot. Come in Charlie Delta Foxtrot.

"Here's Charlie Foxtrot, go."

It is now 1805 hours, one eight zero five hours for your mission time, and your mission is number 16. One six. OK guys, the clock's tickin'. It's up to you guys now, uh, right now you are one mission ahead. You are one mission ahead. Send out Platoon One--Platoon One--to harass the enemy's headquarters for one half hour.

The general looks disappointed--he was hoping for more about the nuke. But he's got to play the game, so he orders his first sergeant, who is his surrogate voice during these insecure times, to collate Platoon One and set things in swing.

"Platoon One!"

"Where's Platoon One leader?"

"Platoon One!"

This is Platoon One.

"I copy." The general holds the CB mike limply. "Platoon One, harass headquarters for one hour."

"I thought he said half hour."

Affirmative.

"One hour. Just tell 'em to hit and stick, hit and stick."

"Platoon One! OK, your mission is to go and harass headquarters for one hour." Outside, Platoon One is having difficulty synchronizing. Some men have gone off to the concession stand for hamburgers.

The general rubs his eye with a chubby knuckle. "Basically, what my concept is, if I know the mission is totally unattainable, I will say OK, the mission's a failure, I'm not gonna send ten people out there to die. They're not gonna make it. Why should I waste the bodies? It's all command decisions. I have to balance the points I would gain to the points I would lose. It's all doing the math in my head. Just the basic military operation of information over firepower."

"General, one hour or half hour?"

"Harassment and interdiction. Hit and stick. Hit and stick for an hour. That's what he said."

"No, it's a half hour." The first sergeant hates to contradict his general but they have collaborative intel from a spy who's planted at the PRA base camp: Dollack said a half hour.

"OK, half hour. Harass and interdict. Hit and stick. They know what they're doing."

"OK, Platoon One! Half hour!"

"Again, I used to work operations in the real world, so you learn what's doable and what's not. I was one of the guys who jumped into Point Salines. We came in at 500 feet, no reserve chutes--if your chute didn't open you were a blood splatter on the runway." Once they secured Salines, the Rangers evacuated the med students. General Stanley says one of the female students he was escorting to a waiting CH-46 told him that she needed to go back to the dorm for something she'd forgotten, so he picked her up and threw her over his shoulder and carted her butt directly to the chopper. No casualties were sustained during the helicopter evacuation, but in the narrow landing area several palm trees were martyred by rotors.

Here, the general also has helicopters at his disposal. He can insert a helicopter simulated by a flag and a piece of rope onto the field to get aerial surveillance. "Two of my troops walk out there with that flag and rope, they walk right through their base, they fly around a bit, and they come back and tell me what's going on. It's like the real world. They're basically neutral unless a rocket takes them out."

The first sergeant takes away some papers the general has signed off on, and tucking them into his jacket he cups his hand to his ear to speak over his headset intercom. His message can be heard on another headset just outside the door. Anything that needs to be told to Old Soldier just try to get to me and I'll relay it, 'cause he's busy right now talking to a reporter.

"I been playing the game since the conception. It's great practice. It's not like firing blanks--you screw up, it hurts. In real life, you know, you'd be writing a nice letter home to mama. But you learn not to do stupid things. Like this right here, looks military, I manufacture these for the law enforcement environment--you get SWAT teams and people like that used to the weight and feel of these M16s. We got anything really cold in there? I don't care as long as it's cold."

The first sergeant flips open the ice chest. "7-Up, Brisk, Diet Pepsi."

"I can't do any caffeine. If I do caffeine I'll be--" the general whistles ominously. "I'll have a 7-Up. Keep it simple."

"Hey! Hey! Hold on, hold on, no guns in here."

"No. You can't come in!"

"No one's coming in here!"

"Sorry."

The general holds the soda against his temple. "Take two of our people out there and find that goddamn nuke!"

"OK. That sounds like an order!"

Unprovoked, perhaps to ease the tension, the guard at the door makes a crack at the expense of the war correspondent's credentials.

"Maybe he's not a reporter. Maybe he's a spy."

The first sergeant unkinks and puts down his Mountain Dew and then an uneasy moment hangs while the general glares down the WC.

"Well, understand, I do putcha up against trees."

The first sergeant unstraps his holster.

"We put the other guy against the tree and killed him." The general snaps his fingers at his first sergeant. "You'll verify we put the other guy against the tree?"

"Yeah, I had him face the tree."

"I'm not taking chances."

1900 hours

The playing field, 60 acres of forested floodplain, is sandwiched between the Fox River and the Burlington Northern line. At the edge of the forest, off by itself, is a Winnebago bristling with antennae where a man in a snakeskin hat paces outside, smoking. Between the Winnebago and the concession stand are about 200 cars parked in a field. Behind the concessions, by the Port-O-Lets, is a frumpy Tioga camper, from which a middle-aged woman dressed for gardening, in khaki shorts and white wide-lapelled shirt, steps outside, looking as out of place as one possibly could among hundreds of men and boys and man-boys with brush tied to their heads and wearing body armor and head mikes, goggles, and camouflage bandannas and carrying pistols, rifles, and mocked-up bazookas.

When tired of squinting, the woman steps back into her Tioga then returns in a yellow visor, but the visor isn't enough, so she blocks her eyes with her hand to scan the hospital zone where there are 19 men waiting to have life breathed back into their bodies so they can go back and fight to restore order and democracy. The woman buys a hot dog, laughs amiably with the vendor, and again goes back inside the Tioga. One wonders about this lonely vehicle of maternal peace. Surely she'd like to hear how her teenage sons are doing, but with no means of gathering intel she watches TV, one guesses, or reads, maybe knits. Early in the morning, before H hour, she told the WC her sons had been shooting each other in the backyard for a while, but this is their first live combat. Just as it is for the WC. She asks, matter-of-factly, if he "understands about the welts."

The correspondent welcomed her information. He verified it soon enough. The welts on his belly and shoulders and arms and especially the one under his left breast have already started to bruise yellow. Each bullet feels like a towel snap dealt out by a locker room bully. He has seen one of his comrades take a shot point-blank and fall over, howling, with a golf-ball-size blood blister. The WC was surprised to find out how far the guns have come since the basic pump gun he borrowed in college from his brother to shoot up a fur emporium billboard. These guns are expensive and digital and hooked to buxom high-pressure solid aluminum air tanks that could tear you in half if they exploded. The WC, despite his original misgivings, turns out to be a pretty good shot. When he pulls the trigger, he aims for the head.

1948 hours

The WC's spooked when his platoon comes across a nasty skirmish where another battalion has converged on one man on the ground screaming you got me you got me you got me you got me you got me! Platoon Four keeps moving up the river, a long line of men and boys, spaced apart, quiet, flicking at mosquitoes, until stopped at the behest of our platoon leader. We focus intently on his urgent semaphore. But since we have not reviewed these secret hand signals most of us simply mimic them as best we can for the equally bemused grunts in the rear. We squat in an area of the forest that has seen heavy action. There are clumps of balls, unburst, half-melted, stuck to trees like bubble gum. The younger soldiers who've never fought in such muggy conditions complain about the quality of the munitions. They are, after all, paying 90 bucks a case (2,000 rounds) for paintballs. The ground looks like there's been a wine festival, slippery and littered with the squashed skins of burst grapes. (Tim Glavin, owner of Fox Paintball, says that 12 million paintballs are shot on his field per year.) A nice breeze comes off the river and bends the trees. The soldier nearest the correspondent asks if he thinks it'd give away their position if he had a smoke. The correspondent shrugs. So the guy stands up for a moment and gets the attention of the next soldier, who in turn transmits his question via sign language to the platoon leader. The platoon leader answers with a series of rather ornate hand configurations that suggest, in order, a duck, a burro, a rabbit, a swan, an elephant, a coyote. The soldier gives the platoon leader the finger and puts away the cigarette.

The correspondent can't see any of this man's face but his eyes, which look jaundiced. He wears a camouflage headdress that looks like a mop of fake Spanish moss. A few shots nearby make the soldier start clicking his safety on and off. "You've never felt testosterone and adrenaline like this--unless you met the same South Vietnamese girl I met." His mask fogs lewdly. Baiting a quote, the WC says he's writing about the war. The soldier smiles and tells the WC how when he was a company commander in Nam he had the misfortune of having a fat-assed correspondent tagging along and how he'd told that fat fuckup point-blank that if he got any of his men killed then he'd fucking kill him personally. The WC stops baiting for quotes. We move out and after a short march we arrive in a village.

Platoon Four breaks up, some taking perches on the second floor of the saloon and in the church steeple, others staking out the bank, the hotel, and the back of the general store, the rest of us planted in the tall woolly grass along the outskirts. This village, though it resembles a bankrupt old-west ghost-town theme park, is St. George's Medical School, and by laying siege to it for one half hour we will have liberated the 600 med students.

The WC is one of the soldiers in the dune grass. His gun, a loaner from a local tournament player named Maverick, is the top of the line, a WDP Angel. The Angel has a liquid crystal display on the grip that informs the WC of his battery power and how many balls he may fire per second (15), and offers a menu of 26 modes of fire, a temperature readout, a gun odometer, and a port for programming it from a PC. Fully loaded--throw in a warp feed--the Angel, at $2,800, is a state-of-the-art piece of electropneumatic weaponry. Yet in the hands of the WC it is useless.

He can see nothing.

His mask is so fogged up he can't make out the ridges of the leaves three feet in front of his face. The only things he can see with clarity are the two highly agitated mosquitoes inside his mask. His eyelids are swollen. He already tried spitting on the glass, like you might to fogproof a scuba mask, but this only made it worse, since the WC neglected to take into consideration that one has to rinse the spit out of a scuba mask, and that he was not in a body of water but in a bed of prickly grass. So when the fighting begins the WC lays his head down and tries to nap.

2030 hours

The American base is under fire but the armies, so far, are even. They're separated by a shallow gulch that fronts the command post. Inside, under the twilit blue tarpaulin, the general watches impatiently as his first sergeant searches a briefcase retrieved from the field. The briefcase is filled with money but nothing else. The general goes through it himself, but it's still just money, maybe a million, nothing about the nuke. He's starting to wonder if the nuke really exists or if it's only a figment of his imagination.

"It's getting to the point now where Wayne starts playing the negotiation game, where they're going to send somebody out to negotiate with my people. So now we've got to start playing all this political intrigue stuff." Political intrigue is for the birds. "My whole philosophy is, long as I'm winning I don't care." And right now he's winning. The Americans are ahead one mission. Still--no intel on the nuke.

"My four spies are going out on a mission now."

The first sergeant goes to brief the spies. They wear blue armbands. Lucky for them, they have their papers. If they didn't the first sergeant would shoot them on the spot. The general takes much pride in the fact that earlier he planted one of his spies as the enemy's second in command.

"It took them a while to figure that one out."

Calling Charlie Delta Foxtrot. Come in Charlie Delta Foxtrot.

"Delta Foxtrot go."

This is your mission seventeen. Mission one seven. This is a good luck call for you guys I hope because you've been doing good so far. Send out Platoon ahh-Three, Platoon ahh-Three, to infiltrate the prime minister's residence and take control of it for one half hour.

"Platoon Three! First sergeant, first sergeant! Infiltrate the prime minister's residence and hold it for half an hour!"

The first sergeant runs outside to gather Platoon Three.

"We're in that negotiation shit now. Right now they're gonna try to negotiate something, so basically we gotta play the game. It's like chess. I think two stages ahead. If this happens what do I do? I think, OK, how many people will it take to accomplish it? What will be the best method to accomplish it? It's natural for me because I've been trained to do it. I don't even think about it."

A sudden flurry of shots and shouts and yelling swells outside. A few shots hit the wall of the command base.

They're heading south.

"We got guys comin' this way!!"

We need backup!

The general cups his hands to his mouth. "Get a skirmish line out there!"

The first sergeant goads the troops. "Get out and plant in the leaves!"

We need backup!!

"So if I get another mission now where we're jeopardizing the security of the base, I'm gonna write it down but blow it off. I'm not going to jeopardize what we already have for something we don't. We need to take over the whole shootin' match, but again we don't have to do it this minute. So we hold this area here, and if Dollack comes in with a mission right now I'm not going to deplete my defenses to accomplish something that's a maybe. I can accomplish the next mission. We're getting some serious fire down there, aren't we?"

A sustained whooping from the Cuban side brings the general to peer out the mesh window. The whoop is mocking and mildly Doppler. The general watches a Cuban soldier, who is wearing a Norse Viking helmet, like an apparition, streaking back and forth in plain sight along the front line. It is a spectacle to behold. The Cuban Viking whoops and wigwags and whistles and skips and wiggles his butt, making himself a parody of an easy target. The general shakes his head as a rear platoon of Cubans who have appeared virtually out of nowhere rush the front while his entire army takes potshots at the Viking decoy. It is so obvious as to be stupid. His men entirely miss the subterfuge and in an instant the PRA are tearing their front defense to shreds. Jah love, motherfuckers!

He sighs the sigh of the resolved. No matter how comfortable he may be in his chair, no matter how undone he is about the nuke, it is time for the leader to join his ranks. The presence of the general in the heart of battle will spur acts of needed heroism. Fighting the heat and the bulk of his body he has considerable trouble getting out of the chair, but he does rise, and he takes up his M16 and puts on his mask, which looks small enough to be silly on his bristly head. The radio squawks. He can't see a damn thing. He drops the CB. It gets tangled around his wrist and he curses it. He doesn't know what the hell's going on and his mask is already fogged up.

Finally he gets hold of the slippery CB, but whoever was trying to reach him isn't on the other end anymore. The gunfire is louder. Bullets are hitting the net window. Strafing the side of the bungalow. A boy is crying outside. Actually crying. One of the general's aides-de-camp holds back the netting for him and he charges out into the melee firing and yelling at his bewildered troops, "Get out there and fight! Somebody's gonna get killed! Deal with it! It's part of the package!"

2046 hours

Dollack leans over the soft glow of his mixing board like the wizened beatnik host of a late-night talk radio show. Bursts of compressed air outside rat-a-tat, muffled by the pale flowered curtains of his cramped, and very temporary, command central in the kitchenette of the Winnebago.

Compared to what he's usually got, this is Mickey Mouse. This is bare-bones. When he rolled the fifth wheel there were props scattered across the highway. He lost everything. The fifth wheel, a 35-footer, had held a whole command center: television cameras, computers, a mixing board he used to put jungle sounds in with the music, aircraft, helicopters.

At his feet, on the orange linoleum, is a rottweiler puppy.

"This is com-cen calling Charlie Delta Foxtrot. Come in, Charlie Delta Foxtrot." No one is there to answer his call. "This is com-cen calling Papa Bravo Two. Come in Papa Bravo Two."

Go ahead. This is Papa Bravo Two.

"OK, Papa Bravo Two, you just eliminated the American base. The general wasn't in it, but you've taken the base." No one knows where General Stanley is now. Pre-sumably in the field. The base was blown to bits. The Americans are stranded, homeless.

Dollack flips through his playbook. "I can't give the Americans another mission until they get an engineer to rebuild their command shack. They're off-line now."

"Oh man." Snakebite has changed into a fresh shirt, a blue maharishi thing. He's eating a slice of cold pizza because they don't have enough amps to run the microwave. "Kind of cool when your dad's created his own world that anybody can do." He smiles cheesily. "I mean, we've got guys that come out with no legs."

"Yeah, we had this one guy that came out with no legs, got off his wheelchair with no legs, and he rolled to the position he wanted to act as a sniper," Dollack says. "We got one guy, he's 69, old marine guy, he put three hitches in Nam, and he played one in the swamp for four and a half hours in a thunder and lightning storm. He'd come out, make a couple kills, and then fade back into the swamp. On the 24-hour games, especially when we do reenactments, at least 30 percent of them are Nam vets."

Another big draw is sci-fi. Last year in Ocala they did a takeoff of the John Travolta movie Battlefield Earth with 1,200 guys and a mock-up of the spaceship. They even did one where they built a star gate. "We had a big huge fiberglass tube that was about 40 feet long and 8 feet around and we built like a walkway through it and lights spinning around on the inside. You went through the gate to get onto the field."

It is black outside. The last hour of a 12-hour game. In the end, it comes down to intelligence: information lured, information bought and sold, information smuggled onto the field in the minds of spies who then infect players with information both good and bogus.

Dollack has gotten wind of the American general's nuclear warhead and he thinks it's funny. It's funny because he, Wayne Dollack, never put a nuclear warhead out in the field. He wonders if it's one of the other props, maybe one of the chemical weapon drums. Within minutes he gets intelligence on the nuke: it's not even one of his props, just a piece of PVC tube signifying nothing.

"Let 'em run with it."

The generals are his chess pieces. Of course the generals have a certain amount of autonomy, but the real game, the game behind the scenes, is information brokering. The transactions behind the scenes determine the outcome. That's what's so true about the game, the verisimilitude to the subterfuge of real life.

It's a healthy family business. "I never tell him this to his face," Dollack says, pointing at his son. "He borderlines on being a genius but he's stupid." Snakebite, sensitive to a compliment, laughs. Then Dollack sneezes. Snakebite starts at his father, like a parent might whose child has skinned a knee but hasn't decided yet whether to cry. Dollack, clutching his ribs, permits himself the manliest of whimpers.

It takes a minute to recover and then he speaks softly. "He comes up with stuff that is just really good. Like when we did the Emerald Triangle." This famed scenario of Snakebite's was based on a fictional chemist, Stoned Phillips, who had worked with the CIA during Nam to develop a drug that would reduce the Viet Cong to pacifist junkies. To cover its tracks, mission accomplished, the CIA liquidated all involved agents and subcontractors. But Stoned Phillips escaped, swore revenge on the government, and took on the DEA as general of the hippies. That was their first scenario in New York. The hippies won when the DEA general went AWOL.

Dollack peeks through the curtain. "Now it's the wait-and-see time....They've been seesawing back and forth all day within one or two missions of each other."

It could come close to a tie.

"I'll wait another two minutes and then I'll give the last two missions out."

"The killer missions."

"You want to be out there for the last two. They're like the kill, ya know?"

"Everybody against everybody."

"Oh yeah, the last half hour is a killer."

Dollack picks up a Ziploc bag full of painkillers, looks at it, tosses it aside.

"Com-cen calling Papa Bravo Two. Come in Papa Bravo Two."

This is Papa Bravo Two, come on.

"It's 2100 hours and this is going to be mission two five, twenty-five. I want you to send Platoon Four, Platoon ahh-Four, along the treeline and cover the area from the prime minister's residence to Fort Rupert. String out between the exit points on the trail and send snipers out. Your mission time on this is a half hour."

Copy. Half hour.

"Affirmative. Ten-four. This is com-cen calling Charlie Delta Foxtrot, come in Charlie Delta Foxtrot."

The silence fuzzes and pops.

"Come in Charlie Delta Foxtrot." He taps a pencil, pets the dog. "Com-cen calling Charlie Delta Foxtrot, come back, respond."

"Oh man."

"They just had a radio a minute ago."

Then, out of the arctic silence: Charlie Delta Foxtrot responding.

Americans! Father and son both thumbs-up. "Mission time, 2100 hours. Twenty-one hundred hours. This is mission two five. Mission 25. Have Platoon ahh-Four, Platoon ahh-Four, patrol from the prime minister's residence to the base of Fort Rupert for one half hour."

Ten-four.

"Now hopefully if he set snipers up they should have some fun."

"That bomb should be hittin' the Cubans soon too."

"Oh really?"

"Oh man, my ribs are sore."

2200 hours

Snakebite steps outside to clear his head. Lightning bugs, darning the air, light the field with a pop pop pop. The woods and

soldiers are invisible except where the referees mark the ever shrinking battle lines with glowsticks, bright green spinning tubes of Cyalume that twirl like censers. It's been a long day. He never found his blade. His voice is shot. Fucking paintball, man. "I been doing this for ten years. And I don't know, man, I'm a little burned-out on it. I mean, it's time for me to move on. I want to start making some real cake. I mean, I love the people and everything, but I've just been doing it so long. I'll probably come back to it, but right now I kinda need a reprieve. Ya know? I mean, I really enjoy it. And it's fun being with my old man and that. But I really want to do some more traveling. I want to do a lot more boating 'cause I'm a whitewater kayaker and rafter. And doing this, I don't have time to do that."

He gets animated. "My dream is to pull into a rest area and to have some hippie chick with her thumb out and a journal under her arm that's got like a master's in journalism, but she doesn't have those options yet. Ya know? But what I really plan on doing--my dream is to be a traveling photojournalist. Ya know, have a team and go all across the United States, go to every state park and anything that's got any beauty, I shoot it and she writes it. And that's how we live. I've got a camper that I just bought, and I've got some land up in Flagstaff. So I'm gonna go out there and I'm thinking about working for Earth First and stuff. 'Cause they're ripping up my forest out there and I love Flagstaff. It's one of the prettiest places in the world. And it's just groovin'. It's all hippies with jobs."

The gunfire reaches a crescendo like the peak of a fireworks display. The sky is clearing and the humidity is finally lifting and the river mist blows across the field like gunsmoke and there are many voices shouting. A chorus of victory goes up in the woods. Soon there are cries of Viva la Revolucion! Vaya con Dios! Te amo! The Cubans, Grenadans, whatever, have won. History is rewritten.

Snakebite does a little air conga, like he might be about to transform himself into the tribal chieftain of the Khmer Rouge back in Jim Thorpe, PA. He is always transforming himself, his ideas about himself. He loves the mood surging out of the woods. "See, I like this business because I can be whoever I am. I don't have to put on any personas. 'Cause I'm kind of a freak. I'm not a conformist, let's put it that way. I'm an artist. Man, my dad was a commercial artist for 35 years. He ran the largest advertising agency in Vegas for 15 years. He left 'cause he was getting ready to have a heart attack. He's a creative genius, man. He takes the real world and puts it in a movie. He puts you in a movie. You're living a movie, you're playing a part. 'Cause you're doing it."

He's resting his voice now, sipping a sparkling cider, preparing his midnight speech for the two armies before they go home. He will be his father. He will stand up on the picnic table with the mosquitoes swirling around his head and he will be his father's voice for several glorious moments. The puppy is snapping at the fireflies that rise up from the grass, just as all the men and boys are now slowly emerging, risen, from the woods. "He's a paintball dog. Purebred." The blue light of a television flickers patiently far across the field in the Tioga's window.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nathan Mandell.

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