Women around the world, I beg your forgiveness. For never have I so willingly bowed out of an activity, in an effort to save my own skin. This being said, after what proved to be one of the scariest experiences of my life, I declare, quite loudly, that paintball is a man’s game.
I arranged the outing over a month ago in order to celebrate my husband’s birthday. Envisioning an afternoon full of fun, laughter, sure, a bit of competition, I made a group reservation at a paintball arena right in the heart of downtown Toronto. The arena was called CQB and was the only outdoor arena I could find. The small print, upon further investigation via the website, read something along the lines of tactical paintball and training academy, but I scoffed and confirmed my reservation, thinking that all paintball fields are the same, right? Wrong. This particular arena was made up to look like a combat zone, reminiscent of close combat in Afghanistan or the like as portrayed by modern film makers throughout Hollywood. Complete with white wash abandoned buildings lining the sides, as well as cubes, tires and an empty van filling the empty space, the arena began at one end, at the building known as “the Church” and ended at the building known as “the hotel”. What had I got us into?
Not surprisingly, I wasn’t the only one thinking this as myself and about 12 other paintballers rolled into the parking lot near Bloor and Stirling. The first thing we see is a huge black net covering what we could only assume to be the arena! “Cool”, is what I was thinking – before turning the corner and seeing a handful of men in army swag strutting up and down the parking lot. Uh oh. The first thing that went through my head is “the girls are going to kill me”. I’d prepped everyone for a fun game of paintball and as we pulled up, I felt like a farmer bringing pigs to the slaughter house. After pulling in and beginning to feel like army bait, I questioned the guy behind the desk, trying to reassure myself and my companions that we weren’t about to get the crap kicked out of us. He told me that Sundays were discounted days for paintball owners and normally drew a group of regulars who practiced every week. Every week. Oh God! When I asked him if we would be okay joining in, he reassured me that at CQB they breed a “welcoming atmosphere for paintballers of all levels”. Yeah right! He was probably reading that straight off the website. Now that I think about it, there may have been mention of a pro-day or the like online. Lesson in event planning, read the fine print.
So, as the final members of my crew showed up, we were ushered in for a debriefing. All of this came after we’d signed a waiver and paid for the right to have our butts officially kicked. Most of the guys got right into it, searching for the untarnished masks and feeling out the bumps in the protective army vests provided for our comfort. The girls, on the other hand (with the exception of one), were shaking, glancing around as if lured against their will into some kind of nightmare where they were at the mercy of mercenaries, entirely defenseless! It took all my effort to remain calm and laugh off the fear of getting shot at until I turned blue. Horror stories of welts and bruises that I had brushed off as whiny complaints began flooding my headed as I stared into the end of a mock machine gun and watched as the operator cocked it in preparation. I was going to die.
After a safety debriefing that included one rule and one rule only, “do not remove your mask on the arena”, we were handed our guns and asked to head into the arena. I felt like a gladiator walking to my death, carrying a weapon that was surely meant only to provide any audience with the illusion of a fair and equal game. We entered the arena and were immediately redistributed between two existing teams. The one with yellow caution tape wrapped around their arms, and the one without. The rules of the arena were made very clear and we soon entered into our first game. Objective? Eliminate members of the opposing team.
All of a sudden, like the trumpet call to strike on the battle field, bullets started flying left and right and I … I hugged the wall like a twelve year old girl at her first school dance. Only this time the enemy wasn’t a group of young boys trying to avoid the seductive but grown men armed with guns with their sight set on me. The first game flew by rather quickly as a I wandered the same 5 paces back and forth from my window to the back wall, refusing to turn any corners or poke my head through anything that threatened to expose my position. Hearing screams of “GO! GO! GO” and the racing of footsteps upstairs, I started imagining myself in a war zone of sorts, small tactical teams rushing past me, off to eliminate the enemy. It was at this point that it hit me. If this were a real war zone, I would be very dead right now. Enter a moment of sincere thanks for living in a country where the sound of gunshots are anything but normal, and where inhabitants pay for the thrill of being petrified.
Game #2. After a small break following the first game, I re-entered the arena alongside a girlfriend of mine who was not enjoying her first paintball experience, at all. Scared out of her wits, I decided it would be best to team up and face our opponent head on. And by head on, I mean tucked nicely away behind the barricades of “the hotel”, flinging our guns over our heads in a halfhearted attempt to shoot anything that moved. As it turns out, we were engaging in friendly fire for the entirety of the 12 minutes of the second game, taking aim at a teammate and the boyfriend of my terrified partner in crime. Oops! To make matters worse, when at one point the door behind us flung open, my girlfriend instinctively shot another of our teammates and seriously close range. She started panicking, horrified at the thought of having shot a fellow human being, and I started laughing non-stop, trying my best in between breaths to reassure her that all was “okay” and that she hadn’t done any permanent harm.
Just as we were getting into the workings of this elimination game, the paintball referee changed the rules. Game #3 and #4 were to be reenactments of D-Day, the invasion of Allied troops onto the beaches of Normandy. What this meant in terms of paintball, was one team trapped in the hotel while the other rushed up through the middle of the arena like cows to the slaughter. For the first game, my team was on the offence. The five guys on our team who were part of the professional brigade, ordered us to advance as a unit every time one of them yelled “push”. So, we did and I got hammered. Until that point, I’d been hit on my helmet a few times and generally avoided any real damage. As my teammates yelled “push” and we continued to advance, I got hit more times than I’d like to admit. Unfortunately (for me), the advancing team had unlimited lives and once hit was ushered quickly back into the thick of the attack. On the up side, I sent so many of my bullets into the general direction of the hotel that mid way through game #4, while defending my perch at the hotel, I ran out of ammunition. Too bad! So, I walked up to the viewing gallery and watched on as my team defended the beaches of Normandy, without me. On the one hand, I felt pretty useless, hovering above, watching as players got picked off, one by one. On the other hand, I was beyond relieved to be an outsider looking in.
I wasn’t the only one out of ammunition, so myself and a few others decided to sit out game #5, the last one of the day. When my husband, whose birthday we were celebrating by partaking in this brutish sport, exited the arena, I knew there was something wrong. As he walked outside to the picnic bench where the team was gathering, I saw blood covering his fingers after he touched the top of his head, wincing in pain. As it turns out, during the final game – which was back to elimination – some 14 year old kid had resented the fact he’d been shot and, instead of exiting the game, decided to follow my husband down the ladder, sending him off with a shot straight to the top of the head. With a huge chunk of skin missing from his head and blood clotting up his hair, we decided it was probably time to leave.
While we survived our excursion, into the heart of hard-core paintball, I can’t say it’s something I’ll be rushing to do again. Would the game have been different if we were playing among ourselves and not as part of a death squad captained by a monster in army boots with an automated paintball gun? Most likely. In fact, most definitely. Am I going to book another game next weekend just to find out? Probably not. For now, I’ll take pleasure in having kicked one more thing off the bucket list, and focus on giving less painful birthday gifts to my husband in years to come.