I set myself a challenge; find a correlation between paintball and Opera. If I am perfectly honest I only came up with the idea after I had spent the day running through the woods with a gun, shooting brightly coloured, hard, plastic paint-filled balls at people I didn't know. It seemed worthwhile in order to justify the ridiculousness of what I was doing (to myself and thence everybody else) but I cannot, with hand on heart, find anything to link the two.
I have never even contemplated paintball but deep down I know why. And it isn't necessarily because of the nerds or the wannabe Rambos. It is something much more close to home and inescapable; I knew it would bring out the childishness that still resides in me. As my own (far more mature) offspring will tell you, I am just a big bloody kid. Actually, not only my children will tell you that.
I grew up at a boarding school in the countryside and we made the most of the acres at our disposal. War games that involved chucking spears made from bamboo at each other were popular. I even joined the cadets and spent hours running around in combat fatigues and shooting old .303 rifles at a target down in the cellars of the old house; nothing unusual or strange in that, but I was twelve then, not 47. The army itself wouldn't ask me to do that now, even if the enemy was at Dover. So I am not sure why I agreed to join a colleague and several of his friends in the Surrey forests on one of their regular days out, but I did.
One unavoidable truth about paint-balling is that it is a very silly thing to do, but there are lots of past times that fall into that category and they are often more enjoyable precisely because you know the inherent silliness of them separates you entirely from normal life. The trick is to allow that fact to stand unchallenged and then you can be as ridiculous as you like.
So with trepidation I agreed to participate in the day with my colleague and his (much younger) friends and I can happily report that everything you ever thought about paintball was confirmed. There are exceptionally geeky adherents, there are lots of wannabe Rambos and you are very much at risk of becoming one of them. One of our group, Jason, takes paint-balling very seriously, unveiling a dazzling array of his own equipment and when kitted out looked like a Delta Force operative.
I merely slung on some old camouflage overalls provided by the centre and a hired set of goggles. The idea that we were in the same team seemed faintly ridiculous from the off. There were several groups of dedicated paintballers around and it would have been easy to have felt intimidated but I reassured myself with a couple of things; first, I knew that I was a decent shot but most importantly I had my cadet training from 35 years ago to call upon. I would be a valued member of the platoon.
Paint-balling has become an impressively advanced activity now with centres providing acres of specially designed "scenarios" with props, buildings, wrecked cars etc. You could instantly be transported to the Wild West, Omaha Beach or an urban wasteland. We were set against another team, sixteen-a-side, and marshals laid out the rules and the scenarios. Then off you go trying to raise flags and take bases clutching a powerful, compressed-air gun that fires the paintballs at 200 mph.
Once the whistle goes for the first battle, a remarkable thing happens. You become someone that you never thought you would ever become and certainly a person you wouldn't be too keen for acquaintances to see. Within ten seconds of the first game commencing I had trundled through a stream, leapt a log, dived behind a tree (wincing at the pain in my bad knee) and was scanning the woods ahead for the enemy, gun at my shoulder. For a moment, I stepped out of myself and looked at the scene, embarrassed. And then quickly stepped back in and fired off a volley towards the oil drums a hundred yards away.
It was fortunate that they had pitted us against a team with even less experienced players than we had. Not that I, for even a second, considered myself one of those; Cadets had taught me how not to behave when under fire. This lot obviously hadn't been in the cadets. They would pop up from behind their cover, look around for longer than was healthy and then duck down again. In the first two games I scored three head shots from distance. Fools! In none of the first few games had I been hit either so I was feeling a little Rutger Hauer about the afternoon so far. If a player is hit, he is compelled to raise his gun in the air and walk from the field to a "dead zone" where he sits out the remainder of the game. As one member of the opposition after another emerged, gun held high in hand for the slow walk back, the sense of achievement was palpable. And so I succumbed to the ridiculousness and allowed my (not very deep) inner child to emerge but in the fourth game, another of my traits showed its face. As I lay in an inch of mud, sniping behind an oak tree, a paintball smashed painfully into my index finger. That counts as a kill so I was out of the game and absolutely furious.
"You f...g lucky bastard!" I screamed across the battlefield at my unseen killer and trudged off grumbling and cursing.
From Vimy Ridge we traipsed to the Wild West zone, the battlefield festooned with saloons, small houses and flag towers. I took up a position behind a water butt and waited. Eventually, from behind the back corner of the distant saloon, one of them showed himself. I rattled off a volley and the bullets smashed against the corner of the saloon. He would grow impatient - I knew he would grow impatient - and eventually, he did. He made a dash for the log screen ten yards in front of the building, diving for cover. Damn I missed him! But he had a friend who soon after did the same but this fellow wasn't quite as assertive because halfway to the screen he let out a whelp, turned on his heels and ran back, waving his arms in the air. I took him out with three clean shots between his shoulder blades.
And so it goes on for the rest of the afternoon. Before you know it you are discussing "raiding parties", "flanking them on their left", talking about "suicide missions" and making sure you have a "good field of fire". I think I even heard someone refer to a "defile". There was always the risk of "getting pinned down". This happened to me a few times and is when half of the opposing team has spotted your hiding place and begin to fire intensely at you whilst you duck below the object behind which you very quickly begin to cower, paint spattering and spraying all around you. In such circumstances you can only hope someone on your team "takes them out" so you can move on.
I was shot four times during the afternoon. Actually, I was "killed" four times but on one occasion I was actually shot several times as I confronted the enemy charging my position. We stood there, ten feet apart firing wildly at each other. Pop, pop, pop, "Ouch!" pop, pop, "Ouch! You're f..g dead!", "So are you! Ouch!" pop, pop. Then we calmly put our hands in the air to signal that we were out and trudged off to the dead zone. I think the other bloke was about forty five years old.
The great sin in paintball is cheating and especially the crime of not excluding yourself when you have been shot. Twice I killed people who continued in the fight, one of them a beautiful head shot from a hundred yards. When that happens you are supposed to scream "Marshal!" and get him to come over and adjudicate. The problem was that when it happened, I was so busy remonstrating furiously in a loud voice with the miscreant that I signalled my position to half of the opposition and they would pour fire down upon me. Then I would get pinned down again.
When it is all over you go for a pint. I might never do paintball again but I know for sure that although I thought it the most ridiculous thing to be doing, I was nevertheless quickly immersed in its lunacy. Heaven only knows what that says about me but I have thought long and hard about people I know, who may disregard it as a pastime as readily as I did, but who would be just as certain to regress into childhood. Indeed, this is all a bit unsettling and whilst I am certain that I won't, as Jason declared, "officially count this as a hobby", I probably won't take much persuading if I am asked to do it again.
Perhaps we all need to regress back to childhood from time to time?