My wife changed jobs a few months ago. She likes the new place better, and the people she works with are more like regular human beings than the previous cast of loyal corporate work units. I've now met a few of them and I found them easy to get on with, even given that I don't know the first thing about computer programming and I don't understand what any of them do.
I've agreed to play airsoft with some of them at the weekend, and the weekend is here. I don't know what airsoft is but I assume that it's like paintball and that this will be some kind of team-building enterprise. They did the same thing at my old workplace, back in England, except it actually was paintball and I never went along. Nobody asked me, so I didn't know about it until I saw the photos of them all stood around grinning in their camouflage clobber spattered with primary colours. They probably didn't ask me because they thought I was weird, so I've never played paintball either.
Anyway, whatever it is this time, it's something I've never done, so that seems like as good a reason to do it as any. I've been ill during the week, a stomach complaint from which I'm still not quite fully recovered, but fuck it - we've all been stuck inside for most of August, taking shelter from the heat. The exercise will do me good.
We head south out of San Antonio, towards Pleasanton, and there in the middle of what is doubtless somewhere to the locals but is nowhere to me, is Mission Airsoft. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but probably something on a larger scale than a couple of wooden huts and a trestle table; but then it turns out that my expectations have all been off whack today, either crossed wires or me failing to take in certain crucial details.
This isn't team-building. It isn't even anything to do with where my wife works, not specifically. She knows Alex from work, and he said to come down and play airsoft this weekend, and so here we are.
We park, then approach where our fellow airsoft players are milling around. Next to the huts is a sort of marquee, like a tent with open sides so that we can fiddle with our guns in the shade. Behind this is woodland of typically south Texan type - saltcedar, mesquite, and gnarly, scrubby trees without anything much you could ever use as a telephone pole or a fence. Most of our fellow airsoft players look to be about seventeen. Alex himself is older, but still young enough to be my son; although on the other hand, I'm still not entirely accustomed to being in my fifties, and people of my own age always seem old to me, so the generation gap is probably something Alex is more likely to notice than I am.
Bess introduces us.
He's tall, kind of skinny with blue eyes and some Hispanic heritage in there somewhere, but he's originally from Wisconsin. All I know about Wisconsin is that it's cold, that they eat a lot of cheese, and that it's the home state of Clifford D. Simak, one of my favourite writers. I am aware that all generations since my own are distinguished by things I don't understand and which don't really appeal to me, console games and not reading books being just two; but still Alex and I somehow manage to have a conversation without my asking what it's like to have been born in the same state as an author he's probably never heard of. We get on fine, I guess because we both have a sense of humour, and on some level I am aware of the absurdity of my being there at all.
Alex plays a lot of airsoft and has his own guns, so he lends one to me and one to my wife, saving us the cost of hiring inferior models from the wooden hut. He also lends us protective facemasks and goggles, and we have our own hats - that being the other recommended item of clothing. Mine is a baseball cap sporting the logo of the Wack 'em & Stack 'em barbecue team run by my wife's first husband. The name quotes Ted Nugent, vocal firearms advocate and right-wing guitar hero. I have my gun, and my hat with a Ted Nugent quote sewn across the front, and I'm feeling unusually Texan today. If only the lads at the mythopoetic men's self-actualisation workshop could see me now.
We lock and load, tipping little pellets of paint into our magazines. We pull down visors and adjust camouflage straps and give ourselves the appearance of a nineties power electronics act. Then we stand and listen to the referee instruct us as to what we can and cannot do once play commences. He's the only person present who stands a chance of being older than I am, and I get the impression he may have served in the military. The little khaki munchkins have all heard the speech before, leaving just me to ask the stupid questions like will it hurt? Apparently it may sting a little, but not so bad as with paintball. Suddenly I wonder what the hell I'm doing here, and why I agreed to this. I don't want to be stung at all.
We divide into two groups, fifteen or so persons to a team. We wander off into the woods and choose our positions. I had imagined it would feel kind of cool, hefting a weighty firearm through the wilderness, my eyes ranging from side to side for some glimpse of the enemy, all senses alert as I say things like bandits at twelve or I figure we got us a code nine, whatever the fuck any of that means. I had imagined it would feel kind of cool - which I say as someone who customarily shuns the term - and yet it feels somehow stupid, even a bit unpleasant. I don't want to shoot anyone, and I don't want anyone to shoot at me, not even with an air rifle. I don't understand what is to be gained from this experience.
There's some objective, something about capturing the enemy flag or piece of cloth or something like that. I anticipated running around in the woodlands, but it isn't really the sort of woodland which is conducive to running, so it's all stalking and firing. Bess and I stick together, but otherwise we're alone. Everyone has vanished into the undergrowth. The whistle was blown a few minutes ago and it's all gone quiet. Occasionally there's the phut of an airgun somewhere in the distance, occasionally a yell of I'm hit and someone trudging off towards the tree designated as home so as to reclaim one of the three lives we all get, but mostly it's silence.
A figure emerges from the undergrowth ahead. I look down the sight of my weapon and pull the trigger. There's a tiny kick of compressed air and a satisfying thud.
'You got me,' he says with laughter which somehow conveys the quality of a sigh. I've shot the referee.
'Sorry,' I call back, probably sounding more like Basil Fawlty than anyone wearing a hat quoting Ted Nugent has ever sounded before.
We continue to wait.
There's further movement and I realise that I have no way of knowing who is on which team. I suppose we're expected to deduce this information from the direction in which the potential target is moving.
Suddenly I'm hit, and yes it fucking stings.
'There's me,' I report, and wander off towards home to wait out the remaining fifteen minutes. I have two lives left, but I doubt anyone has been keeping count.
The game ends in a draw, possibly.
Alex pleads for us to stay. He seemingly feels guilty that we didn't have an amazing time. We assure him that we had a great time but have other things to do, and anyway we hadn't really planned on staying all afternoon - which is true. I wouldn't say I've had fun exactly, but I did something I've never done before, and that's close enough.