I never saw who shot me in the face. It could have been one of the 10-year-olds swarming around the corner of the paint-splattered building. Maybe it was the pony-tailed young lady who later in the day I would see shoot a man three times in the chest at close range.
Most likely, it was one of the mid-20s guys lurking in the back of the fray, expertly sniping the battlefield with rapid-fire streams of paintballs while calmly, coolly slipping in and out of cover.
Whoever it was, he or she nailed me the second I poked my head above the short wall I had been crouching behind.
The paintball smacked my protective facemask at about 250 feet per second. Orange gunk exploded all over the glass-like panel shielding my eyes, completely obscuring my vision.
I raised my hand, stood up and scurried out of the roped-in field of play. My very first paintball experience lasted about 30 seconds. I never stood a chance.
The game went on for another five or 10 minutes, with me watching from the sidelines while my hands shook from the adrenaline rush. I gawked at a surreal scene: Part “Lord of the Flies,” part “Blackhawk Down” and very much like a living video game.
I went on to play a few more contests that sunny March afternoon, firing 500 rounds as we war-gamed through the woods, fields and mock towns at Paintball Charleston, a 57-acre site off Cross County Road in North Charleston.
My favorite game played out in a hilly, heavily wooded area. My team, consisting of about 35 men, women and children I'd never met before, swarmed through the woods trying to capture a flag positioned near a small “fort.”
The other team worked through the woods from the opposite direction, dead-set on capturing the same flag. We met in the middle, and the air soon sizzled with thousands of neon-colored paintballs zipping through.
I hung on this time until the end, maintaining good cover and firing more effectively. I even popped an opponent trying to hide behind a tree (yeah, I got you). In the end, as the game's referee counted down the seconds remaining in the competition, I jumped up from behind a log and charged a nearby group of “enemy” paintballers. It was a suicide mission, but something I'd seen in countless movies, so it had to be done.
Dat-dat-dat-dat! They mowed me down, splattering paint across my hip, thigh and even my foot. The hits, even at that range, registered little more than a sting.
When the horn blew, we all made our way back to the common area, where we could take off our protective gear and relive the experience.
More than 100 people milled about, chatting in groups, cleaning off paint hits and reloading their “markers,” or paintball guns.
The group contained a mix of adults and kids, more than few families, at least one business group and quite a few obvious fanatics, youngish men and women in specialized gear sporting their own high-tech markers.
After about 15 minutes, it was time to rally again, assemble teams and head back out for another round.
Tim Dake, co-owner of Paintball Charleston, said his company hosts players ranging from 10 to 72 years old. They come in family, corporate and church groups, even bachelor and bachelorette parties. Solo players can walk on at any time of the day and join new games.
Staffers hold mandatory safety briefings, and all paintball markers, rented or otherwise, are tested to make sure that players in the same game launch the little gelatin-coated balls at the same safe speed. The muzzle velocity can be adjusted up or down for special groups.
“We've had birthday parties for 10-year-old girls,” Dake said. “So if they can handle it, anybody can handle it.”
It costs $10 to play as long as one wants, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Players can rent essentials such as gun, hopper, safety mask and CO2 canister for another $10.
“Paintballs are the big consumables, obviously,” Dake said. “It depends on the player. Some will shoot 2,000 in a day, some will shoot 200.”
Fifteen bucks buys 500 paintballs, for $45 you get 2,000.
Players should wear “clothing suitable for yard work,” Dake said, along with boots or shoes that offer ankle support. Players can wear extra layers to protect against the sting of a paintball hit, but most who try end up shedding the layers to cool down, Dake said.
The “paint” used at Paintball Charleston is water-soluble and washes clean. “It's not like house paint,” Dake said. “It's more like Jello.”
Sure — Jello moving at more than 250 feet per second.