My eldest son turned 12 this past week, and he decided that he wanted to go paintballing. Now, this is an expensive endeavour when you’re talking about taking 11 children and two adults, so the deal was this – he would invite his friends to come, but rather than buy him a gift, they would pay their own way for paint ball. In other words, their gift to him would be coming out and shooting projectiles at each other for an afternoon. That way he got to do paintball, his friends knew exactly what to get him, and his parents didn’t have to put up with more toys in the house. Everyone was a winner.
And it turned out to be pretty fun afternoon. I’d never gone paintballing before (because, in the immortal words of Daffy Duck, pain hurts me), but we were playing the low impact version, and it wasn’t really all that bad. I discovered that I’m a mostly horrible shot (though the wonky rental gun didn’t help my cause any), that my eldest son is a better shot than he has any right to be, and that there’s actually a good bit of friendly fun to be had in shooting pre-teen kids with high velocity paint.
That was all until the final game – Iron Man. Unlike most paintball games, where getting shot means that a player must leave the field or (in some versions) tag up at home base, the Iron Man game has one player from either team who can’t be “killed”. This player is supposed to run back and forth across the field. Every time he touches his opponent’s home base, his team gets a point. The only thing stopping him is the sheer pain of the entire opposing team shooting him relentlessly.
If this sounds painful, you should remember that paintball equipment is really only designed to protect you from the front, because you rarely have to expose your back. But when you’re running through your opponent’s territory as the Iron Man, your back, including the back of your head, is entirely exposed, so there’s more chance you’ll get hit somewhere sensitive.
Also keep in mind that much of paintball is played at a distance. For most of the afternoon I mostly shot and was shot by other people from distances of 20 feet or more, lots of time for the ball to lose velocity and sting a whole let less. But when you’re running past your opponents as the Iron Man, you’re often passing them at a range of a two or three feet, so the paintballs hurt that much more.
And, as if the rest of that wasn’t bad enough, most paintball games have as their object just hitting an opponent anywhere (though some games specify head shots), and being behind cover means you mostly get hit on the helmet (no pain at all), or a shoulder (minimal pain), or a hand (can sting if it gets you right). But as the Iron Man, the other team can only stop you by inflicting enough pain that you can’t continue, so they’re aiming (at the advice of the referee) for your groin, your neck, and the back of your head… from close range… where you don’t have much equipment.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that there weren’t many takers for the role of Iron Man. As the only remaining adult for our group (the other dad had left already), I volunteered for one team… all three times. We calculated that I was probably hit by 400 or 500 paintballs. I was hit in the facemask so many times, and had so much paint splatted in my mouth, that I had to duck my head, exposing the top of my head to enemy fire. It hurt considerably. Several days later, I still have the welts on my head and the insides of my thighs.
Incredibly, my eldest, the birthday boy, was Iron Man for the other team twice (and got some truly amazing welts on his back). My middle son was Iron Man for the other team in the third round (he got a crazy welt on his cheek when he fell and his helmet shifted a little). Not one other person – not kids from any of the groups there, not even adults from the other groups – not one other person was willing to run the gauntlet even once. The referee told me afterward that even adult first-timers almost never take a second round, and that he’s never seen a kid do it twice before.
He might have been buttering me up, I don’t know. I do know, however, that I was proud of my guys for volunteering to do something that I know was scary for them. They knew it would hurt, but they were brave enough to face that, and they went through with it.
After everyone had gone home, as we were sitting on the couch and nursing our wounds, I said as much. I told them that I wouldn’t have thought any less of them if they hadn’t volunteered to be Iron Man, but that I was impressed with how they’d done something that must have been a bit scary for them.
It was a cool moment, just the three of us, sitting there, having shared that experience together. It almost made all the welts worthwhile.