LA WEEKLY, DECEMBER 5-11, 2003
Paul Wehunt likes to shoot people, mostly on weekends. And he's not the only one. This particular Saturday, Wehunt stands on one side of a dirt road in the badlands of west Lancaster, surrounded by blown-up sofas and shotgunned washing machines. Across the road are 30 young men, most of them dressed in unmatched combinations of camouflage and skate T-shirts. Motley as this crew appears, they all have one thing in common: Each of them is carrying a high-tech paintball gun. Some are fully automatic, and some are single-shot. All are loaded and ready to fire.
The guns fire pinball-size bullets of paint wrapped in plastic designed to break on impact. Propelled by compressed C02, the balls exit the muzzle of the gun at 300 feet per second, and when they hit, they hurt. Some of the warriors prefer the cold early mornings, when the paint is harder - that way the balls will leave welts and bruises even through several layers of clothing. Knuckle hits hurt the most, although a group of preteen kids off to the side are whispering about hits to the nuts. One kid laughs and grabs his groin, his face a pantomime of adult agony.
A lot of these weekend warriors are students of Wehunt's at Lancaster High School, where he teaches math and computer graphics. They are part of a new generation drawn to the sport, which is now more than 20 years old. "Some of them form squads that are connected via headsets, and they get into the teamwork," he says, "but mostly they like the adrenaline rush that comes in a situation where you can really get hurt."
Even Wehunt's two "mini-Rambo" sons, Danny, 11, and Chris, 9, have a fatalistic macho ethic.
"There was one guy who came out but quit right after he got killed," says Chris. "You can't be afraid of getting shot or you won't have any fun." Danny leans forward and adds, "Heck, you might as well have fun while you're still alive."
This morning, two teams will battle for the abandoned farmhouse behind Wehunt. One will defend the house, he explains to the group, while the other tries to take it and slaughter every last defender. Only direct hits count, and when that happens, you're out of the game and have to go back to the dirt road.
Two captains are "volunteered" and begin choosing their respective soldiers. I'm with two girls, and we're the last to get picked; even with all the testosterone in the air, gender isn't the problem - we just aren't wearing enough camo.
I end up in the house, and we get busy pushing burned sofas up against the windows, blocking the doors with stoves and finding good places from which to shoot. Outside, the attackers stack tires and mattresses for cover. The house has already hosted a few battles, and not all of them with paintballs. Someone has tried to systematically eradicate the interior walls by repeated blasts from a 12-gauge shotgun, and the floor is littered with debris and shells from all kinds of firearms. As we work, I'm reminded of the house in which the hero hides in the original Night of the Living Dead. With five minutes to go, Wehunt calls our team together in the ruined living room.
"This is the final stand, right here." He gestures expansively in the small space. "When there are only four of us left, come down to this room and get in each corner. That way every entrance into the room is covered. You'll get a lot of 'em before you die." With these encouraging words in our minds, we take up our positions. Wehunt shouts, "Go!" and I watch the invaders fan out in the yard, running for the nearest cover.
Within a few minutes I get my first kill, but I've given away my location, and paintballs begin to splatter around the window from which I'm sniping. I move to the kitchen and begin shooting from the doorway, pretty proud of myself as I get another kill. Suddenly there's an intense pain on my leg, then several more as paintballs splatter on my pants. A paintball slams into the side of the helmet I'm wearing and sprays through the vents into my ear. I stagger out into the yard with my gun held in the air.
Back at the road the scene is oddly jubilant as people compare wounds and ask each other how they died. When killer meets kill, a strange alliance is formed and details of the incident are discussed. Paintball wounds are displayed, good-size welts and bruises, a few running blood; the gnarlier ones get shouts of praise and oohs of sympathy. Wehunt walks up, killed in a failed ambush. "There are still a few in the house," he says. Then we watch an attacker unload his gun into the front doorway, and another rolls through an open window.