When do we take risks? When do we play it safe? And do we always have a choice?

On Friday night I watched Along Came Polly, an average but decent romantic comedy that had a bit more to it than the trailers implied. Ben Stiller plays an insurance salesman who calculates risk for a living, so when it comes to his personal life, his work bleeds over. He knows odds and percentages, but learns that you can't predict life with probability and computer programs. Sometimes playing it safe is riskier than taking a chance.

Early Saturday morning, I headed out East for a day of High Velocity Paintball. Since my friend Rey introduced me to the sport a few years ago, I've hit the fields at least once a year with various coworkers. I remember my apprehension the very first time I played. “Does it hurt?” was my natural first question. I was assured it stings but for a second, though layers of clothing are not a bad thing. I learned the hard way about finding adequate cover. Standing out in the open in my very first match, a colleague with a good gun and a high vantage point shot my right nipple off. At least, that's what it felt like. Since then, I've learned a lot about strategy and shelter.

This year's game almost fell through. With the bad weather we had during the week, nearly everyone at work backed out, expecting rain. It turned out to be the only sunny and clear day of the week, cool enough to wear a sweatshirt but not cold. With no humidity and ideal temperatures, my mask didn't fog up for once. Meanwhile, the storms during the week ripped B13's front door off its hinges, and he spent his day working with his father-in-law to make repairs. He not only missed paintball in the morning, but had to call off an outing at night to see The Good Rats perform at a Long Island bar. If the video is any indication, we missed a good show.

Undeterred by all the cancellations and bad luck, I grabbed my camouflage shirt and one of my dad's old mechanic jumpsuits, and set out for battle. It's not in my nature to take risks, but for me risk is all about the unfamiliar, and paintball is now an old friend. I know what the pain feels like, and welts are badges of honor. I know the safety precautions, and how many of the rental guns have weak range and can't even fire straight. The biggest risk of my morning was arriving late, and just as I thought I would be on time, the road I was on veered unexpectedly to the left. I'd been to this particular facility once before, and didn't remember that curve. As it turns out, Google™Maps had one of the street names wrong, so I had to rely on my memory to find the missing street.

I still got there before my other friend from work, and his friends were still gearing up in the parking lot. Because so many people bailed, we didn't have enough players to qualify for a group rate and had to pay a little more. I bought a case of ammunition and had to borrow money from one of the other guys because I was a little short. I planned to split the case with my friend, and after a few of us left messages on his cell phone, I began to wonder when he'd wake up.

We were paired off with other players who didn't have enough for a team, and got in two full rounds before my friend finally arrived. We conquered the “Airforce” field, taking control of key downed aircraft and strategic positions. The “Attack and Defend” area proved more of a challenge, a smaller area with less cover and one big mound of dirt in the middle. The central cover lead to a stalemate, as players on neither side could lift their head to check for targets without becoming targets themselves. Like a well-oiled machine, our squad leap frogged forward, some guys supplying suppressive fire while others advanced. I stayed low and made it to the central tower, rolling out of the way as spheres exploded in the dirt around me. We had all but eliminated the other side, but when I made my move to go over the wall, one of the two remaining enemies got me square in the face. There was an eruption of green on my visor even as the impact knocked me back.

I ran out of ammunition in “The Woods”, and got pinned behind a barricade, peering out and calling out enemy positions to my team. I shouldn't have stayed out there unarmed as long as I did, because on my last reconnaissance sweep I saw twelve guys advancing, I turned to flee, gun in the air, and my back got lit up. That was probably the most painful “death” of the day and the hits continued to sting as I walked off the field. We got to play the “Wild West” field twice, each time flanking the enemy successfully. The second time through, they picked off one of my allies, but didn't know I was in the same building. I had a perfect view of my foes from the side, as they fired forward at advancing guys from my team. I took my time, closed one eye, exhaled and squeezed the trigger. My rental let off a sad shot as the paintball curved and exploded in the branches of a tree a few feet from my target. Over the sound of his own rapid-fire model, he didn't hear. I took another shot which sailed through the branches, and the window of his structure, and over his back. The third time was the charm, and as it struck him in the shoulder, he whirled with a look of “where the hell did that come from?” even as the rest of my compatriots stormed the building.

We had all learned from past experiences, and our second visit to these fields proved awesome. Only in the “World War II” field did our tactics fail us slightly, as we didn't know how to refer to some of the vehicles. “There's two guys in that...half...track...thingy with the treads and two guns in the middle!” Unfortunately, “The Castle” wasn't open yet, but the newest construction looked impressive, with two massive towers, a deep pit running between them, and a wide bridge connecting them. A few more walls and some safety netting, and it will be done, so maybe I'll get to try that one in the Fall.

Paintball can be dangerous, even with the proper precautions. Masks have to stay on while you're in an active field. You could lose an eye, or worse. I winced when I heard one player cry out, “my scrotum!!!”, and drop into a shaking crouch. I've been very lucky, especially for me. I took risks and had a good time, and I really wasn't in any danger until I got on the L.I.E.

When do we take risks? When do we play it safe? And do we always have a choice? B13 once lost his face in a car accident and still drives like this. I once got a speeding ticket, and became extra cautious. So, when I found myself in the right lane behind a flatbed truck toting parts from a construction vehicle, I played it safe and remained where I was, while B13 probably would have taken a risk and cut around it in the narrow spaces the traffic allowed. But, I was still moving at a good pace and keeping a good distance in case the truck stopped short or the chains holding it's cargo gave way.

Time slowed down, creating a dramatic cinematic effect. I saw something frozen in midair, a piece of wood or something that caught a glint of sunlight before tumbling back down. I heard a metallic clank as it struck the pavement on the dividing line between the right lane and the center lane, and as it bounced back up toward me I realized it was a thick, rusted pipe. I veered into the shoulder a little as the careening object flew past my open window like a spear, mere inches away. I heard the whistle of air as it went by, and then time resumed at a normal pace. In my rearview mirror I saw other cars spread out to avoid it.

Risks are unavoidable. Just because you stay somewhere safe doesn't mean you won't eventually get hit; sometimes it increases the odds. When we take risks, actively or passively, we gain experience. Experience breeds courage, and prepares us for future dangers. I think back on the time a van struck the side my dad's car and spun us around. Had he frozen or slowed down, I probably would have been killed. Had I been driving, I might have frozen, and almost certainly would have been screaming. It was another of those moments where time seemed to slow down, and I vividly remember looking over at this 75-year-old man calmly holding the wheel and frowning, even as the scenery outside the windows was a blur. He looked more annoyed than scared.

When you've been through a lot, you can handle almost anything.


Blogger Lorna said...

Dear God, what ARE the odds?

4/16/2007 11:51 PM  

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