I shot Lieutenant Kate Duckworth twice. Not because I had anything against her -- she's an officer and a gentlewoman -- but because she was there.
"There" was a patch of tangled woods near Warrenton, site of the first series of National Survival Games, Virginia division. It's Capture the Flag, actually, only played mainly by teams of alleged adults armed with air pistols that shoot capsules of red or yellow paint.
The idea sounds silly and/or sicko to some people, and most of the twoscore rookies who showed up for the inaugural games last weekend expressed some reservations. There were two teen-age boys, six young women and men who ranged from young to not-so-young to young only at heart.
Most of us were a tad diffident about it at first, especially those with children who have outgrown Cowboys and Indians. The women seemed particularly hesitant because we were a pretty gross-looking group of guys decked out in fatigues or duck-hunting coveralls, some with camouflage- smeared faces.
"I almost turned around and went home," Lt. Duckworth said afterward, running her fingers through her yellow hair. It had not been yellow before I shot her as she lay in a thicket of greenbrier through which she had been trying to sneak up on me.
"The game turned out to be more fun than I could have believed," she said. Duckworth, who's a Navy public relations officer, bemoaned not having dealt more effectively with the press this day (I got her again, in the back, in the next game). "But you just wait till I get you in my sights next time."
Next time I hope to be on her squad, since my experience during four games was that if you want buddies you can depend on in a firefight, you can't go wrong with the fair sex. I sharply revised my opinions on women in combat after Lynn Hagen and Debbie Martin of Vienna and I, the lead squad of a Red Team search-and-destroy mission, ran head-on into a Yellow Team strike unit that outnumbered us more than two to one.
I was on the point but they spotted the enemy first. Then my gun jammed and the women held off the Yellows while I huddled behind them and cleared the stoppage. Then in a series of rapid, skillful flanking movements, they isolated the attackers one by one and we picked off six of them without losing a man, so to speak.
When the whoosh and spray had died away we had decimated the enemy main force. After that, it was just a matter of slopping up stragglers. Some were shot in cold paint; no prisoners are taken in the Survival Game.
It's impossible to describe the game without using military terms, but that seriously misrepresents the spirit of the thing. Few of us had ever experienced real war, but a decorated Marine Vietnam combat veteran (two tours) said the only "flashbacks" the game triggered in him were "memories of sunny afternoons and summer evenings spent playing Cops and Robbers. This doesn't even relate to war. It's just a great excuse for running around in the woods having a good time."
The Survival Game, a national franchise operation said to have about 120 battlefields so far, was invented by three friends in the backwoods of New Hampshire in the summer of 1981. The men -- an outdoor writer, a New Hampshire country boy and a New York stockbroker -- had long been chaffing each other about who had the better survival instincts. Then one of them heard about the Nelspot 007, an airgun designed for marking cattle and trees. Eureka! They went out in the woods and hunted each other, with the splashes of paint eliminating the age-old problem of "Bang! I got ya!" / "Nah, you missed, I got you!"
It was so much fun they forgot to keep score. As they lay back panting and laughing, another light dawned. They incorporated as the National Survival Game and sewed up the right to sell the pistols for play.
Enter Barry Greif, 23, a salesman, and Grant Hagen, 32, district manager for the Herman's sporting goods chain, who played the game in New York and then bought the Virginia rights. They leased a patch of woods in Fauquier County, marked the boundaries and flag stations with surveyor's tape, and were in business.
It seems to work best as a team game, with 10 to 15 persons a side about ideal for the 15-acre Warrenton battlefield. The partners said they plan to lease an 80-acre tract near Culpeper for advanced games, which may involve much larger teams and last a whole weekend. On the Warrenton field, players pay $15 per person ($20 after Memorial Day), for two games of up to two hours each, although they seldom last that long when played by raw recruits.
Hagen and Greif demonstrate the use of the CO - powered pistol and explain the rules, strategy and tactics. They issue each player an armband, a pistol, 20 pellets and safety goggles, which must be worn at all times. When you run -- and a Survival Game player may have to sprint for dear life -- the goggles soon steam up, giving rich meaning to the old expression about the fog of war. Thus blinded, you must burrow on your belly into a safe place to wipe them, because an ungoggled player is immediately thumbed out of the game and has to join the other casualties on the sidelines.
Play begins with each team gathered at its own flag station. Judges cruise the battlefield, issuing rulings -- the pellets don't always break, especially when it's cold, but any direct hit counts as a kill -- and serving as neutral zones for players with weapons malfunctions. They'll also sell you more ammo (10 pellets for $2) or gas cartridges (50 cents). A prudent player will stock up beforehand; while the initial issue usually will last through both games, the guns tend to lose pressure unexpectedly, and the sort of run-and-gun confrontation my squad got into can empty a 15-shot magazine mighty fast.
The Survival Game may not be war but it is magnificent. If, as some students of human nature believe, all games are simply "civilized" man's continuation of war by other means, this one appeals directly to the atavistic urge. There is fearful fun, or fun fear or something, in crouching in the bushes as somebody's mother, or maybe your best friend, comes creeping toward you gun in hand, intent on blowing you away. And there's fierce satisfaction in whipping out the old Equalizer and wasting some splendid specimen of a young man who in any other sport would be your master.
Is it healthy for a boy to shoot his father? Al Abugattas of Riggs National Bank thinks so. In the final game of the day Abugattas, defending the Yellow flag, made a heroic last stand against five of my comrades in arms. Concealed in a clump of vine-shrouded trees, he survived a steady barrage of pellets while coolly returning one well-aimed shot after another. Our guys couldn't do a thing with him; all that showed was a glimpse of his face as he fired and ducked back, and the Nelspot pistol is not a piece of pinpoint accuracy. Then Paul Abugattas, 14, covered by our fire team, crawled into close range and shot his dad in the nose.
His father was delighted, a toothy smile gleaming through the red badge of courage that covered half his face. It is, after all, the ultimate proof of a good teacher when his pupil surpasses him.
The players in the first day's games were a motley crew, mostly strangers to each other and about evenly divided between blue- and white-collar folks. Singles were assigned at random and there was a most unmilitary democracy in the way offensive and defensive roles were assumed. Yet once play began, it was apparent that most of the self- assignments had resulted in a rational use of hard- chargers, cover-and-concealment experts and steadfast flag defenders. The women didn't wait to be asked to dance; most chose the attack.
What with late arrivals, no-shows and confusion over the varying rules interpretations issued by Greif and Hagen, things started off snafued, just like in the real army. We hurried up and waited, andistd somebody always Failed To Get The Word.
But nobody demanded a transfer out of this chicken outfit and the games, when we got around to them, were a hilarious success from go. I was a little puzzled by the extraordinary cheerfulness and camaraderie that followed the first two contests. The winning players all but danced for joy, and the Red and Yellow teams fraternized with each other like G.I. Joe and Ivan at the Elbe. But then in Game One, on perimeter defense, I never got off a shot because our attack squads wiped out the other guys before they got anywhere near our flag station; and less than five minutes into Game Two, on offensive patrol and still unblooded, I was hit in the trigger finger by a lucky shot that filtered through what should have been an impenetrable thicket. War is hell.
What was I going to tell my children when they asked, "What did you do in the war, Daddy?" There was nothing for it but to re-enlist and study war some more.
When the final cease-fire sounded, I limped off the field of honor in the gathering dusk -- my hamstrings had been asked to carry my hams rather faster and farther than they're accustomed to -- as a decorated survivor of both campaigns, with six notches on my pistol grip. I still felt more than a little silly, but also suffused with the sort of euphoria I hadn't felt since the time I scored the winning touchdown in the Homecoming Game for the Old School.
The glow lasted all the way home and through the ordeal of scrubbing off the stains that covered my face and hands. The paint is latex-based and said to be washable; if you believe that, clap your hands and go take flying lessons with Wendy. UNCLE SHAM WANTS YOU Barry Greif and Grant Hagen say they will hold games every weekend, open to all comers as individuals or teams. Players under 18 must have their liability waivers signed by a parent or guardian. They're planning to form leagues but meanwhile, they'll assign singles and small groups to scheduled games "according to demand." The (mail only) address of the Virginia Chapter of National Survival Game Inc. is 1020 Poplar Drive, Falls Church, Virginia 22406. Phone: 534-7011.