Minneapolis Staycation Project ’08 – Part III

You wouldn’t know it to look at them, but unicyclists are total badasses. These unassuming people, with careers ranging from engineers, to musicians to kindergarteners, have the athleticism of gymnasts, the fearlessness of suicidal ninjas and the indestructibility of a goat’s colon.

I’ve always wanted to go into a room full of body builders, navy seals, ultimate fighters and unicyclists and ask for immediate volunteers to go over Niagara Falls with no preparation or protection. I’d bet the house on every single unicyclist enthusiastically stepping forward, but only on the condition that they could do it while strapped to their unicycles. They’re a lot of fun – and batshit crazy down to the man.

The juggling and unicycling communities are tight-knit. I’ve known some of these people for over 20 years. So I was quite excited to receive the email invitation to a longtime unicyclist friend’s bachelor outing – until I scrolled down and read the word ‘paintball’. Then I knew I was doomed.

I’d heard many stories about paintball combat over the years. Nearly all of them involved vivid descriptions of premeditated filth, pain and terror. You don’t get to be my age and still looking this good while voluntarily submitting to that kind of masochistic cruelty. I briefly considered faking my death, changing my name and emigrating to Samoa as the fated day approached, but when it became clear that the paintball outing and my staycation weekend would overlap, I stayed true to my entertainer nature and prepared for battle. Because nothing jazzes up a staycation story like the tentative author recounting incapacitating filth, pain and terror in the company of people that barely noticed any of it.

After joining the first group of unicyclists at the predetermined Columbia Heights rendezvous point and merging with yet another group way out at Northside Sports in Ramsey, we were 12 strong and aching to decorate each other with splotches of oily orange paint. We were each issued lovingly abused, semi-automatic rental paint guns, riot masks and sacks of paintballs before being sent out to the field to load and prepare for battle.

It had never occurred to me that there might be people in this world whose lives revolve around paintball. It’s just not the first thing that springs to mind when you consider prospective hobbies. I mean, you’ve got cycling, comic books, wine-making and medieval combat societies where participants fight with foam padded safety equipment made to reflect medieval weaponry, but paintball?

Sure enough, these people, wherever they hide during the week, were out in force on this sunny Saturday afternoon. As we prepared, it was difficult not to stare at the hardcore regulars, decked out in their cammies, utility belts, hunting vests strung with spare paintball canisters and faux-Road Warrior homemade armor and hairstyles. Each of them carried a fully automatic paintball gun, capable of spraying 100 rounds in about 15 seconds. I have never regretted not having my camera with me so much in my life. Meanwhile, our rag-tag group of noobs, with our ripped jeans, non-terrifying shirts and sensible hairstyles – not a one garbed in a cod-piece fashioned from a trashcan lid – looked positively feeble in comparison. The girl in the Lara Croft get-up could have probably wiped us all out single-handedly.

Range rules were hastily explained, sportsmanlike agreements were made – offer the option of surrender to anyone before firing on them any closer than 20 feet, because that hurts like the dickens – and teams were arbitrarily formed based mainly on the colors of our shirts. We were then cut loose in the ‘speedball’ range, which was simply a field strewn with giant inflatable obstacles. I think it’s called the ‘speedball’ range because the battles are over so quickly. The inflatables don’t provide much protection and ricochets zing by from alarming angles.

Familiarizing myself with the gun and how much ammo I could safely unload in one round without going empty took some practice. At first I’d swivel away from safety, wildly squeeze off one or two shots, then twist back and hide while volleys of return fire ‘pwanged’ off the inflatable I was using as cover. It didn’t take long to notice I was trying to conserve too much paint. My gun’s paintball hopper still looked full after each round, while other guys’ were nearly empty. I cut loose thereafter, showering the field using the ultra-fast-twitch finger muscles I’d developed after 26 years of juggling, cheating my aim with the wind, so my paintballs would curve back around just in time to splatter on my target’s eye protection as they peeked around corners.

The pain of the paintball impacts weren’t nearly as bad as I had been expecting. The first direct hit got me right in the chest. It hurt, but only for a split second. The next hit was the same, though this happened on the front of my hip, a little too close to the pills for my liking, making me wish I’d had the foresight to strap on a trashcan lid as well.

The brevity of battles and lack of excitement on the speedball range inspired us to move to the more elaborate ranges, where sniper boxes, building facades, towers and even a half-hearted attempt at a downed helicopter had been constructed out of 2X4s and particle board. There were also bushes, sand dunes and trenches (laden with burrs a few of us discovered the hard way).

As I had sagely predicted, most of the unicyclists were the Rambo types, disregarding danger, self-preservation and common sense to race around the field, dive into ditches, somersault over barriers and walk straight into a hail of fire without a care in the world. Others (read: me), armed with more prudence and less health insurance, used their half-busted hip as an excuse to crouch under cover, popping up at timely intervals to pick off opponents with judicious sniper fire.

When was the last time you ran as fast as you could? I mean flat out raced, with the added knowledge that three sadistic guys were drawing a bead on your narrow and perfect ass with high velocity rubber balls? Apart from joggers and the occasional athlete, the opportunity for full-on sprinting doesn’t come up very often in your adult life, does it? Well, after a long afternoon of panicky, start-stop, up-down screaming pandemonium, my legs were beginning to show their disappointment with me. The added abuse of gradual dehydration out in that glorious sun and the nutrient sapping effects of incessant adrenalin spikes amplified the already severe muscle damage even further. It would be days before I could walk up stairs or sit down without bursting into tears.

The damage from my five hour paintball deflowering would have been bad enough, but our day wasn’t over yet. We staggered back to Columbia Heights, showered and changed, then zoomed downtown for dinner at Fogo de Chão, an all-you-can-eat Brazilian grill. But rather than being forced to struggle to your feet once in a while and waddle to a buffet, servers swoop in every two minutes and tempt you with different kinds of meat. Sausages, rib eye, chicken legs, sirloin (regular and garlic-infused), fillet mignon, beef ribs, pork ribs, pork loin, pork chops, lamb chops, and more. Also, there was a salad bar – for the rubes. We Pettersens are a lot of things, but we are certainly not rubes. I’d come to Fogo for extravagant and well-appointed beef poisoning, not to fill up on cheese and bread. I held my ground while my companions went off to waste precious stomach capacity. Our head server saw me sitting alone at the table and, recognizing that I had resisted their wily attempts at distraction and filler, nodded his head knowingly, clicked his heels and the Protein Parade began. It did not end for almost three hours.

My cavalier, mock-objective of Death by Beef faded as the meal came to a close. I felt seriously impaired. Apparently you really can get drunk on beef or so it seemed after I got to my feet and various muscles and brain functions failed to engage. There was also the small matter of the bill. Our group of 11 had somehow masticated $850 in food and drink. In addition to paying for my plate ($46.50), I was cajoled into buying a ‘Brazilian Cocktail’ ($10), which I supplemented with a glass of Chilean merlot ($13). After tax, 18% mandatory gratuity and donating toward the lucky bachelor’s meal, my final total was the second most expensive meal I have ever had. Great time, once, but I’ll probably stick to a single, non-lethal piece of extraordinary Kobe beef in the future given the choice.

As we made our way to the street, it became clear that I’d overextended myself. Three hours of shoveling red meat down the hatch had given my legs time to quietly plot rebellion to protest the sprinting, crouching and cowering during paintball. I had the gait of a well-fed duck. Though I had only just put down my napkin, the ludicrous, sickening, dangerous amounts of beef that I’d ingested were starting to do odd things to my gastrointestinal tract. The others in the group, in typical, deathproof unicyclist fashion, seemed completely unfazed by any of it and were finalizing plans to retreat to a nearby apartment with a case of beer to keep the party going. Feeling the looming approach of a protracted bathroom visit in my immediate future, I chose to wobble back to my condo alone and let nature take it course. Several times.

[End Part III]