I can still remember the shame.
I’m 34 years old, so I was in my formative years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Along with new-age boy bands and rising terrorism fears, one aspect of the zeitgeist was a little thing called paintball.
Especially early in my high-school years, my group of friends would regularly make the 45-minute drive from Weirton, W.Va., to Pittsburgh to play paintball.
I’m not sure exactly where they went — somewhere in the Strip District, maybe? — but I do know one thing for sure: I never once accompanied them … and they let me know it on a semi-regular basis.
Don’t get it twisted, though. My friends were not the type to actually bully you. Our group took pride in being witty in our teasing, and I definitely absorbed my share by abstaining from their paintball excursions. Not some life-crushing experience, but there was always that awkward feeling hanging in the air when they would recount their adventures around the lunch table on so many Monday afternoons.
What was I afraid of? Pain and bruises, I guess.
I wasn’t a particularly tough teen, at least not in the physical sense. For instance, I stopped playing basketball in seventh grade because I didn’t like running. (Meanwhile, present-day Matt can’t get through a day without going for a jog or at least breaking a sweat. Go figure.) I played hockey in high school, but I committed exactly one penalty in four years, and I’m almost certain the ref got the wrong guy. At school or at play, I never even got close to getting in a physical altercation.
I’m a lover, baby, not a fighter. At least that’s what I always told myself.
It probably helped that I was 6-foot-1 by 14 and shopped in the ‘husky’ section of the department store, so maybe I just didn’t look like someone you wanted to tangle with. I can assure you that the phrase ‘Big Teddy Bear’ was invented for someone like me at that age.
Anyway … where was I. Oh, yeah, fear of paint pellets.
As far as I can tell, it wasn’t simply the chance of injury that held me back from paintball in particular. Unlike one of my best friends, who went to West Point and served multiple tours of duty in the Middle East, I never had any military aspirations or fantasies. Guns just weren’t my thing, unless they were of the Nerf variety.
Not to paint with a broad brush, but it seems to me that a lot of people who love paintball are in it for some form of low-grade combat wish fulfillment. I’m sure if you’re that type of person, it’s enjoyable to feel like a badass solider without the pesky risk of gross bodily harm and/or death.
That was never my thing, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have some regret about letting my anxieties keep me from sharing some memorable experiences with my high-school running mates, most of whom I still consider to be my best, most loyal friends.
So, much like last month, when I donated blood after 20 years of running from the needle, I’m reopening an old wound in this Scaring Matt series. I will don a mask, tote a gun and zero in on my target.
For once, it’s time to get messy.
Next week: I research places to break my paintball maiden … and how to best protect myself for the onslaught.