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New Hampshire's Woods Echo—Pow! Splat!—to the Sound of the Survival Game Championship

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Twelve green-faced “assassins” from Canada crept through the forest in Grantham, N.H. the weekend before last and shot up America’s best pistoleers, an attack squad from Miami. The Florida bunch staggered out of the woods covered with orange paint, claiming there weren’t enough swamps and alligators in New Hampshire. That’s what they were accustomed to, they said; give them a few water moccasins to slither among and they would have bagged the Canadians.

Would have, could have; the fact is, the Yanks lost in the first annual National Survival Game championship ever held in the universe. The America’s Cup floppola wasn’t so bad because we had the thing for 132 years. It needed dusting. We never had the National Survival Game championship cup at all, partly because there wasn’t one—a crushed beer can done in sterling silver would have been about right—and mostly because this, as we said, was the first national championship of skulk-through-the-underbrush-and-shoot-your-friends-with-paint-guns ever held. No one thought to call it the international championship because no one was worrying about those Canadians.

It is true, probably, that there were also a few souls here and there who weren’t worrying about the National Survival Game (NSG) because they hadn’t heard of it. Only a few, however. In the two years and five months since the first game was played in Henniker, N.H., the NSG has become a media darling. The Game has been covered by every television network in the U.S. Camera teams from France, Italy, Japan, England and, yes, Canada, have bashed through the woods shooting the shooters. Newspaper philosophers have brooded about the Game as abnormal psychology on the hoof, and virtually every magazine not narrowly devoted to such matters as astrophysics or meat-packing has sent out a reporter to play.

The clamor is not surprising. Almost no one is indifferent to the NSG. Something like half of the population, hearing that there are competitions in which you can sneak through the gorse in camouflage suits, potting harmlessly at your opponents with what looks like oversize .45-caliber automatics, decides immediately that this sounds like a splendid idea. These people are mostly male (though not, interestingly, mostly hunters and gun hobbyists; serious shooters want guns to be taken seriously and don’t like the comic-opera quality of the NSG). The other half of the population, mostly female, says things like “yuk,” “juvenile” and “sicko-macho-Nazi.”

The juvenile part is right, no doubt about it. The Survival Game is sort of an armed version of Capture the Flag. And playing it feels like playing cops and robbers, except that the big, mean-looking Nel-Spot CO2 pistol (developed to mark trees and cattle harmlessly) produces a splotch of color about the size of a squashed tomato on the warrior who has just been bagged. The pellet is a paint-filled gelatin ball about the size of a child’s marble, and it stings a little if it hits bare skin (goggles are mandatory). Otherwise, Survival Gamers cause less damage than butterfly collectors, and their mood may well be less ferocious. A player feels incredible tension because he doesn’t know which clump of leaves in the silent forest contains the enemy. But what he is doing is so inescapably ridiculous—two dozen adults trying desperately to mark each other with paint?—that fantasies of blood and destruction are highly unlikely. Painters and painted fall about laughing at themselves after a game.

With all of the hullabaloo, the NSG grew like a horror movie monster. (This comparison was supplied last weekend by the bemused wife of one of the originators. The monster is amiable, she said, and unexpectedly profitable, but it’s now about 10 feet tall, and it keeps breaking out and frightening people.) The Game was born out of a whiskified, late evening argument among friends. Hayes Noel, a New York stockbroker, Charles Gaines, an outdoorsman and writer (Stay Hungry, Pumping Iron) and Bob Gurnsey, a ski shop owner, would fill the air of Gaines’ living room in New Hampshire with noisy disputation about whether a city man or a country man would prevail in a difficult survival situation. There seemed to be no way of settling the matter until someone saw an ad for the Nel-Spot pistol. Aha!

What had been a joke among jokers has become a fair-size growth stock for the New London, N.H.-based group, with 120 dealerships (minimum start-up costs are $4,000) all around the U.S. and (yeah, yeah) Canada. Each weekend, Gurnsey says, between 8,000 and 10,000 people play the Survival Game at fields maintained by the dealers or in private patches of woods.

Regional eliminations had been held, and here we all were in Grantham at a spectacular up-country farm and restaurant called Gray Ledges. The scene was peaceful. New Hampshire’s maples had turned red and orange and the bare gray rock of Croydon Mountain glinted in the sun.

The scene was, on second look, not entirely peaceful. Ninety-six crazies in camouflage and weird greasepaint were swaggering about with Nel-Spot pistols, sighting at trees, checking CO2 cartridges and staging duels (back to back, walk 10 paces, turn and fire). They represented eight 12-member teams from five states and Canada. Ninety-three of the crazies were men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, and three were women. Cathy Norman, 20, an inventory clerk for a Cincinnati department store, is a slim, shy woman with light brown hair who might, under all of the fright-paint, have been pretty. She began playing the Survival Game to keep her boyfriend company and joined a team called the Faces of Death, Ha-Ha. (The Ha-Ha part was added when people began backing away from team members as if they were motorcycle outlaws.) Male opponents laughed and said they were going to take her prisoner, but she liked the Game “even though a bullet that didn’t break gave me a nice old hickey on the neck.”

Although teams of doctors, lawyers and corporate execs blast each other regularly back home, most of the players who reached the finals seemed to be carpenters, cab drivers, store keepers and an occasional photographer or computer programmer. Most of the Buckaroo team from San Jose were technicians from California’s Silicon Valley. Robin Ziegler, 39, is a big, burly, easygoing man who works as a programmer for Atari. He plays because “it’s an incredible high” and because the running keeps him in shape. Joanne Hodges, 27, is a secretary at Atari; in the woods she is a small, intense, stalking machine. It is hard to imagine either of these people using a real gun in a real situation, but the survival fantasy suits them.

Now, however, the Buckaroos and the Faces of Death, Ha-Ha were out of the competition. Ha ha, indeed. But so were the Land Sharks from Rochester, N.Y., and the Devil’s Painters, from Vancouver. Only two teams remained, the Unknown Rebels of London, Ontario and the 12-Man Jury from Miami. They had been frisked (to make sure that no player had more than 40 paint pellets and three CO2 cartridges) and sent into the woods. Each would defend a flag station and try to capture the flag of the other.

Spectators stood at the edge of the killing ground, a rough, broken 30-acre patch of forest, perhaps 500 yards from end to end, and tried to figure out what was happening. Occasionally a figure was briefly visible, running at a crouch, gun in hand. There were no shots. The sun began to sink behind the trees, and the shadows were cold. Fifteen minutes passed, half an hour, an hour. Finally there were shots, and a dead man walked out of the bushes looking dejected. Red armband: Miami. A cable repairman named Bob Bennett. “Eyeball to eyeball in there,” he said. Two more Miami bodies stumbled out. Then a yellow armband—the first Canadian.

Then several more reds, and the day’s direction was clear. An air horn sounded, followed by hoots of triumph. Bob Hefkey, from Stratford, Ontario staggered out of the underbrush sweating and about to drop; with one pellet left, he had gone for the Miami flag, grabbed it and dashed back through the forest to his own goal.

There was a babble of goodnatured rehashing that went on for hours: “You guys were deadly,” and “When I was shooting around that rock, were you the turkey who…?” Then the checks were passed out: $3,000 to the Canadians, $1,000 to the Miamians. Just about what each team planned to spend on beer during the ride home.