Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Ballad of Squad Zero

Most American guys of a certain age have, at one time or another, fantasized about being an unassailable, shit kicking badass as a member of an elite military unit. Think SEALs or Army Special Forces or Rangers (they lead the way) or Force Recon or, for the most fantastical of us all, Delta Force. There are a number of factors at play here, but being American, under 45 years of age, and having a penis seem to be the most consequential. Some combination of the movies Rambo, Top Gun, and Navy SEALs; GI Joe action figures; video games like Call of Duty and Splinter Cell; and a nearly pornographic American obsession with guns has conspired to lead many of us into thinking that, with the proper training, we could be clearing rooms, fast roping onto rooftops from a Blackhawk helicopter, and piloting Swimmer Delivery Vehicles under the hull of a ship at night to plant explosives.

I confess, I have not been immune to this fantasy. My senior year in high school I nearly caused both of my parents' heads to explode when I informed them that I had talked to the Navy and Marine Corps recruiters who camped out in the hallways of my school and inquired about enlisting with a guaranteed shot at BUDs or Scout/Sniper training. Thankfully, for both my parents and our nation's military, this momentary dalliance with alpha male super supremacy vanished when I was accepted to Baylor University (considerably less badass but minus any log carrying and plus many attractive women) and I joined the ranks of the 99.9% of the American male population who watch the Jason Bourne movies and then try to reconcile their ass kicking fantasies with the fact that they also shop at Banana Republic and just can't start their day without a latte from Starbucks.

Any doubt I had about whether I had made the right choice was wholly and incontrovertibly quashed my sophomore year at Baylor when a group of buddies and I decided to drive to a paintball place just outside of Dallas on a Saturday morning to put our close quarters combat skills to the test. Our genius plan was formulated over beers the previous evening as we had managed to convince ourselves that enough video game playing and action movie watching had somehow imbued us via osmosis with at least a functional knowledge of small squad combat maneuvers and important battlefield techniques like how not to get shot. We were going to be ringers on the paintball field.

Our band of brothers, which we jokingly came to call Squad Zero, was comprised of Aron, of Frogdog fame; Christian, a boy band good looking bartender; Stu, an intellectual communications major; Ted, an aloof guitar playing environmentalist type; Mike, think Brad Pitt from Ocean's Eleven; and myself.

Our first mistake became painfully apparent when we pulled into the parking lot of the paintball place in a cherry red Audi A4 and a beat up Honda Accord still dressed in the same duds we had worn to the bar the night before. We should have driven trucks and we should have changed. More specifically, we should have driven massive, lift kit equipped Ford trucks with gun racks and Ain't Skeerd stickers on their bumpers and changed into as much Real Tree camouflage as we could find at the local Wal-Mart. You know that scene in every White-Kid-Winds-Up-On-The-Wrong-Side-Of-Town movie when Chet or Margaret walks into the hip hop club and the DJ scratches the record to a halt as all of the thugged out black guys turn to stare? It was like that, except with Doomsday militia types and their warrior-to-be progeny and instead of a record scratching to a halt, the sounds of them loading their ridiculously equipped paintball guns ceased.

There was a momentary face off in the dirt parking lot as we were sized up by the regulars who were apparently there for training instead of fun. I'm pretty sure all six of us were wearing black and had on sunglasses. Aron was smoking a cigarette. Stu was bemused in the way an intellectual communications major would be but wisely kept his wisecracks to himself. Mike was wondering why he decided to come to Dallas with us instead of home with one of his many female options the night before. Ted looked terrified.

"Fuck it. Let's go," Aron snarled as he stamped out his cigarette butt on the ground. Not looking to see if any of us were following, he added, "Squad fucking Zero."

As we approached, the locals warily went back to loading their guns but kept one eye on us as we entered the pro shop and inquired about pricing and guns to rent. After the monetary details were hammered out and we were kitted up for the coming war with what I now know to be the paintball equivalent of 4-10 shotguns, the proprietors of the paintball facility asked for our skill level.

"What category are you boys in?"

We all stared back blankly.        

"You know, at what level do y'all compete?"

We stared back blankly again and then started to look to one another for an answer.

"We're Squad Zero," I jokingly offered.

"I see," said the paintball guy as he scrawled something on a roster sheet.

In retrospect, he either thought we were a group of experienced paintballers drifting through town in search of a good fight like the plot to some sort of post modern western movie or, and this is much more likely, he realized we had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into and took advantage of the opportunity to inject serious comedic relief into what otherwise a creepily serious afternoon of paintballing by assigning us to a team on which we would absolutely get our asses handed to us.

We stepped outside and began to load our paintball guns and adjust our masks as one of the referees called out that we'd begin in a few minutes. In the lull, some of the younger doomsdayers, probably twelve or thirteen years old, ventured up to us.

"Are y'all agg?"

"Agg?" Mike asked.

We again looked to one another searching for some sign that someone in our group had understood the question.

A word of advice: If ever you find yourself attempting something you've never done before, something like kayaking or rock climbing or lugeing or snake wrangling or paintballing, do not feign knowledge in the face of ignorance. Far better to profess ignorance and look silly momentarily than to play along and look silly for an entire afternoon. Hindsight.

"We're Squad fucking Zero," Aron retorted without looking up from loading his gun.

"Yeah, y'all are agg," one of the child soldiers responded.

Satisfied, they ran off to report to the others.

Do not fuck with kids like these
Stu piped up,"Dude, we don't even know what that means. What if that changes the rules or something or we wind up having to do some shit we don't know anything about? I don't want to unnecessarily get lit up by a bunch of rednecks if I don't have to. Those paintballs freaking hurt."

"Relax, dude," Aron responded. "Those kids were like ten. Squad Zero."

"Squad Zero," a few of us laughed back, overly confident that age precluded a person from being an absolute crack shot with a paintball gun.

The referee called out two teams of names and had us all follow him to the first field, a wooded but relatively small patch of land, and then quickly explained the rules. I don't really remember much about the rules now, but I do remember that Squad Zero was intact on one team, confident, excited, and ready to win glory on the field of battle. We were sort of like The Light Brigade well before The Charge of The Light Brigade.

The referee blew his whistle and the six of us rushed forward while everyone else on our team wisely dove for cover. Stu, Ted, Mike, and Christian were mowed down immediately. Aron and I found ourselves using three of our child teammates as human shields as we plunged to take cover behind a log.

"Holy fuck!" Aron yelled. "We should have come up with a better plan!"

Paintballs whizzed over our heads and popped loudly against the log in front of us as I meekly held my gun aloft and fired randomly without exposing myself.

"Alright," Aron said, "here's the plan: I'm gonna jump up and run to the next tree and you cover me. Squad Zero!"

Before I could dissuade Aron from this course of action, he sprang up from behind our log, made it two steps, and immediately succumbed to what I like to call The Machine Gun Dance. The Machine Gun Dance is a staple of every 80s military action movie in which some minion finds himself in Stallone or Schwarzenegger's crosshairs and, as he's riddled with bullets, maintains the standing position and sort of shakes all over.

Aron looked down at me when the firing had stopped and, covered in paint, yelled,"Medic!"

As he trudged off the field trying unsuccessfully to dodge more paintballs, a kid from the opposite team calmly walked around the log that had kept me in the game, looked down at me in a pitying way, and, as I cowered in the dirt, shot me in the knee.

"You're out!" the referee swooped in to yell.

Squad Zero after action report #1:

Enemies Killed: 0 (probably)

Life Expectancy After First Shots Were Fired: 1 minute

Casualty Rate: 100%

As Squad Zero reconvened on the losing side of a hugely lopsided loss, we realized that we had been assigned to a team essentially made up of clay pigeons. We were fodder for the more experienced players on the other side. To make matters worse, we were far and away the worst players on a team of bad players. I overheard the Vietnam vets on the other side coaching the child warriors on the finer points of coordinated movement and cover. One of the kids on our team wiped his nose on his sleeve. Aron lit a cigarette. Ted confessed that he didn't think he even fired his gun. I survived the longest by laying on my stomach behind a log.

Less this...

...more this

"Follow me to the next field!" bellowed the referee.

The next field consisted of a makeshift plywood compound and a was shaped in a tight triangle with wooded areas on two sides. Squad Zero would be tasked with breaching the compound and eliminating all of its defenders. The 54th Massachusetts had a better chance of storming Ft. Wagner.

The referee blew his whistle and the chaos started all over again. There were probably twenty people on our team and we easily had sixty different ideas as to how best to breach the compound. Squad Zero was a squad in name only and all I remember is that none of us survived and the only thing I'm sure I hit was one of the walls of the compound.

Squad Zero After Action Report #2:

Enemies Killed: 1 or 2 (maybe...and by sheer luck)

Life Expectancy After First Shots Were Fired: 1 minute 30 seconds (best guess)

Casualty Rate: 100%

At this point, someone on the other team must have said something. Fighting us was like playing Call of Duty on the easiest setting and even utter, soul crushing dominance gets boring after a while. Plus, I suspect some of the more militant types really were using this Saturday paintball outing as preparation for when the Feds came knocking. Picking off liberal arts majors at will was probably immensely satisfying for them on a personal level, but it wasn't doing much to prepare them for the coming storm. The referee with the roster sheet made some changes.

We lost the nose wiper and a few others I can't remember and picked up a couple of surly ex military types. I shouldn't be so judgmental. The guys who came over to our team were amenable enough and they tried to give us a few pointers, but there's only so much you can teach when you're in the shit and I'm reasonably confident they were just as happy to let us draw fire while they went about the work of trying to actually win a game.

The next field we played on was 3/4 the size of a football field and had a densely wooded patch right in the middle of it. You couldn't even see the players on the other side when the whistle blew to start the match. After being quickly and unceremoniously eliminated in two successive campaigns, I convinced Christian to stay behind with me as everyone else charged headlong into the thicket. We would slowly creep up to the front after everyone was engaged and try to outflank the enemy.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," I said to Christian right after the whistle blew and the rest of Squad Zero sprinted into the brush. "Let's hold up here and then try to outfl-"


My field of view, previously occupied by Christian, was now an opaque pink hue, my mask covered in pink paint.

"Fuck," Christian muttered softly.

"You're Out!" the referee rushed in to inform me, as if I'd somehow missed the fact that a paintball had miraculously flown the field's entire seventy five yards to tag me right between the eyes.

I started to take off my mask so I could see my way off the field but was quickly scolded by the referee and then had to stumble my way off the field through the trees and over the uneven ground unable to see anything except the pink paint that served as a violent stamp of disapproval on my genius plan.

The rest of Squad Zero met their fate somewhere in the thicket.

Squad Zero After Action Report #3:

Enemies Killed: 3 (surely we were getting a little better, right?)

Life Expectancy After First Shots Were Fired: 30 seconds (my 5 seconds of survival brought down the average)

Casualty Rate: 94.4% (I think Stu lived through the ordeal)

By this time, Squad Zero was well and truly demoralized. It got even worse when one of the child soldiers from the other team came up to us at lunch and informed us that we were not, in fact, "agg". I'm still not entirely sure what "agg" means, but I'm guessing it doesn't involve cowering behind logs, getting shot first in every match, and yelling "Medic!" every time you get hit with a paintball.

The last match of the day, mercifully, took place on a field occupied by inflatable trapezoids and pyramids. Many of the militia types and child warriors had gone home for the day as they had used up their paintball ammunition allowance on absolutely lighting us up in the previous three matches. We still had plenty of paintballs left as we'd not even survived to the midway point of any single match. The final game of the day would be a simple capture the flag affair pitting Squad Zero against whoever was left on the other side. I'm pretty sure the other side had fewer players, but let's be honest, we'd proven ourselves a wholly ineffectual fighting force at this point and I don't think anyone thought our extra numbers were any real advantage.

The final showdown started much as the others had with two or three of us meeting our maker in the opening salvo. After that, the match settled into a cat and mouse game between the surviving members of Squad Zero and the three or four skilled operators on the other side.

Miraculously, we were able to get the match down to two versus one, Christian surviving as our last great hope for some semblance of battlefield glory. He heroically picked his way from cover to cover and was within a few yards of the flag when he ran out of ammunition. With a mighty yell, he broke cover and sprinted to capture the flag dangling in the open in the middle of the field.

Battered and bruised, the eliminated members of Squad Zero watched from the sidelines as Christian approached the flag. This was sort of like the last scene in any overwrought action movie you've ever seen where the hero weaves his way in slow motion through explosions and flying shrapnel to either die tragically or survive gloriously. Think Willem Dafoe in Platoon for the tragic option or Sylvester Stallone in any Rambo movie ever for the glorious option. We got neither.

If there's a comedic version of this scene, Christian's  heroic charge was it
Feet from the flag, Christian tried to put on the brakes so he could turn back after grabbing our coveted trophy and return it to the base, but he slipped on the loose dirt and landed flat on his back. At that exact moment, one of the skilled operators from the other side squeezed off a round that found its way under the chin guard of Christian's mask and struck the underside of his chin with an audible slapping noise.

"JESUS FUCKING CHRIST!" Christian yelled.

As he laid there writhing in the dirt, one of the guys from the other team sheepishly trotted up, plucked the flag from where it was hanging, and walked back to the other team's base.

"That's it. It's over," the referee said as he blew a pathetic end to the match.

We walked out onto the field to check on Christian, his mask now off and a grotesque, bleeding, golf ball sized welt forming on the underside of his chin.

"You OK?" Ted asked.

"Is there a welt?" Christian asked back.

"There's a welt," Aron said.

It was silent for a few seconds as Christian collected his things and peeled himself off the ground.

"Squad Zero?" someone offered.

"Squad fucking Zero,"Christian answered. "Let's go get a beer."




Ted Cook said...

Hmmm... environmentalist, eh? Remarkably good recollection of the days many massacres. I believe Aron was also involved in the final surge for the flag. Didn't he act as the suicide decoy to draw the enemy fire away from Christian?

And for completeness, Squad Zero is a reference to the Command & Conquer video game. In the game you could assign troops to squads and select them quickly with 'ctr-#'. We always assigned Squad 0 to the elite commandos (who were of course avatars for ourselves).

Pancho said...

Yeah, "environmentalist" was a bit of a stretch, but I had to find a quick way to describe flip flops, shorts, and acoustic guitar playing without saying anything about Dave Matthews. Forgiven? Also, it made for a better understanding of what a motley crew we had assembled.

The suicide run definitely sounds like Aron. The part where he apparently failed at this and Christian still got the most heinous injury of the day also sounds like Aron. It's reminiscent of our failed smash and grab job for the university mace.

Squad Zero!

Rachel said...

I love this.

Chris said...

God this was funny. I've been cackling in my office for the last 10 minutes.

Pancho said...

Chris, this means you need to come paintballing with Beau and me, post haste. Make it so.

Watman said...

For the record, I don't remember much of this day (daily excess of libations may be to blame), but from what I do remember this is mostly accurate. I remember the punks asking if we were "agg" which I still have no idea what they meant by. I can only assume they meant aggro - as in aggressive - to which we certainly were not. I remember getting shot a bunch, and I remember being angry about that for obvious reasons. I also do recall that I was with Christian in the final moments of the infamous assault in which Christian got shot in the throat. However I do not recall my own fate. I assume it was not good though, judging from how the previous engagements played out. I'd now like to end this comment thread with the words of Crazy Earl from Full Metal Jacket, (slightly modified to fit the context):
"These were great days we were living, bros. We were Jolly Green Giants walking the earth... with guns. Those people we wasted that day were the finest human beings we would ever know."


Noah Magnan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.