Thursday, May 3, 2007
The puppet-master cracks his knuckles in preparation for battle. His piercing blue eyes pore over a detailed map showing the strategic building locations of the quazi-historic firefight he has helped recreate.
In one of those buildings, beneath a cloud of cigarette smoke, prisoners of war stealthily prepare their mass escape from a Nazi internment camp. Outside, German guards clean and load their guns.
“Central command to German command,” Spiro Mamaligas says, radio receiver clutched tightly in hand. Mamaligas’ gift for arranging elaborate BlackCat Paintball Productions long ago earned him the nickname “Oz.” Now, while large numbers on a grey digital clock quickly tick toward a synchronized start, he organizes commanders on both sides, both “German” and “Allied,” from his small trailer, as he does for each scenario game he manages. Today his trailer sits in a portion of abandoned Ford Ord that has been transformed into a World War II Austrian concentration camp.
Mamaligas triggers the action at precisely 1:48pm Friday afternoon. “Game on, game on, game on!” he yells. Camouflaged bodies big and small—with either a red or blue flag hanging from their face protectors—spill from behind bunker, doorway and bush.
The evidence of how seriously these participants take their fun accumulates like splatters of paint: Each understands and agrees to obey no fewer than 43 safety and game rules. GPS equipment, walkie-talkies and paint grenades hang from every belt and vest. (The night vision goggles don’t come out until after dark.) New barricades and freshly reinforced buildings reflect three long days of work spent preparing for the weekend’s events. Many of the almost 400 participants have traveled hours and hours to play—some arriving from as far as Ohio. And player movements indicate that each has studied the scenario closely: one side must attempt to liberate the prisoners of Stalag XVIII Alpha, the other must prevent that. BlackCat’s Jonathan Foust wrote an intense prologue for each of the players that illustrates the historical and dramatic character of the event well.
“Unbeknownst to the guards, however, all was not as well as it appeared within the barracks,” he writes. “By the light of a single lard-based oil-lamp, the coal-smeared faces of Sergeant Major Gerard Aitken and Warrant Officer 2nd Class Sid Perry squinted to make out the map in front of them.
“ ‘The guns are being stored under hut 22 and the ammunition under 7,’ Sergeant Aitken explained to Chaplain Giles Reed. ‘The grenades are under one of the huts in the Russian section…’
“Perry smiled. ‘Everything that the resistance has been able to smuggle in to us has been collected and prepared for tomorrow night.’ ”
“ ‘This is just amazing,’ the young chaplain gushed. ‘When they dropped me in here I had faith that I’d be getting out someday… I just never dreamed it’d be so soon.’ ”
• • •
Back on the battlefield, every aspect of the game is calculated and run through Mamaligas’ mind—from the role cards he issues to each player to the strategic stashes of weapons and gear he hides for the teams to find. And he adjusts the game mid-battle, adding wrinkles to challenge the participants as they play. “I send out missions every 20 minutes to help stimulate [players],” he says, feverishly scribbling down a chunk of “mission two” and grabbing his trusty receiver. “Are you ready to receive mission two?” he says to the German command.
From there, Mamaligas says, the players “are actually writing the story.” The action illustrates his point. Players duck into dilapidated dormitories or behind bushes. The click, click, click of countless paintball guns mixes with the yells of both sides. When paint explodes on a player’s body, the player dutifully plugs his barrel, throws his hands in the air and walks to the “dead zone.”
“Dad, get that guy right there!” yells a teenager. “He’s behind that tree.”
Sitting safely in his chair, the puppet-master giggles as he tracks the progress on the battlefield.
“Cease fire,” Mamaligas finally says. The waves of flying paintballs abate as tired combatants walk under camo netting, temporarily returning to real life until the game lunges back into action. The weekend will ultimately include three full days of scenarios like these, including a marathon 48-hour segment interrupted only for meals and naps.
Along the way, the partnership forged between BlackCat and the city of Marina in order to make the event possible precipitates two key results. One, BlackCat gave a local youth group a chance to paintball for free on Saturday; two, Ford Ord will again be transformed into another one of BlackCat’s fantasy worlds this July.
Visit blackcatpaintball.com for more information.