The 2017 self-administered birthday performance evaluation I conducted had an area of improvement I had identified years ago, but stubbornly still had not addressed. As it has been on there for many years, I bumped it up to the top of the priority list. The issue is I am hyper-critical and very rarely give credit where credit is due. People who know me best would be nodding in agreement right now. They would also state the person I give the least amount of credit to is actually myself. My response to that is I need to focus on others first before addressing me.
A hot spot area where I love to heap on criticism is "the South." I glibly state often, “I've never been prouder to be a Yankee than living in the South.” Not only do I live in the South, I live in TEXAS. It's almost a daily ritual where at some point in time, something will happen, and I will just sigh and tell my wife, "We live in Texas". Not only do I live in Texas, I live in EAST TEXAS, the buckle of the bible belt. It’s where a common question in meeting strangers is to ask them "What church do you go to?" Being an atheist in East Texas causes immediate concern for my salvation with a lot of pearl clutching, declared missions of evangelism, and offered prayers for my soul. One of my absolute favorite quotes from living down here is from the ultimate southern redneck:
“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
But today, I want to give credit to a phenomenon that has NEVER happened before. It has never happened in the open-minded communities of NYC, Chicago, or over in Europe. It has never happened in places I wistfully wish I currently resided. It happened down here in good ol' East Texas. It took 38 years of living in the US for this to finally occur. It is an occurrence I have craved, but have been denied for so long, I have almost forgotten that I wanted it. And, I think it's poetic justice that the place I look at with contempt offered back to me such a precious gift. I will give you a hint. Dr. Martin Luther King gave an incredible speech about it.
In September, it will mark three years since I've been part of a Christian Paintball group. Let me repeat what I just said. I am a part of a Christian Paintball group. Don't worry, I'm not mad for you laughing hysterically at the concept of this. It's truly bizarre. I got an invite to play paintball from Dan, the husband of a board member of the non-profit my wife runs. We were at an event and we had just been introduced when I was suddenly getting recruited to play paintball. I was just relieved it wasn't Amway, or Scientology. So, I accepted because I wanted to be supportive of my wife's career and because who you know and connections are hyper important down here. I had one previous paintball experience in my life. I went with a friend of mine, Damien, who was getting married. I was a groom’s dude in the wedding party and part of the “getting to know you” experience of the other groomsmen was an excursion to a paintball course. I like to call this "Little Tommy's Introduction to War is Hell."
This paintball course was near Johnson City, TN. Johnson City is a place that should be a sister city to Tyler, TX. Both are places that eagerly anticipate my eventual departure. Don't get any ideas, Kutztown, PA! I left long ago and promised never to come back! Anyway, back to the story. The paintball course was a public facility, and the bridal party was matched up with a little kid's birthday party. I don't remember the birthday boy's name, so let's call him....Jethro. Jethro must have been a popular kid, because he had a pretty healthy sized party and Damien's wedding party consisted of six of us. Grown men against little boys, so this should be a cakewalk. I must have forgotten Davy Crockett came from Tennessee. In the first two minutes of the round I popped my head up from the 50-gallon steel drum I was crouched behind. SPLAT. I took a round right between the eyes. I'm out. I started thinking about if this were an actual war, two minutes isn't a very long time to contribute. The kid who got me crows joyously and I hear comments like "Good job, Tommy!" and "That's for my dad who got shot in Vietnam!". Fine, they didn't say that. And, even I have to admit, it was a hell of a shot. So, I get tagged back in and I'm behind another obstacle, I guess I wasn't fully concealed because I feel a hit on my heel. My heel! I had about 2 inches of exposure and I still got hit! Guess who got me? Old Deadeye himself, Tommy Twizzletits. Now, I need to back up a little bit to an earlier moment of this story. When we were getting our gear, I was asked if I wanted a single action, or an automatic paintball gun. I didn't feel like spending a lot of money on this activity, so I elected for the single action and about 100 paintball rounds. But now, Tennessee Teletubby Sergeant York just nailed me twice. I'm livid. There is only one thing I have going for me. Tommy's weekly allowance money can't compete with my financial resources. It's on like Donkey Kong, you little shit. I went back to the shop, asked for an automatic and bought about 2,000 rounds. I went back to the course, got tagged back in, and spent the entire time spraying the barrier where Tommy was using as cover. Tommy must have been an important linchpin to the boys' plans because his buddies were telling him to move to another location. I could hear Tommy cry back "I can't, I'm pinned down!" That's right, Tommy, enjoy sitting behind that drum because you're not going anywhere for the rest of the round. We played three rounds in total. I spent several hundred dollars in paintball rounds to make sure Tommy never moved ever again. I'm pretty sure I could hear crying and that he wanted to go home. Sorry, Tommy. You go home in a pine box. Like the name of this story and what Sherman said, "War is hell." Wow, that kind of took a dark turn, didn't it? Don't worry, readers, Tommy went home in a Dodge minivan. Which for suburban dads, might as well be a pine box because your life is effectively over.
I'm experiencing a flashback to that last experience as Dan is asking me if I want to play some paintball on Sunday. Asking him if there would be little kids named Tommy there probably was why he looked at me with potential alarm. People who regret asking me a question is pretty much a daily occurrence in my life, so I'm very okay with being uninvited. Alas, I was not so fortunate. Dan states it is an adult men’s’ league and he'll loan me a setup to play on Sunday. I was still pretty new to the area, so he offered to give me a ride to Longview about an hour away. Or, in Texas terms, right next door. As Dan was giving me a ride, he's explaining the rules of play. He gets to "There's no swearing." My knee-jerk reflex response was "Why the fuck not?" So, I had to backtrack on that and rephrase. "Ummm.....what?" He calmly explains it is actually a Christian group. After he slows down the car because I jumped out at full speed, he tells me no one is going to pick up an Asian hitchhiker back to Tyler, so I'm stuck with him. We arrive at the property they play on. It's owned by one of the members, a psychologist specializing in converting atheists who find themselves occupationally displaced into East Texas. We are going to be playing in the woods. There is no concession stand and there are just a bunch of guys looking like they are about to go hog huntin'. I think the banjo playing "Deliverance" was a little unnecessary, but it definitely added to the vibe that was being created.
Almost three years later, I stand to the side during the prayer before the activities start. I try my absolute best not to swear because I respect the rules of the group. I get shot, I shoot others, we have a good time. I realized very quickly that jeans and a sports jacket are a terrible outfit for shooting other people in the woods. So, I give in, go to Academy, and buy the first piece of camouflage I have ever owned. I now own military issued combat boots, camo pants, shirt, and several camo hats. I have my own paintball marker. I have invited many of my rugby players out to the course and I'm officially a member of this group. The group consists of mostly blue collarish guys who will never set foot in the social circles I dwell in. This group is literally the only connector we will ever have.
In the entire time I have been in this group, NOT ONCE has my ethnicity ever been mentioned. No nicknames like "Ninja" or Kamikaze." No comments that are backhanded compliments. I'm literally, for the first time ever in my life, just treated like one of the guys. No one has asked me where I am really from. No one has told me I speak English well. No one has asked me why I don't say Amen. No one has made me feel unwelcome. In fact, quite the opposite. They really and truly don't give a shit. I'm just someone who likes to shoot them before they shoot me. That's all. So, this is why I stuck around. To be honest, I really don't like paintball. My wife definitely doesn't like the time away and me coming back proudly showing off the welts all over my body. I don't like bugs, crouching around in mud, or getting bitten by fire ants. But, I like not being categorized a lot more than I dislike not being able to swear when the lid pops open and all my paintballs go pouring out.
The last place in this country this should have happened is here, yet it did. I cannot properly express my bewilderment to this phenomenon, but I can sincerely say to this community and area: thank you. Thank you for treating me like how I've wanted to be treated this entire time. East Texas may have its issues. The folks here might be infuriating in so many ways. But, it also did what no other enlightened, sophisticated, and open-minded area ever did. And for that, East Texas holds a special place in my heart. Right next to the huge paintball welt. This one's for you, Tommy.