There are moments in this world that show us who we really are. Moments of heroism and heartbreak, love lost and found, great courage and great sacrifice. Last Thursday found me in such a moment, hunkered behind a neon green wall avoiding the laser fire of an overzealous preschool sniper. One thought crossed my mind: This isn't what I signed up for.
Driving up to Tampa, confidence in my laser tag abilities reigned. With me I had my A-team, a squadron I could count on in the heat of battle. My brother, Sam, agile and quick-footed, we code-named Thumper. My friends Rosie and Austin, both reliable companions, became Big Red and Moneypenny. Anchoring the team was my father, Sgt. Pepper, his advanced years giving him in seniority what they'd taken away in speed. For my nickname, I took Thundercat. Mine was a team of champions.
The pinging of air hockey, the techno beats of Dance Dance Revolution, the howls of partying prepubescents greeted our entrance to Q-Zar. Our fellow laser tag patrons comprised mothers accompanying their birthday children, wary high schoolers with no other diversion and a ravenous pack of 5-year-olds scarfing cheap pizza and a pitcher of root beer.
Looking around and sizing up the competition, we engaged in requisite smack talk. "I could be the Michael Phelps of laser tag," Thumper announced. "It's like shooting fish in a barrel," added Moneypenny. When a guy walked past in a cast, Big Red noted, "This guy's a cripple. I can take him down."
We all spoke too soon.
Those of us as yet uninitiated in the intricacies of Q-Zar's rules were ushered into a briefing room where "Rosy" laid down the law. For those unfamiliar with laser tag's complexity, the smorgasbord of time limits, point systems and subtle distinctions was almost overwhelming. When a diminutive recreant paid too little attention, Rosy pulled out his laser gun and imposed some well-deserved discipline.
We entered a maze of colored walls and flashing lights. "These college kids are going down," shouted a male soprano. Mentally, I christened the young hooligan Tiny Tim.
A pessimist might describe what followed as a rout. I prefer to say we were overwhelmed, outplayed and mismatched. Moneypenny derided our play as "the Vietnam of laser tag," and the similarities were striking. One side engaged in guerilla warfare, exploiting their superior knowledge of the terrain against opponents who had unwittingly invaded their home turf. Those opponents, lost in a foreign land, grew increasingly cynical about the futility of their mission. I spent most of our first game cowering in a foxhole, fearing the moment when a green-clad munchkin would turn the corner and send my gangly frame once again to the mat.
When 20 painful minutes had finally elapsed, we headed out to get our scores. A giant board broadcast our defeat: green team 217, red team -39. I triumphantly announced I had the second highest hit ratio in the game. Thumper pointed out it was because I'd shot my own team 54 times.
The next round I put my game face on. Turned my Rays cap around. Decided to be aggressive, charge the enemy head-on. After all, I can integrate functions in n-space while my opponents struggle to master 3+4; surely I could outsmart someone whose entire lifetime has coincided with a W. presidency.
Wrong again. Taking fire from all angles, I tried to hide in the lookout tower, until a daring 5-year-old exhorted me to return to the field. Chastened, I followed his tiny lead. Again and again I found my pack flashing, announcing I had been hit. I retreated behind a wall to recover my bearings. To my left, movement. Reflexively, I took aim. At the other end of my barrel, a cute, 30-something blond returned my stare. I smiled. She smiled back. I finally understood laser tag's attraction.
Nathaniel French is a student at Southern Methodist University.