Swathed in camouflage gear, the Shadow Warriors trudge up the dusty path through the pines to Hamburger Hill. Their mission: to ambush the enemy and cut off his supply line.
Soon the silence is broken by the pop-pop-pop of paint guns. The "bullets"--gelatin-covered capsules the size of gumballs--kick up little puffs of dirt as they hit the ground. Too many have gone astray. Rocky is not pleased.
"Half of you guys must have been asleep," he tells his troops as they take a rest break. Their target, Butter, had walked through their attack virtually unscathed. "I should have been laid out," Butter says.
And, adds Rocky, "You lost one of your team members." A splash of white paint on camper John Schoeman's goggles means that he has been taken out.
Welcome to secret-agent camp. Lured perhaps by the Pali Adventures brochure--"Do you want to be the next James Bond? How about Indiana Jones in training or a member of Spy Kids?"--about 25 boys have come to Pali Mountain in Running Springs for a three-week adventure.
After being blasted out of their bunks by wake-up music pumped campwide at 7:15, the Shadow Warriors scarf down bacon and eggs and waffles before heading out to the "battlefield" at 9.
"Let's go, secret agents, hurry up," said Rocky, dressed for the mission in black T-shirt and camouflage pants, with a camouflage bandanna tied on his head. Rocky has a real name--Deon Wilson--but, in keeping with the fantasy factor of summer camp, he and other staffers are known to the campers only by make-believe monikers. Among these: Cracker, Tank, Twitch, Smiley, Flame and Pickles. The secret-agent campers also choose code names. Among the more notable have been Viper, Virus, Scorpion, Special K, Stirfry, Spitfire, Cobra and Dracula.
The day's mission begins in a netting-draped shack, where campers don their camouflage and helmets with built-in goggles and grab a paint gun off the wall rack. As a visitor slips into an orange vest (for high visibility) and helmet, one kid warns mischievously, "Be careful. Sometimes the ones wearing orange get shot."
Paint ball "really gets you pumping," says an enthusiastic Michael "Anarchy" Joseph, 14, who's on a paint-ball team back home in Cleveland. "It's the reason I came to this camp. I looked all over the U.S. for a paint-ball game. This is perfect. It can't get any better."
"The best," agrees Terry "Dodger" Metsch, 13, from the San Diego suburb of Del Cerro. "I like the adrenalin." And "you learn a lot about yourself" when faced with the challenges of secret-agent camp, which include an awesome rope-climbing course.
Terry, who wants to be a lawyer, learned about this camp from a paint-ball magazine and thought, "Paint ball and camp. What better?" People not in the know about paint ball "think we're weird," said Michael. "They think of us as rednecks," when the reality, he says, is that paint ballers are a community in which people look out for one another.
"I can hate somebody on my team, but we're on a team. We have to work together ... and get it done." He explains that he chose Anarchy as his code name "because I'm not afraid to get shot. I'd take one for the team if I had to."
And do his parents--who forked over more than $3,000 for Michael's three-week camp adventure--share his enthusiasm? "My parents hate guns." Most parents, says Terry, are "really shaky about it at first--uh-oh, guns."
Another big draw at camp is the food prepared by Egyptian chef Sharif Elhadidi, who once cooked in L.A. for a family of Arab royals, whose big hits are the omelet bar and pasta bar. Elhadidi, whose typical fare includes chicken Marsala and Cajun salmon, has learned in three years at Pali that the kids "can only take so much fancy food. You have to throw in a hamburger now and then." But, he adds, "you can make it with roasted-garlic mayo."
In the earlier session of secret-agent camp, there were five girls. This session there are none among the 20-plus junior agents. Half a dozen girls had signed up to take paint ball as an elective activity while enrolled in another of the specialty camps such as acting or modeling, but packed up their paint guns and left after the first day.
Though the paint-ball sessions seem more like combat training, secret-agent camp also includes martial arts, coordinated rapid room entries (in which a small team of secret agents enters a room without being seen, grabs a hostage, and gets out fast) and a three-day survival camp-out that includes a 45-mile hike. Kids learn to cook their own food and "bear bag" it to protect the food, and themselves, from the resident four-footers. On Monday, campers will be treated to an on-site demonstration of maneuvers by a San Bernardino County SWAT team.