A Sport to Dye For

The state's top paintball player may be a fashion-conscious grandmother.

In the beginning, there were no BushMaster 2000s, no Redz Comfort Gear, no 32 Degrees Defender Goggle systems, but rather loggers and ranchers, rough men of the forests and the plains, and they needed a modern tool to identify their interests from inside a pickup or astride a horse. So in 1970, the Nel-Spot 007 marking gun was invented as a convenient way to identify trees that were to be felled and cows that would be cut from the herd.

Not far behind were the anonymous woodsmen and herders who, after a long and strenuous morning of work in the dissipating mists of the forests and fields, grew bored. And one of them (a pioneer lost to time) sometime, somewhere, wondered: What would happen if, instead of a tree, I shot that other guy with this thing?

Next came the philosopher-sportsmen -- a stockbroker, a writer, a Vietnam vet and a sporting-goods seller. In 1976, a friend of one had just returned from Africa, where he had hunted cape buffalo. He raved about the primal rush of adrenaline that had surged through him as he faced down the animal. Smells were more pungent, and there were sharp edges around his vision. Was it possible, he'd asked, to reproduce this feeling of aliveness in a bloodless way? And so began the discussion.

Brett Amole
She shoots, she scores: Suzie Steves is a menace in paintball combat.
Brett Amole
She shoots, she scores: Suzie Steves is a menace in paintball combat.

They were all loud and literate men who drank and played with vigor. Bob Gurnsey, the sporting-goods retailer, raced cars. Charles Gaines, who'd discovered a bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger in his classic documentary film Pumping Iron, had gone scuba diving alongside a hooked marlin. Hayes Noel, a stockbroker, was a former Division I football player who, when confronted with a mugger once, grew furious and nearly beat the man to death with a nearby trash can. Lionel Atwill was a hunter and a former member of the Special Forces who spent 1968 running reconnaissance missions in Vietnam.

Yet the men were smart, too, modern Hemingways captivated by the brutal and the base. Before long -- and usually in that too brief twilight between sobriety and drunkenness called brilliance -- they began to wonder aloud if it might be possible to hunt another man without necessarily killing him. "It was very high-minded -- one of those boozy philosophical discussions," recalls Atwill.

Later that year, in Florida, over gin and grilled marlin, one of the men, a woodsman and a hunter, further theorized that in this Most Dangerous Game, a rural boy, attuned to the rhythms of nature, would almost certainly come out ahead. Noel responded that the cutthroat world of Wall Street and subways prepared one just as well for primal combat. With no practical means to solve it, the argument would rage on for years.

In 1981, the two worlds at last met. A friend of a friend had run across the Nel-Spot 007 and told Gaines. Intrigued, Gaines shot his nine-year-old son, Shelby, to ensure the paint gun's safety -- "He was the only one who would hold still," Atwill recalls. Gaines then proposed a game to settle the question of who would win a contest of instinct and cunning in the woods.

Twelve men attended that now-legendary contest on a fine New Hampshire morning in June. The rural contingent was represented by a farmer, a building contractor and a state forester. Others -- a film producer, another stockbroker, a venture capitalist, a trauma surgeon -- were creatures of the city. There were no women.

In the New England woods, they prepared their experiment. They laid out a 400-acre field, divided into quadrants, with twelve flags dotting the area. Each person had contributed $175 to be supplied with his own Nel-Spot marker. Gaines provided the food and beer. At the starting whistle, it was to be every man for himself, the goal to acquire as many flags as possible without getting shot. For eye protection, they wore shop goggles, which fogged up easily.

Conclusions about the new game of paintball would be drawn later.

It is clear that 48-year-old Suzie Steves has always wanted to do what she's doing presently: ruling west Pueblo's Fashion Hotline from behind a chest-high counter littered with hangers and consignment receipts. Loud techno mall music thumps over the store's speakers. She had to wait for her kids to grow up, and her first store started smaller than small: $1,500 cash and a bundle of consignment clothes she'd gathered by calling up her friends, all crammed into 800 square feet. Twelve years later, it's all paid off.

The Hotline forms an L shape with Suzie's other store, The Expo, an emporium of retro junior wear: sparkly tops, flared slacks, racks topped with enticing hand-lettered signs reading "Cute Pants!" Suzie's daughter, Melanie, handles one of the cash registers, while Melanie's toddler -- Suzie's granddaughter -- wanders back and forth between the stores. On the outside, the two outlets occupy a bunker-like white cement building on a wide street. But inside, this is Suzie's Garment District, where clothes have always meant something more than fashion.

"I've always liked to dress up and sew," Suzie explains. "Sometimes I'll show up in a big blond wig. When my husband wants another woman, I say I can do that...That's why I liked Cher so much when I was growing up. She was always going to wear that sexy dress..."

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