Toy Soldiers

Be all that you can be — in war games with almost-real assault weapons

Likewise, plenty of adult players can recount tense exchanges with police — all for the love of a war game. Routine traffic stops can turn into extended conversations about why an airsofter is carrying what looks like an arsenal in his trunk. If the cop is familiar with the game, maybe he'll wave the suspect off with a knowing smile and nod. But more than one player told New Times that he has been ordered to "Step out of the car!" and then cuffed while officers verified that the weapons couldn't shoot real ammo and that their owners have no outstanding warrants. There's nothing like spending an hour of your Saturday afternoon sweating it out in the back of a patrol car.

If Soviet and Cuban forces invaded Central Florida, the way they swarmed a small Colorado town in the 1984 film Red Dawn, then Sgt. Dan would be Patrick Swayze's character, Jed Eckert. In this version, though, Eckert would be a Latino with bushy eyebrows and toffee-colored skin. Dan says he was once a member of an elite U.S. Marine task force that took down pirates in Thailand and disarmed a nuclear submarine in the Chesapeake Bay. Now he lives the civilian life in St. Petersburg. He declines to offer his last name because, he says, his years in the military made him paranoid.

Ralph Cantillo, AKA Fuzzy (center), and  fellow Fuego crew members scan for enemy combatants during "The Fight for Freedom."
Amy Guthrie
Ralph Cantillo, AKA Fuzzy (center), and  fellow Fuego crew members scan for enemy combatants during "The Fight for Freedom."
Hurry, soldier; somewhere down this creepy passageway is a hostage who needs to be rescued!
The Crimson Shadows
Hurry, soldier; somewhere down this creepy passageway is a hostage who needs to be rescued!


Click here to view photo outtakes.

The 29-year-old Colombia native is leading a pack of young men pretending to be the Wolverines (high school kids who launch guerrilla attacks against Communist invaders in the cult classic movie). They're acting out Red Dawn on a field in Lake Wales that's dotted with plywood forts and other random objects that might offer protection from a sharpshooter's bullet.

Apart from huntin' or fishin' or kickin' back brewskies at the Y'all Come Back Saloon, there isn't much happening in this old Florida town. But there are plenty of bored young folks in nearby sprawling suburbias like Orlando and Naples to wrassle up a weekend BB-gun fight.

So here's the deal: On the other end of the field, there's an oil pipeline. The Russians need the fuel to advance. And the Wolverines, well, they just want their town back. Dan is one of the only players who can't die today. See, there's a story line going here, and he's one of two people who knows what comes next. "If this were to happen for real," Dan boasts, "I guarantee you 90 percent of airsofters could hold their own."

Dan assembles his squad for a briefing below a cypress tree draped in Spanish moss. The game will start with gunshots, he says, and the "sheriff" will get mowed down after confronting the attackers, just like in Red Dawn. The Wolverines will begin with semi-automatic and spring-powered guns — cock, fire, cock, fire — and then earn the privilege of upgrading to automatic weapons. "Going after the national army with pea shooters is not a good idea," Dan warns with a low chuckle.

Then he launches into pep-talk mode. "We're looking at the very way our founding fathers established our country: guerrilla tactics." His tone is so patriotic, your ears grope for an uplifting instrumental score playing in the background.

He flashes a can of red spray paint that the guerrilla patriots can use to scrawl the word Wolverines on structures they take over. When a player goes down, he could be out of the game for 20 minutes. If too many of the Wolverines get shot, their leader promises to attempt a rescue. But the Communists have an endless supply of troops. So when one of the Reds gets killed, he'll be out for only five minutes. "It pretty much comes down to tactics and wearing them down," Dan instructs. "Trust me, they will have a routine — they're the Russian military."

A fresh-faced teen raises his hand with a question: What about dinner? They'll eat snails and whatever else they can find out there in the wilderness, growls the crusty sergeant.

Actually, though, there will be hamburgers, hot dogs, soda, and potato chips for all.

The game is open strictly to those 18 and over, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Player after player says this is a good thing. Underaged airsofters, they argue, don't always call their hits. This is an honor game. Unlike paintball, which employs ammunition balls filled with brightly hued liquid, there's no paint to indicate a successful hit.

Some young players, older airsofters say, are also trigger-happy. They'll lie in wait and then light up anyone who crosses their paths; there's little technique in this sort of shoot-'em-up strategy. Then there's the stigma of inflicting violence on minors. "I realize that in Africa, there might be 10-year-olds fighting a war, but I don't want to shoot a 10-year-old!" says Matt Farmer, a barrel-chested 25-year-old from Brandon who, in full combat gear, bears a striking resemblance to a G.I. Joe doll. "A 15-year-old, maybe."

The Red Dawn simulation kicks off as planned. The Wolverines run from the gunfire shouting "We're under attack!" Subsequent scenes don't play out so smoothly, though. After each fumble, Sgt. Dan reassembles the squad to map out an alternative game plan, using the toe of his combat boot to trace anticipated routes in the dirt. Sometimes he informs the group that he has "good intel." This is one of those times: A bunch of civilians are about to face a Commie firing squad for alleged guerrilla tactics. The Wolverines must save them.

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