CHELSEA — I was just getting my first look around Archery Games Boston when the guy behind the counter dropped a comment out of the side of his mouth about how they had their best players coming to take me on. Some guy from the Globe wanted a game, and now the alpha-nerds from the archery team were coming to flex on me.
What they don’t know — I shouted in my head as I began pacing along the netting that surrounded the turf field — is that the whole reason this dude from the Globe had booked a game is because he was pretty decent with a bow and definitely desperate to shoot something.
I thought that something was my friend Doc, who was watching me pace. Of all my friends, he was undoubtedly the most deserving.
For the past two years under Doc’s mentorship — he claims he has a Ph.D. in something to do with wildlife — I had taken my bow for many, many walks in the woods, usually in the dark, always to a coordinate handpicked by him, to watch the sun rise from a tree, bow in hand, silent, arrow nocked, willing a deer to walk by.
And never once, in those two years, had I so much as seen a deer, let alone loosed an arrow.
Ever heard the saying that to a man with a hammer, everything is a nail?
So as deer season closed again without a freezer full of venison, I signed us up to play something called combat archery, which Archery Games Boston’s website described as “dodgeball, but with bows and soft, foam-tipped arrows,” and which I read as “sanctioned opportunity to shoot Doc.”
We brought our 12-year-old sons, who couldn’t believe a game like this was actually allowed. And we had a strange moment trying to find the place because it shares an entrance with a Dollar General, in a building that also hosts paintball, an escape room, and, of course, a dispensary. It’s been open for a few years, hosts birthday parties and league nights, or you can just pop into a 75-minute game for $30.
It was the league guys who were popping in for my benefit, and as soon as they started to trickle in, I forgot all about Doc. Maybe it was the practiced way they slid on football receiver gloves. Maybe it was the smug way they pulled hockey helmets with cages from their bags and looked with pity at me holding the cheapo paintball mask the dude behind the counter had given me. Maybe it was the fact that they were stretching. All I know is that it suddenly triggered an unscheduled appearance from High School Billy.
Next thing you know, I’m walking around with my chest pumped up like a wrestler, throwing silent chin-up-wassups at all these people I was about to shoot, loosening up my arms a bit because apparently, we’re stretching.
I may stink at hunting, but I’ve become borderline amazing with a compound bow. At least in my backyard. But here’s the problem. I have zero experience catching arrows. It’s one of the reasons I’m still here today.
As the referee explained the rules to the 20 of us piled into the turf arena, it dawned on me what the stick gloves were for. If you make a catch, you can call one of your teammates back in from the sideline, same as dodgeball.
Nothing to concern myself with, I thought. I didn’t come here because I was desperate to catch something.
We were split into two teams, and as I looked across at my future victims on the other side — which thankfully included Doc — I decided my strategy was going to be to hide behind one of the inflatable obstacles, wait for some poor schmuck to show their head, and then pop out and snipe them to cheers from the adoring crowd. It would be great if it were Doc’s head, but really any head would do.
At the referee’s signal, the first game began. We all raced with our bows toward the center of the field, where the arrows were scattered in a neutral zone, grabbed one, and backpedaled while trying to quickly nock the arrow on our string, all while keeping an eye out for the arrows that immediately began whizzing through the air.
In quick succession, I realized that I was pouring sweat; that my cheapo mask was completely fogged (why the regulars were wearing hockey cages), and that I should have stretched. But most urgently, I realized that I did not know my way around this bow, which was understandably underpowered and hard to shoot with any rocket accuracy. This is why, I abruptly learned, that combat archery is as much a game of catching as it is of shooting. So if I was going to walk out of there the #1 pick in the next league draft, I needed to figure out how to catch.
For starters, I obviously went with the “Matrix” backbend, coupled with a flailing one-handed catch as the arrow whizzed by, which turned out to be the correct way to get myself out.
The games move fast and don’t last long, and for an hour, we played several variations, all loosely dodgeball-like, but the gist was the same: the best players were the best catchers. And one of the best of them, a guy on my team, was kind enough to point out that I was never going to snatch an arrow from the air. He pulled me aside and walked me through his technique, which involved squatting down like an ape with one arm hanging low in front of you while the other holds the bow behind your back so as not to be in the way. Then, just as the arrow hits, you scoop upward and pin it to your body.
I tried. I died. And so I returned to my initial goal : Shoot Doc.
I did nothing but hide and wait for him to show his head for the final few games. But like the deer of the North Shore, he was onto me.
But unlike the deer, he finally made a mistake, popped out from his cover, and left himself wide open for a shot. It was the moment I’d spent two years training for, and I quickly stood up, drew back the bow, and let fly a perfect shot, the marshmallow tip heading straight for his temple.
He caught it, one-handed, straight out of the air.
As I said, of all my friends, he is the most deserving.