The Area Code Wars

A bird's eye view of the fun

In the northwestern corner of South Carolina, located roughly equidistant between Rock Hill and Spartanburg, lies the small town of Chester. Nestled on the periphery of the Sumter National Forest, the city is one of the only places split right down the middle with different area codes. Although there are many incidents in which a river or a natural barrier separates two towns, and thus possessing different area codes, Chester is split with no visual clues except for some nearby woods. These woods don’t hold any unique distinction except it is slightly plausible to use the woods as the debarkation point between 864 from 803 but to all concerned, it is still a stretch. The cruel distinction is not lost on the children that use their personal area code as the unique identifier and final arbiter of all things team related.

The children of Chester participate in all basic sports with special and traditional emphasis on team sports with balls. However, as their town is surrounded on all sides with forests, the preoccupation of non-driving adolescents is an advanced variation of the game of hide and seek. Whether they watched their elder siblings play the game or got involved as crowds of children seem to do when boredom and peer pressure converge, the game is literally afoot. The preferred area of competition for the children of Chester is on the outskirts of Finley Park, although the locals still refer to it as “Floren Woods.” An undulating kidney-shaped rectangle, two miles wide by a mile long, provides the challenging venue for the two teams. The rectangle has it all: fallen trees, main pathways, hills, valleys, deep forest cover and a wide variety of places to be unseen. When one stops and thinks about it, and no one rarely does, the game of hide and seek had evolved into more of a professional “capture the flag” game over ten years ago. The children still call it “hide and seek” but it becomes immediately clear that this game is far more involved that your garden-type variety children’s game.

The two teams, representing 864 and 803, have taken the game to a team level. Either the hunter or the hunted, the winner is the team that evades capture the longest. There are no other rules but there are style considerations: staying completely still and secured away in one of the literal thousand hiding places is legal but does imply poor sportsmanship and not encouraged as a rule except for the infirmed. The unwritten rules encourage moderate movement and generating chances for discovery while always on the lookout to remove opponents with whatever means necessary. As little children, the opportunity to spot the other team members was very easy but ten years later, the children of Chester had evolved into silent, sure denizens that have mastered the art of concealment and stealth.

Professionals will identically mix their colors to blend the forest’s natural hues; this means custom coloring their standard face paints with different blends using other paints and mud. In addition, no one will come to the woods in full makeup because each day brings a new light to the surroundings. People, during the prep time, will take the time to go into the woods, comparing colors on their hands to the local underbrush and then make their color selection. The uninitiated will come to the clearing with full-face paint, optimistically applied by an unknowing parent, and take on a odd glow that stands out to the trained eye. Teammates will then take the new person aside and dull down their make-up while trying to teach them not to apply their face until supervised by an experienced player.

Once prepared, each team will take an hour to prepare their half of the field. This includes setting up false locations, inspecting old favorites and occasionally, building new hiding places and travel paths to be used during the game. The fields are usually consistent with only an occasional side switch that comes as a solution to randomness. Once the hour ends, each team enters the forest to either hunt or be hunted, all in the name of boredom avoidance. The teams, usually numbering ten to a side, fan out into familiar areas to engage or conduct surveillance on the enemy. The leaders have decided on a general strategy and once the horn starts, the game is on. Quietly and efficiently, the teams converge on each other, looking for either capture or intelligence, literally without a sound.

On this fall Saturday, the game had just begun its second hour. The two teams of approximately ten members had engaged in a masterful game that showed no signs of slowing down. Even the younger children were impressive; quiet and creative in their strategies while the older children were almost invisible. Armed with homemade ghillie suits and back of the hand knowledge of unseen paths, they were able to transverse to all areas without being seen or making a sign. The most successful hunters would rarely find their quarry and would usually resort to lying in wait for their bolder opponents as a last resort or the game would run the risk of perpetuity. A popular variation on the game would allow the teams to capture and rescue their teammates, thus increasing the game’s duration literally until parents were forced to honk car horns or call cell phones (historically set to vibrate) to pull their children to the dinner table.

Once done for the evening, the site of camouflaged faced children coming out of spider holes and tree branches was usually off putting to the uninitiated but it was the universal sign of game over. Children would revert into inelegant adolescences and start generating noise again after relying on sniper hand signals for the afternoon. The kids divert off to their respective houses with loose plans for meeting back the next day to continue the game. Homemade ghillie suits would be dumped in the garage along with walkie-talkies, face paint, hand shovels, ropes and knapsacks full of bottled water and energy bars. The next day would see the groups reconvene to start the game again. There was never a discussion on team selection; the criteria were always ones area code and that rationale was as good as any to get the game going. After many years, both teams knew most of the standard hiding places and the challenge evolved to use the old favorites as decoys while hiding and seeking in an alternative area.

The first difference is the total area of the competition: the sheer size of the rectangle makes the game very demanding due to the nature (pun intended) of the environments. The game area has three distinct hills with corresponding valleys and a shallow creek that meanders through the area. Each hill has its own path system and each path system appears and disappears at each bend. The groups start on opposite sides of the woods and once a conscripted parent sounds the car horn, the game is on. The purpose of evading a single hunter developed into two equal teams due to the sheer volume of hiders and hiding places. In its genesis, the sorry sap that was chosen to seek became quickly disillusioned due to the unthankful nature of the game and once teams were introduced and the spirit of on going hunting and capturing became fashionable, the whole thing took off. As time went on, all participants encouraged innovation ranging from simple concepts of incorporating hand signals to more nefarious ideas including night-vision goggles and global positioning systems.

No matter the current trends, the success of the game has always been based on honesty; once captured, the vanquished is instructed to go to a pre-determined jail to await either rescue or the rest of their captured team without complaint or sound. No winks or non-verbal clues to their comrades are allowed to tip the location of their capturer and no jailer is necessary as one’s ability to remain where placed is based on the respect and fear of some opposing team member monitoring the jail from a hidden location. Saving your teammates is admirable but one learns to do when there is an overwhelming chance of success.

If all the folks on one team are caught, the game is formally over. If not, the game continues until total capture is achieved. One game, still reverently referred to as the “1999’er,”went on for two months while teams suffered family vacations, a broken leg (the individual still played: a pair of camouflaged crutches are in some garage in Chester awaiting eventual re-use), summer school, several heartaches and drivers licenses. When players reach young adulthood, other opportunities usually consume their discretionary leisure time but no one ever quits the game as alumni are welcomed at all times and the ability to visit the Dairy Queen for a debrief in a car driven by someone other than a parent is a heady one.

The 1999’er was an epic battle between the folks from 864 and 803 continued until a tactical mistake, likely brought on by fatigue and a looming summer school biology final caused the 803 leader to place all her remaining players in a single location. A smallish 864 spotter positioned in a tall forward tree saw the opportunity to gather them all up in a single swoop and quietly sent a simple message via hand signals to her squad leader. The message contained the GPS coordinates and two exclamation points, which was correctly interpreted for the victory. The leader sent to two scout units in a quiet and parallel flanking maneuver and caught the 803 off guard. The group was gathered up and marched back to the jail, which had long since became a permanent, overgrown fixture due to the game’s duration. By the time the game had ended, a cooler, a solar-powered stereo (with a wide collection of rogue headsets) and a pup tent had been brought out to shore up the prisoner’s state of mind. Once the match was completed, the teams sat around and summarized the last two months with quiet reverence.

The art of capture is also steeping in genteel tradition; if you can touch them, you have an official capture but as with all great chess players than resign by seeing the inevitable ten moves ahead, there is another way. Individuals facing off aren’t considered a worthy target because of all the potential he said/she said issues. To elegantly capture an opponent, you lie in wait from an unseen position and quietly touch them with either your hand or an extension of your hand. The most common extension is a stick and once in contact, one is metaphorically trussed up. There is no screaming or protesting from the quarry, just a quiet respectful nod of the head to your hunter as they tell you where you need to sit down until either a rescue or the game ends. Novices are far more dramatic and argumentative than the veterans are; a touch on the ankle or back from a stick secreted in a bush just means you were caught and that is that. No hysterics are necessary, just the hope for a lesson learned and the collective will hardened.

However, the chess analogy is far more effective: the days of running down a reluctant opponent gave way to the respectful nod once the situation is assessed. Following that trend, the rule now concentrates on the issue of being seen. If you see someone before they see you, and given basic proximity, they are caught. A silent point of a finger towards the goal is all players need to get up and walk off the field. The feeling that one experiences when their partner (or partners) just stands (or stand) up and walks (or walk) away is chilling. It means that a sniper is working the area and he or she just silently picked off one (or many) of your team.

The main style differentiator lies with the player’s ages. The youthful groups tend to rely on endurance and foot speed while the older players view the game in a more cerebral manner but are always willing to use the younger troops literately as pawns. The area of engagement, although large, is still a fixed boundary and very predictable to veterans of numerous campaigns. Each side has defended each area and the knowledge regarding the lay of the land is shared amongst the hardened experts and once the novelty of the surrounding pass, the emphasis always returns to strategy, concealment, stealth and misdirection. The challenge is to constantly prepared for the unexpected and even though the woods look dense and confusing to the novice player; experience allows the players to see the area as an equal and consistent game board.

Over the years, various technological improvements have made the game more interesting: walkie-talkies, cell phones, photo-electric sensors, star scopes and remote control devices have brought to the sport a level of difficulty but the skill to move invisibly within the forest is the only consistent skill for victory.

The two teams, although separated by an area code, are similar for their love of the game; scores are not kept and unless the incident is memorable (e.g. “the 1999’er), there are no reminiscing games past. Each team has similar traits but their identities are unique. The team from 803 has long embraced the motto of "Quocunque Jeceris Stabit”('Whichever way you throw me, I shall stand.') while the 864 team counters with their own charming “Ubique! Quo Fas et Gloria Ducunt” (‘Everywhere! Wither Right and Glory Lead’). Once the game is on, someone always feels to compel to shout their maxim as both teams converge towards the middle of the words.

The paths are well-worn from the decades of competition but only the most experienced players could see the subtle preparations that surrounded the group; Strategic foxholes hidden by rope-supported branches are quietly invisible to spotting nest located deep within opaque evergreen trees. As the game begins, the younger and smaller team members scramble up trees and connect to the teams via short-throw walkie-talkies to look for advanced scouts. Messages are relayed to command leaders who plot their countermoves on one hand while attacking weak points of the opponents with the other. Embracing too structured of a battle plan in the fog of war is never a good idea and the Chester teams have learned military strategy through dozens of elaborate scenarios. The children might not know the formal definitions of a flanking attack or a relateral tell but they have first hand knowledge on how to effectively apply the concept to help their mission succeed.

After the game evolved from hide and seek to something more engaging, the participants toyed with the idea of having actual flags to capture. The game responded nicely to the new dynamic but the current iteration came into being when several members of both area code teams wanted it to focus on the individual hunting and capturing of individuals. The game was now seen from a more challenging perspective; instead of capturing a single, fixed flag, the new game introduced many flags that were always in motion and armed with human intelligence. New players were easily spotted and heard by the experienced players and it usually took a month to get the novices to learn how to walk and communicate silently. An unwritten rule was to allow the rookies to survive longer than they deserve; eliminating them within an hour was a good way to have them lose their interest in the game. These players had to be brought along gradually to learn and appreciate the finer points of the art of concealment.

The activities of the children caught the eye of the editor of the local newspaper. The photographs of young children in camouflage were both chilling and fascinating. Undeterred, a reporter was sent out to meet with the teams and did a credible job of telling their story. The pictures and story got strong regional play and several US Army Ranger teams from Fort Benning and Fort Jackson were intrigued enough to contact the Chester Chamber of Commerce to inquiry if they would come out and play with the kids. Under pressure to reach out to the community, two ranger groups were dispatched to meet with the children and enjoy a field lunch near the woods. The military pulled out all the stops and made sure there was enough press attending to assure a few front pages. Prior to meeting the teams, public affair officers met with both groups of children and encouraged them to dress the part and show proper respect for the real experts.

After receiving the briefing, the 803 and 864 team captains were both somewhat put out by that comment and were brainstorming some ideas between themselves. They were long time friends and classmates and enjoyed discussing the higher levels of strategies that were evident in each encounter between the teams.

“Real experts? Who anointed them ‘experts’”? said the first captain. If they had brought a Ranger with some hometown experience, it would have been different but the representative group moved awkwardly and amazingly loudly for being in the business of stealth.

“Good question,” said the other captain. “And I find their approach to our entertainment a bit patronizing.”

“Let’s play the good little soldiers and when the cameras are rolling, have someone on the team challenge them to a game.”

“Excellent idea.”

The photo opportunity occurred that weekend and the Ranger teams arrived by helicopter. Everyone was impressed with their entrance and the photos of similarly painted faces eating MRE’s in a bucolic meadow were public relations gold. After a lunch peppered with flash bulbs and posturing adults, two local television anchors began to interview the adorable children, complete in their outfits, to ask them their collective impressions of the day.

“It was nice,” said Jean Netherly. “The soldiers were nice and they let us see their gear and spotting equipment.”

“What else did you do?” asked one of the two reporters with permanent grins and hopes for a large market call up in their future.

“We had lunch and asked them to play us in a game.”

The reporter broke the fourth wall and stared at the camera and said, “Isn’t that the cutest thing you have ever heard?”

The rest of the kids on queue began to clap and repeat the desire to play the grown-ups in a friendly battle of hide and seek. The local reporters in heaven: this was going to be picked up nationally and at lease one reporter out in this field was fantasizing about regional reporting awards.

“They seemed interested in our game and we have asked them to play but they don’t want to play,” said little Jeanie in a coached but apparently sincere manner. “I think it would be fun.” Jeanie, on cue, began to act to wipe away a tear. The cameraman, sensing regional recognition himself, zoomed in on this adorable girl, her face streaked with green camo paint to accompany her assumed watery but nontheless huge blue eyes.

The Public Affairs Officer, sensing an opinion hit, said from off camera, “Of course, they will play.”

The Ranger Lieutenant looked at his counterpart and shook his head violently from side to side. They were just too strong and too experienced to allow these little prepubescent egos even a trumped-up victory. They would be chastised as bullies and attacked in the press for being even for uncaring than originally thought possible. He didn’t know how to stop the camera and when he was trying to come up with an idea why this game could not take place, the 803 and 864 captains said in unison, “We accept.”

The camera zoomed out to show the Lieutenant standing in front of the smaller team captains and the circumstances forced handshakes all around.

The 803 captain handed a relief map of the area to the Lieutenant and said, “You and your men have an hour to familiarize yourself with the terrain. We will play a modified version of capture the flag and if you are touched, you are removed from the field. There will be no weapons of any sort on anyone’s person; only compasses, communication devices and your wits are allowed.”

The lieutenant kept smiling; he sensed a set-up but this was not the time or place, especially in front of a camera, to argue. The soldier accepted the relief map and gathered his troops around him, within camera and microphone earshot.

“Remove all weapons and have them secured. This includes any knives, side arms and any item that can be adapted to become an improvised weapon of any sort.” The last thing the Army could handle is an injury to any of the children so he may sure that they nothing on their person except a few pocket rations and walkie-talkies. Once free of all banned items, he met briefly with the other squad leader to make sure they were of the same understanding.

“Nothing can go wrong. Nothing”

“I understand. Let’s get out of here and walk the field.” said the assistant squad leader. "And I have a feeling this isn't their first rodeo."

Both of the smaller squads disappeared into the forest while the two children squads met together for the first time in the history of the game to plot their strategy. A simple containment plan was drawn up and a variety of documented strategies were kicked around to assure a swift victory. These Rangers were obviously good but this was their house and they all knew layout with their eyes closed. The general assumption was to send a scout squad up a narrow and unseen path and prepare to secure the flag as fast as possible. However, the consensus was also to take out as many of the Rangers as possible.

An hour later, the Rangers came out of the woods, waving to the camera and declared themselves ready. Each side was given a large flag with instructions to hang it prominently in an agreed-upon area. The flags were secure and all four groups assembled at the main entrance. The children were being dwarfed by the Rangers and the juxtaposition was hilarious. Little girls, barely four and a half feet tall, were standing next to six and a half foot hulking Rangers but they all wanted to get going. Each team was dispatched to the two ends of the forest and an air horn was sounded. The Rangers fell into two squads and quickly determined their strategy: they would outthink these children and be back at the base for an early evening. Within fifteen minutes, the children had taken out every single Ranger: a slight brush against a bush would be corresponded with a firm touch on the shoulder or the rear sentry on a path would feel a hand on their ankle and they would be silently taken out. The Rangers knew the rules and one by one, quietly left the field to the amazement of only the television crews.

As both teams knew, the evolution of the use of camouflage provides insight on the art and science of concealment. At one level, camouflage involves disguising an object, ideally in plain sight, in order to obscure it from something or someone. Although romanticized in war movies, it also gets usage within the natural world. For every young soldier with green patterned fatigues and a mud-smeared face, animals including polar bears and zebra have effectively used the art for centuries. As new children and novice Rangers learned when participating in exercises with shiny new fatigues and faces adorned with standard color palettes of green, tan and black, their time in the game would be embarrassingly short. If any newbie participated, their camouflage has been done to them as much as it is done for them under the experienced hands of older brothers or sisters or Ranger platoon leaders.But they were all professionals with hundreds of campaigns under their web belts: silent, creative and all a few steps ahead of the crowd.

The Rangers knew they were completely beaten and had no interest in either a rematch or expending the necessary amount of energy to make the game more equal. They acted like they rolled over for the children when interviewed by the media and answered all the questions with an accurate but not truthful manner. It was a long day and they all knew it was going to be a longer night; the power of collective will and a love for things unseen taught them a lesson today but hopefully, it was not a completely waste of time no matter how many times they heard “Ubique! Quo Fas et Gloria Ducunt.” As they flew out on their helicopters, they passed over the two local squads giving them the finger with smiles on their faces. The Rangers began to laugh and saluted in return; it was an interesting day for all. They knew they just got hustled, but at least they were being hustled by the best.

Ah, the power that comes from stream of consciousness thinking....still a rough, rough draft with 
critical need of both witty dialogue and an overall point.

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