Local Business

Life is a Battlefield

Local business offers a harmless and fun way to work out your frustrations—laser tag

One of her roommates became her boyfriend and in true hippy fashion, they left the city for life in a small hand-built cabin on the Sunshine Coast. Judy lived there for seven years, long after the boyfriend moved on, and one of her early songs was written there. It happened that a neighbor, Rick Scott, also played music and he and Judy often jammed together. “When I saw and heard Rick playing this unknown instrument, I felt hairs on the back of my neck rise. It’s quite reminiscent of a sitar, with a drone string and I just loved it. He told me it was an Appalachian dulcimer and I knew then I had to have one. I bought one from a dulcimer maker, J.R. Stone, who has also built a dulcimer for Joni Mitchell.”

Her first ever public gig was at Long Beach, California, and she played three songs on an open stage at a Hootenanny. “It was terrifying!” she admits, “but I knew I just had to do it, and then a week later there was another open stage at a cafe, The Peanut Gallery. When I performed there, I thought ‘Hey, this isn’t so bad’ and it became successively easier. It wasn’t long before I began to enjoy the experience of performing more and more—which I still do.”

When she married a Dutchman, Ben, and moved to the Comox Valley, Judy played at the first ever Renaissance Fair in 1975, which was held outside the Sid Williams Theatre in Courtenay. She went on to play in Lewis Park the next year, and at almost every subsequent Renaissance Fair after that.

Judy wrote her first song at the age of 23, and has since gone on to write numerous songs, many of which she has performed in the Comox Valley. Those songs have been performed in many configurations, from solo, duos and trios. Most recently Judy has been performing with Joanna Finch as the Norbury and Finch duo. The five-woman comedy revue troupe, The (fabulous) Ms. Adventures, of which Judy is a member, has also featured Judy’s songs and she has made two CDs of her work.

While performing at the Disabled Persons International World Summit in Winnipeg Judy met up with a charismatic, vibrant man from Pakistan, Ghulam Nabi Nizamani. Nizamani is also a polio victim, and the vice chair of the Asia-Pacific Branch of the Disabled Persons International.

“I told Ghulam I would visit him and he laughed, saying that many people had said they would visit him, but never had. I surprised him though—Ross and I went back to India in the winter of 2007/08 and went to see him in his home village of Sanghar, which is four and a half hours from Karachi. We were treated like royalty or rock stars—definitely guests of honor. We were feted everywhere we went, and appeared on television, I made speeches and so on. There were lots of special events going on to highlight the plight of disabled people in Pakistan, as December 3 had been named as the Day of the Disabled Person. It was great because our travelling and accommodation was made very easy.”

Judy pauses reflectively before continuing. “There’s nothing like the support we have for disabled people there,” she says. “Generally they’re stuck at home, unable to get about at all. Wheelchairs are glorified carts in many cases, or cumbersome trikes with pedals turned by hand. On one occasion when Ross and I were visiting Khajuraho, India—known for its sculptures—I was approached by a young man, Vee Jay Patel. We were having tea at the time, being exhausted mostly by the touts trying to sell us things, and we were wondering what this man’s angle was. He then explained that he had a young niece who was 15 and had had polio and was shy about going out the house. She had gone to school, but mostly stayed at home, moving about by holding on to the walls and furniture. He invited us to visit for lunch as he hoped she would be inspired by another disabled woman who was getting out and about.

“Ross and I set off the next day to his village where the houses were basically mud huts. We were given a delicious lunch by Vee Jay’s sister and met the young girl, Pretty, who was a delight, so friendly. We asked her to show us her crutches and it was immediately apparent why she was so reluctant to use them—they were about six inches too tall for her! Ross got some tools and cut them down and shaped them a bit for her and she was thrilled. Next day we went back out, as Vee Jay’s other sister wanted us to go for lunch at her house, which was the tiniest house—one room basically. As we were eating yet another delicious meal, along came Pretty on her crutches. She only lived a few houses away. That visit was far and above more wonderful than the sculptures I can tell you, beautiful though they were.”

Judy wasn’t surprised to find herself invariably the focus for many eyes on her travels in both India and Pakistan. “Disabled people are the bottom of the heap, generally, and of course disabled women are not wife material. People were astonished that I was in the company of a man, whom they automatically assumed was my husband, and that I had borne two children. Attitudes are perhaps slowly changing, but very slowly. Ghulam actually had his wheelchair stolen when he was trying to get into India from Pakistan. It was a nightmare for him and extremely difficult to replace. He travels all over the world—he’s amazing.”

Although Judy enjoyed her second visit to India, and particularly to Pakistan, it couldn’t match the first rush of emotion she experienced on her initial return. “When I went to Mirzapur on our second trip, it looked like any other grubby, dirty Indian railway station,” she says. But reading her journal from her first trip sparked the idea she should write her story and add to her mother’s. That process made Judy reflect more on her mother’s courage in leaving Vancouver to marry a man she hardly knew, to go and live in India.

“My dad, Mike, had visited mom’s home as a family friend for about a year before he left again for India, but they only had one date alone, and that was the day before he left,” Judy says. Mary Hargreaves was at the time engaged to another man, but when Mike wrote from India inviting her to come and be his wife, she had no hesitation. The previous romance had somewhat faded away by then, anyway.

Reflecting on her mother’s life forced Judy to see her in a new light. “My mom was a strict disciplinarian,” she explains. “She would fix me with her eagle eyes and say, ‘You will do as I say, because I say so,’ which led to lots of conflict at times. I naturally rebelled against being so controlled, particularly with what I wore.” Judy begins to laugh as she remembers a huge fight she had when her mom was forbidding Judy to wear some shoes that were a prized score from a second-hand shop. “I thought they were just great—granny shoes, they were—but my mom was horrified that I’d wear second-hand anything. I was a teenager by then, and defied her authority and wore them anyway.”

Judy’s mother has suffered from dementia for quite some time, certainly during the time of Judy’s writing her book. “When I did a reading at the home my mom lives in now, she listened intently to all that was read out, but has no recollection of having written it or it being her life.

“It’s odd, in a way,” Judy adds. “When I finished the reading, I sang a Hindi lullaby and my mom joined in right from the first word. That part of her brain is still very active.” Judy feels her creativity comes mostly from her mother. “She was a wonderful weaver, and had an extraordinary eye for colors and patterns. Her writing is excellent—witness her account in Come Back, Judy Baba—and she still has a beautiful voice.”

It might be an easy assumption that Judy has sorrow and self-pity when reflecting on the life she might have had. “Not at all,” she says. “Had I not got polio and stayed in India, in all probability I would have been sent off to a tedious, restrictive boarding school in England, which was the norm for Europeans then, and become some toffy-nosed prig who might have returned to India once every few years and lorded it over the Indian people. Growing up in Vancouver was terrific—I had such freedom, and I was a full participant in the spirit of liberation and the explosion of creativity of the 60s.”

Nor does she have any rancor towards her more restrictive mother. “I totally love my mom, she’s amazing. Like all of us, she’s a product of her own generation—she reflected the norms of upper-class society of the time. I think that when she was pregnant with me, a lot of hidden fears came to the surface. She became obsessively hygienic, scrubbing and disinfecting my toys, my clothes and so on. In fact, the lack of contact with everyday ‘dirt’ perhaps weakened my natural immunity to disease, maybe even attributing to the damage polio left me with. Two other children contracted it at the same time, when we were in the hill station of Mussoorie, and fought it off.”

She pauses a moment before adding, “She used to get up many times in the night fretting that the mosquito net over my crib wasn’t tucked in tightly enough, and was terrified I’d be bitten by a snake. Mind, she was terrified she’d be bitten by a snake too!”
Judy’s own mothering of her two daughters was much more relaxed and in direct contrast to her own upbringing. She feels this was based on a positive determination to do so, as well as a reflection of the values she imbued and embraced in her hippy days. “They had much more freedom than I did,” says Judy. Her eldest daughter, Eliza is now 31 and an actor in Vancouver; 24-year-old Belinda (who has done some stand-up comedy work) is currently a taxi dispatcher.

“I’m just so happy” Judy adds. “Happy that I’ve written a book, but mostly I feel satisfied and pleased that I’ve brought my mother’s story more into the public eye while she’s alive It’s a fascinating glimpse into a world that’s fast fading—like my mom really. I appreciate her more now than ever, as I see her fading away too. And that’s great.”

‘Come Back, Judy Baba: Memoirs of India’ is available in local bookstores and Magnolia Gallery in Cumberland. For more information visit Judy Norbury’s web site.
“It just makes you into a kid again,” says North Island Battlefield’s Andy Cowan, kneeling at right.  Writer Ryan Parton, top left, agrees.  “It’s awesome,” says Parton, who enjoyed a recent game with friends (from left) Daniel Scherr, Andrew Brown and Aaron Heppell (kneeling).

My heart pounding, I crouch anxiously behind the bunker—the only thing protecting me from a sure barrage of enemy fire. A bead of sweat trickles down the bridge of my nose. The cold steel of my automatic weapon, which I’ve just used to dispatch two enemy fighters, feels reassuring in my clenched hands. Only now I don’t know which way to point it. Somewhere out there in this barren field, hiding behind a bunker just as I am, is one last enemy.

Cautiously, I poke my helmeted head around the bunker and scan the battlefield. I feel exposed. Vulnerable. The dusty monochrome field, littered with tires, plywood bunkers and no shortage of hiding spots, blends seamlessly with the grey sky above. He could be anywhere.

Suddenly, I see movement. He’s behind a bunker about 50 metres ahead. I’ve got him. I rise to my feet, fix my sight on the bunker and slowly advance. My finger flexes against the trigger. Adrenaline courses through my veins. A helmeted head pokes above the bunker. I pull the trigger.

“Aaaggghh…!” The metallic, computerized death scream that emanates from the enemy’s weapon tells me that he’s dead. I’ve won. Sure, if this were a real battle I would have been dead myself a few times over, as the display on the back of my weapon tells me that I was hit seven times over the course of the frenzied 10-minute firefight. But this isn’t a real battle. It’s North Island Battlefield. It’s laser tag, and it’s awesome!

Forget everything you think you know about laser tag. As Vancouver Island’s only outdoor laser tag operation, North Island Battlefield isn’t about the flashing lights, smoke machines and other faux-futuristic kitsch that I’d experienced with indoor laser tag as a teenager. It’s about realistic missions and combat scenarios that offer all the excitement of real battle without any of the nastiness that accompanies actually being shot. Above all else, however, it’s about good, clean fun.

“People don’t realize how much fun it is until they come and give it a go,” says Andy Cowan, the amiable British ex-pat who founded North Island Battlefield just over two years ago. “Everybody who goes up (to our battlefield) turns into a nine-year-old. It doesn’t matter how old they are or whatever, they get up there and after the first game they’re all giggling and sniggering. It just makes you into a kid again.”

During the spring and summer, North Island Battlefield is open daily for public games, with each game accommodating up to 40 players. Groups of 10 or more can also book private sessions whenever they want, day or night and year-round, either at Cowan’s four-acre battlefield near Black Creek or at any location that the group has permission to use.

Although hugely popular in Australia and gaining momentum in the US, laser tag remains relatively obscure in British Columbia. In fact, North Island Battlefield is one of only a small handful of outdoor laser tag facilities in the entire province. Nonetheless, Cowan feels that the tide is slowly turning as people begin to realize that laser tag can deliver all the excitement of other combat simulations, like paintball, without any of the pain.

“With paintball, a lot of people say they’ve done it once,” says Cowan. “They do it once and they don’t like the bruises and welts that they get.

“With this, there’s no real danger,” he continues, adding that several paintball fields in the US have started converting to laser tag as insurance rates for paintball climb steadily higher. “With paintball you can lose eyes and all sorts of stuff. This is harmless fun. It’s a bit like when we were kids before all this technology, and we’d go out at night and play torch tag, with what you call a flashlight. It’s like paintball without the pain.”

Laser tag, a gimmicky name that belies the game’s intensity (and the fact that most laser tag weapons are more similar to your TV’s remote control than to an actual laser) was born back in 1979 with the release of Star Trek’s original Electronic Phaser toy. Since then, it has evolved into a massive industry, with both indoor and outdoor venues offering leagues, tournaments and public games. Despite its relative obscurity in British Columbia, national laser tag championships are held annually in both the United States and Australia, and every July players from around the world compete for international supremacy in a four-day tournament known as Armageddon.

A simple game at North Island Battlefield plays out as follows: Cowan divides the group into two teams and kits each player out with a “Scorpion” sub-machine gun and a helmet rigged with three sensors. After explaining the rules and loading each soldier with a pre-determined number of “lives,” he blows a whistle and the players disperse on the battlefield. A second whistle signals that the battle has begun. The first team to “kill” all of the opposing players wins. Sound simple? It doesn’t have to be.

“It’s a different game depending on whichever group is playing,” explains Cowan. If we have a lot of little kids it’s really just a run around shoot ’em up sort of game. If we have bigger people then we try to change it so there’s more of an objective to it rather than just shooting the other team.”

Possible scenarios include “capture the flag” games and missions to a particular bunker by a certain time limit.

“If we go out in a really big area,” says Cowan, “we can do things like escorting a VIP from point A to point B. So one team will be trying to escort somebody and the other team will be trying to pick him off.”

When I was invited out for a game with a small group of mercenary friends, Cowan led us through another popular scenario. Donning the role of enemy sniper, Cowan hid amongst the trees at the far end of the battlefield and began picking us off as we scrambled from cover to cover trying to locate him and take him out.

It was absolutely nerve-racking. The short dashes between bunkers seemed like marathons. Occasionally our guns would issue a surprised “Ow!” indicating that we’d been hit. We didn’t know where the sniper was and we didn’t know where it was safe to take cover. While I’d never want to be put in that situation for real, on the North Island Battlefield, it was a tremendous rush.

“You don’t realize how hard it is for real,” says Cowan after we’d finally tracked him down and dispatched him. “If you’re running around with 50 pounds of kit and body armour and a proper Kevlar helmet, not a plastic one, it’s hard work.” I assumed he was talking from speculation rather than from any personal experience. I was wrong.