We stayed up most of the night, which was not unusual for us on Christmas. When we were younger, we'd play with our toys and Mom and Dad would sit together on the sofa watching us, trying to figure out who would be the first to break one and start crying. I think they had some sort of bawl-o-meter to measure the degree of brokenness versus decibel level and thereby judge the winner. Funny how I never won that contest, but then I was always the breaker, not the breakee.
Mom always made our favorite punch of grape juice and ginger ale. And Dad would get out his old violin and scratch out all eighteen verses of Tura-lura-lura, the Irish sandpaper ballad that made my hair stand on end. I know you know what I’m talking about. They used to play it in the Irish Concentration Camps to educate those who doubted that Saint Patrick drove out all the snakes from Ireland. Saint Patrick had a fiddle too. And we never had a snake problem at our house.
Playing the board game Risk was one of the things we always did. Always — it was a Ryan tradition. Every year, after we’d all outgrown our urges to eat the shiny dice and the pretty game pieces, we would drag out that time-honored game of global conquest, set it up on the dining room table, and settle in with our cookies and punch to begin the epic fighting and arguing.
Sam always holed up in Japan, building his forces up for one massive sweep across Asia. I called this the “Kamikaze” strategy since it invariably never worked for him but did have the effect of softening up Asia for my onslaught. Mary insisted on controlling the United States regardless of the losses involved. After all, she could not let such famous landmarks as the Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, and Hollywood Boulevard fall into the wrong hands. I called this the “Stupid Landmark” strategy since it involved protecting positions that were useless and indefensible. Kate had very little interest in the game and didn't care where she was, usually winding up in the totally indefensible Europe. She would have been the first eliminated from the game every year had she not been the baby of the family, not in age, but in maturity level. I never had a term for her crybaby strategy since she apparently had none. Harry invariably went for Australia. His was the “Hide Out” strategy — hide out in Australia and let the world destroy itself while he watched from the safety of his four-marker stronghold. He never attacked anyone and no one dared attack him because there was only one way in and one way out. He just built up his forces and watched.
And me? I always took Africa, the birthplace of civilization, my civilization. From there I could strike out at South America, Europe, or Asia. South America was always unclaimed territory and therefore an easy conquest and usually my first target. Then came North America. Boy, did that make Mary mad.
“Why do you always attack me first?” She would predictably fume when I threw her pieces into the box as I easily overran her. “You jerk. Let me arrange them neatly. I want my dignity in defeat.”
I never quite understood her point. But her response was always so predictable. She would quietly get Sam’s attention and nod to him to meet her in the living room. There they would conspire against me while I made rude gestures that kept Harry and Kate in stitches. When they returned, Sam would announce to the world that the time had come for his hordes to sweep the world clean of evil and his march across Asia would begin. Things would always seem desperate for me as Sam’s forces pounded their way into Africa and took my home continent, bringing Mary’s triumphantly wagging tongue into my face. Once he even got as far as North America before running out of men. But his defeat was inevitable. You see, I had attrition and numbers on my side. He had to leave at least one marker in each conquered country, and all I had to do was bump off a few along the way until he ran out of men. You’d think he’d never had a day of math. I mean, I slept through most of math, and even I could count how many men I had and just how many countries I would need to take to wipe someone out. Plus, I had my secret weapon — I always held back a matched set of Risk cards until the right moment when I would play them and recover a zillion men to thoroughly erase Sam and his minions. Every year it was the same. You’d think they’d remember. They didn’t.
That invariably left Harry and me, and I owned the entire world except for Australia. But usually by then everyone was tired and we called it a night without a resolution except to say that I won. I always won — just ask me. Or at least I would have won had we fought it out. Except that one time I actually did attack him. I forget why — he probably pissed me off, or more likely Sam and Mary pissed me off. For some odd reason, I was losing way more guys than him and I knew he was going to beat me. I had him three or four to one and still he held fast to his Australian hideout. That was the one time in a Risk game that I used Plan B. Plan B was my fallback plan in any game where I knew the outcome would be my defeat. It involved a clever, fully deniable tipping over of the board so that no one could ever get it back together again. Thus, I could not lose. I didn’t win, but at least I didn’t lose. I was always so good at games.